Graduate Early with Minimal Debt: Erma’s Story

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This week we will be featuring the first of many guest bloggers. Erma Mujic, a Training Specialist with the GEAR UP Iowa program, managed to graduate high school with 40 college credits and complete a Bachelor’s degree in only five semesters of college, the equivalent of 2 ½ years!  What makes Erma’s story incredibly unique, was the hardships she faced just to have the opportunity to receive a college education. Erma immigrated to the United States from a war torn Bosnia at the age of 12, with very limited knowledge of the English language. In addition to her work with GEAR UP Iowa, she is currently pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration from Drake University.

In my family, the word ‘college’ is equivalent to a future without boundaries. My parents, sisters and I immigrated to Iowa in 2001, after struggling to make ends meet in our native Bosnia. The war left the country and our family devastated. We fled from town to town without money or resources, and when the opportunity presented itself, we decided to try and make a life in the United States. Our story was similar to many other refugee families: this new life provided safety, economic opportunity, and best of all, education. Even while we were fleeing from bombs and poverty, the importance of education was always in the foreground. It was my parents’ expectation that I would get a college degree, one way or another. My dad would have sold the clothes off his back, if it came to that.

Arriving in Iowa was just the start of this journey. The beginning was rough as I could not speak more than five phrases of English, and while I was intelligent and received all A’s back home, that did not matter. Since I couldn’t communicate my ideas, my grades and my social life suffered. I will never forget my first report card. Not one single A was to be found on the page. I was heartbroken. Then I decided that after surviving war, hunger, poverty and fear, I had to survive middle school. I put all my energy into studying and learning English. With hard work, I did not need ESL after 7th grade. In 8th grade, I was invited to attend Central Academy, and this changed my entire life. I was challenged and I loved school again. I spent most of my time studying, but with the amount of reading that was required in each class, my English improved dramatically. I continued to attend Central, and made sure to take advantage of all the dual-credit and AP classes that I could handle. Upon graduating high school, I had earned more than 40 college credits. During my orientation at Drake University, I learned that all my credits would transfer and that I would be well on my way to graduate in two years. I could hardly believe this! I would go to college out of high school with half the work already done!

I was at Drake from August of 2008 to December of 2010, and obtained a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Law, Politics and Society, as well as a minor in Business. Not only did this save time, but a great deal of money as well. Since I had a 4.2 GPA upon graduating high school and had been actively involved in many extracurricular activities and clubs, I was eligible for scholarships within the community and at Drake. My parents are laborers at a local factory with low wages; therefore I was able to qualify for need-based aid as well. I worked since the age of 14 to help pay for books, gas money and other college expenses. Additionally, I lived at home in Des Moines, sparing myself the room and board costs. By making small payments when I could, and utilizing all merit and need-based aid that I received, I graduated from Drake with less than $5,000 in student loan debt.

By graduating early, with low student loan debt, I was able to start a masters program one year after graduating with my undergraduate degree. This December at 24 years old, I will have completed both degrees.

This year marked 12 years of living in the U.S for me. I have lived equal years in each country which I must admit feels kind of strange. Never did I imagine that my life would lead me to Iowa, and that I would find all the opportunities that I’ve had along the way. What I hope you will take away from my story is that there is a way to make it, no matter what your circumstances are. You have to fight for your own future.


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