PEKIN — When Pekin Minister Sara Appleyard-Pekich graduated from high school at age 18, like most teenagers, she had no idea what she would be doing for the rest of her life.

The one thing she didn’t realize was that life happens. Appleyard-Pekich said she was not thinking about her future as a whole, she was thinking about her career. She did not think about meeting the man of her dreams, building a family and buying a home.

“At that point, when I took out my loans in college, I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing,” she said. “I intended, when I started college, I thought I was going to be a psychologist.

“That was my career path, what I wanted. And I didn’t think about (the other aspects of my life) at all when I started college. People say, ‘go to college, get a degree and you’ll be fine.’ I was three years in already (when I knew what career I wanted) and the denomination that I’m a part of requires graduate school for its pastors. So that tacked on several more years of school.”

Appleyard-Pekich, 34, received both private bank and federal student loans throughout her college career. She owes over $100,000 and pays close to $600 a month under the income sensitive program. She has a Bachelors of Art Degree from Trinity Christian College, and a Masters of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary. She works for the South Side Mission in Peoria, a not for profit organization. She could be eligible for loan forgiveness in approximately three years because of the non-profit work she is doing, but that program may be done away with under the Trump administration before she can apply.

Appleyard-Pekich said she worked while in college, but borrowed more than she needed to.

Her husband, Bill Appleyard-Pekich, owes and pays approximately $400 a month for the remaining $30,000 on his loans. He is not on the income contingent program. He has a Masters Degree in Divinity and is a pastor in Pekin.

The couple have two children, a 5-year-old son and a 7-month-old daughter.

“We will probably be paying for our loans when we start paying for our children’s (college loans),” said Sara Appleyard-Pekich. “It is a struggle for us. We’re paying (our) student loans, so it prevents us for saving for our kids (college) what we want to be saving for them because we’re paying for ours.”


College viewpoint

Andrea Pellegrini, assistant director of the University of Illinois System Student Financial Services and Cashier Operations at the Student Money Management Center, said students are required by the U.S. Department of Education to take webinars on student loans before they receive loans and another seminar when they leave college.

Pellegrini provides financial education for students and their families on types of student loans; types of student aid; how to navigate credit; the banking system; budgeting and how it differs as a student from life outside of college; the need for a weekly, monthly, a semester and yearly budget. The college currently is running a “Know What You Owe” campaign where students log into the student loan database and look up information on their loans — interest rate, the amount of loan debt and an estimate of the monthly repayment.

“It encourages them to keep track of their student loans,” said Pellegrini. “We piloted it this year, so it’s not got a huge amount of people to participate because it’s not mandatory.”

College is where students must take control of their lives.

“Your parents might be helping you with it, but you are in charge of your financial decisions when you come to college, as well as you are the one in charge of paying the bill,” Pellegrini said. 

Students may use a combination of resources to make it through college — loans, grants, scholarships, out of pocket and many work. She said there is a dual benefit to working while in college.

“There’s a lot of research behind how working in school helps students stay in school as long as they don’t go past that 20-hour per week threshold,” said Pellegrini. She encourages students to work while in school.

“There is research that suggests it helps with high management skills, helps with getting experience in different fields that can help them post-graduation,” she said. “Try to get a job post-graduation if you’ve never had one before.”

Pellegrini said collegiate financial wellness education is “in its infancy still” and the U of I is a leader in those programs. Most colleges only require the federal webinars.


In retrospect

Appleyard-Pekich said hindsight is 20/20.

“I would tell (students) to apply for every scholarship they can every year they’re in college,” she said. “A lot of times people don’t — they just take the financial aid they’re given.

“Be smart about how much money they borrow and if they can, work while they’re in college. It’s hard, but do it because it’s worth it in the end. I would recommend to get the basics out of the way at community college. I would have saved a lot of money. Considering I went to a private university that charged $25,000 a year, I would have saved about $50,000. And that was back in the early 2000s, so I know now they charge upwards of $30,000 to $35,000 a year.”