Buried in student loan debt, South Bronx native Laura Morand recently had almost $200,000 paid off through a federal program, and with the help of her local union, AFSCME 37.
Morand, who works as an Information Technology (IT) professional with the FDNY, pursued her education to give her three kids “a better life” and a way out of “the projects of the South Bronx,” but it hobbled her with $305,000 in student loan debt.
But thanks to DC 37, which helped Morand navigate the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, her debt has been forgiven, she’s moved to a safer neighborhood, had another child and even purchased a home.
“I thought I would be paying student loans till the day I died,” she told the Bronx Times.
Morand, 53, was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, and moved to the Bronx in 1989. In 1999, she relocated to the Millbrook Projects in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. She described both areas as “rough neighborhoods, but said the Bronx was much harder.”
Life was not easy in Queens as her mom, Mary Pertle, stayed at home and the family lived off welfare. At 16, Morand got her first job at McDonald’s on Third Avenue in Manhattan, which made her feel like she was in a whole other world.
“I was enamored with the city,” she said.
When she went on school trips to places in the city and saw men in fancy suits and women in expensive dresses, she knew there was a better life for her.
But her path to success did not happen overnight.
She studied at Pace University from 1992-1995, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management information systems. However, this was not easy on her financially as she had three children and relied on public assistance for help.
“I didn’t want to live the way my mother did,” she said. “I wanted to see the world more.”
After college she landed an IT job in 1996 with the state Workers’ Compensation Board, where her salary was $30,000 annually — the most money she ever made in her life. She commuted two and a half hours five days a week to Long Island for two years.
But given birth to a fourth child shortly after finishing college, Morand was still living on welfare.
“I needed the job and the experience,” she said.
Morand did not feel safe in the Millbrook Houses as she often heard gunshots on a nightly basis. One time a bullet even went into a brick right outside of her window. In 1999, she moved with her kids back to Queens hoping life would improve.
While things were safer, the stress didn’t dissipate. She owed $60,000 in loans to Pace and kept deferring payments. She was divorced, with four kids, had a mortgage, slept on the floor with one of her daughters and with interest building up on loans she didn’t know what to do.
Buried in student debt, she made the bold choice to go back to school for her master’s. In 1999, she enrolled at NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering and in 2001, obtained a degree in information system engineering.
This eventually led to her landing a job as a computer software specialist with the FDNY in 2002 and a membership with AFSCME District Council 37, where she has remained for two decades. Morand was finally happy.
“I definitely love my job and things have gotten better,” she said.
But in 2007 her years of deferring loans caught up to her and she had to start making payments. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic arrived she owed $305,000 in student loans for herself and two of her kids. Morand really was between a rock and hard place.
Her union, DC 37, introduced her to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), which allows qualifying federal student loans to be forgiven after 120 qualifying payments (10 years), while working for a qualifying public service employer.
In October 2021 President Joe Biden issued a waiver that allows all payments by student borrowers to count toward PSLF, regardless of loan program or payment plan, a policy that will result in 22,000 borrowers who have consolidated loans — including previously ineligible loans — being immediately eligible for $1.74 billion in forgiveness without the need for further action on their part.
Morand immediately enrolled and on Jan. 12, 2021, discovered that $192,000 of her loans were waived.
“I was trembling,” Morand said when she saw the email notifying her about the money being waived. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started screaming and crying.”
While she still owes $113,000 in student debt for herself and her kids, a huge burden was taken off her shoulder. Today, she is working at the FDNY and has been president of Electronic Data Processing Employees Local 2627 of DC 37, which represents nearly 6,000 IT workers.
Her involvement and activism with the local includes 10 years as a DC 37-trained shop steward, along with serving on the local’s Quality of Work Life Committee; she was later elected co-chair of the committee. Morand also serves on the local’s Women’s History Committee and on the Health and Safety Committee
To talk about her education and professional growth is quite emotional for her. Her grandmother Willette couldn’t read or write, and her mom grew up picking cotton in Tennessee. Pertle helped her pay for school in the beginning and she wishes she could have seen how far she has come in life.
“This is a 360,” she said. “Forty years ago, I never thought I would be living the way I am now. I’m grateful because my mom did help me.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes