Tina Tan

I wrote these two stories in the summer of 2019. The first one is a community issue story focusing on the burden of student loan payments on college students in Columbia, Missouri with a side bar story from the high school perspective discussing students' knowledge of financial aid. An infographic is included to highlight some data figures.

The second article is a profile story about Dean Hovis, a local resident and employee at Joe Machens Toyota.

I also wrote a story as part of the small-town economy multimedia package, in which I talked about how small business owners and entrepreneurs have seized the opportunities to invest in a growing economy in Hamilton, Missouri.

Student loan repayment can be a lifelong matter

Tracie Huffman will start her eighth year of college in September and finally become a senior student. When graduating from Baldwin High School ten years ago, she had never thought that pursuing a degree would be such a long and expensive journey.

“I was very young and naive, and I wanted to do stuff with horses,” Huffman said. “I had no idea I was going to have to take out alternative loans or anything like that. I thought financial aid would pay for it.”

The truth is, despite the support of financial aid, college expenses often exceed the ability of students. Up to 44% of young adults take on debt when they go to college, and some of them trap themselves into a lifelong financial black hole.

“I think the thing they’re most concerned about is graduating, and they don’t think about the effects or implications of a student loan necessarily until it affects them,” Missouri State Teacher Association Spokesman Todd Fuller said.

The cost of finding passion

Huffman left her hometown after high school and went to a community college in Colby, Kansas. After a year, she ended up not liking it and transferred to Johnson County Community College. Not wanting just to get an associate degree, she transferred again to Stephens College for a bachelor’s degree and started as a freshman in the human development program.

“I really want to be back in school,” Huffman said. “I do want to be a teacher.”

However, the price for exploring and finding her passion for life has not been cheap for Huffman. Now she owes three different loans from Wells Fargo and Sallie Mae with an amount that she doesn’t even know.

Huffman’s friend Alexandria Richmond, a senior biology student at Stephens College, is concerned about Huffman's financial situation.

“That’s what happens when you go to school for so long,” Alexandria said. “Tracie is much further in debt than I am.”

Huffman will be counting on herself when the repayment starts six months after her graduation. Her parents are also putting pressure on her.

“They lectured me about how much I owe at school loans almost every week when I call them,” she said. “They said they were not going to help me, and they told me that I better figure it out.”

Each semester, Huffman has to take out a loan, ranging from $4,000 to $9,000, to cover her school expenses. Meanwhile, she works three different jobs at a time to balance her living expenses.

“[I’ll be paying the bills] until I die, probably, to be honest,” Huffman said. “I feel like my expenses will definitely cut into my life in general. So, I would probably have to get extra jobs just to pay them back.”

Huffman is not the only one struggling with student loan debt.

“It’s very expensive to go here,” Alexandria said. “The school puts you very much in debt.”

Alexandria also carries a $6,000 student loan every semester. Her loan company suggests 15 years of repayment for her current loans, but she is planning on going to a medical school for another four years, meaning adding more years to it.

“It more so concerns me once I’m starting to pay for a wedding and babies because those are expensive and not too away from my future,” Alexandria said. “That’s when it starts to make me nervous.”

A nationwide concern

The student loan crisis is worse than most people would have imagined. With a total amount of 43 million borrowers, student loan debt is the second-largest personal debt in the U.S. and holds a record of $1.45 trillion.

For most people, repayment is always an ongoing process. Among the borrowers, 53% are either behind or still paying. Especially for those who fail to finish their degrees, the debt of school loans can turn into a nightmare.

“It’s contradicting itself,” Alexandria said. “You need this to make money, but you also need the money to get the degree.”

After spending a few years at multiple colleges in Arizona, Alexandria’s mom is still paying her bills in her 40s, but she never graduated with a degree. The interest rates, however, have accumulated toward an incredible amount.

“She’s still making payments, but she’s only able to pay about $200 a month when the company is wanting her to pay about $1,000 a month,” Alexandria said.

Nasha Richmond, an academic advisor at Columbia College, said that students should be financially aware of what they are getting themselves into.

“Education is kind of like an investment of buying a car or a house,” she said.

On the other hand, Fuller said students deserve to know their ways and options of paying back.

“I think that loan companies at times can do a better job of educating and keeping college students up to date about the loan that will ultimately affect them.”

The dream doesn’t end here

Fuller said that, for MSTA members, student loans can be one of the biggest challenges when they graduate from college.

“There’re times where what they make as a new teacher doesn’t allow them to pay back the student loans, as well as take care of themselves and their family,” Fuller said.

But Huffman’s dream doesn’t end here. Knowing the challenges, she hopes to get her master’s degree in teaching one day.

“I did know the expense, granted it is scary now that I’m almost graduating, but no, I do not regret coming here at all,” Huffman said. “If I could go back, I would work more to save up for college.”

Family, Job and God Bring Columbia Salesman Meaning in Life

By Tina Tan / June 20, 2019

After dropping off his youngest daughter at cheerleading practice, Dean Hovis had parked his car at the parking lot and walked toward his workplace.

It was 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, an hour before the business hours, and Dean was already sitting in front of his desk. Messages kept his phone ringing as he was checking on the files on the computer. Dean had some coffee, put on his glasses, and started his day of work.

“I like to get here earlier and have things done when we don’t have many customers yet,” Dean said.

During the day, he is one of the busiest employees in the building.

Dean took the job as a salesman at Joe Machens Toyota 15 years ago because of his passion for cars. His co-worker, Ryan Reynolds, described him as “a down-to-earth, straightforward, and personable individual.”

Finance Manager Andrew McWhorter works directly with Dean. He said Dean was the kind of person who could get along with anyone.

“I have never seen an angry customer that comes from him,” McWhorter said.

Dean has spent most of his career dealing with people. His lighthearted personality has made him one of the customers’ favorite salesmen and a reliable co-worker.

“I like watching people laugh,” he said. “I make jokes a lot because life will be easier this way.”

Dean looks after the internet department and leads a small team that is responsible for internet sales and advertising. Meanwhile, he sells cars directly. It’s not a rare thing to see him running back and forth in the building while talking to varieties of people and trying to work between customers and his co-workers from other departments.

Family is what matters

Behind his desk is a card with a selfie he took when he had dressed up as a pirate at a Halloween costume party.

“When you’re needin’ a carrr, let Cap’n Dean be on the lookout for that perfect schooner for you an’ your mateys,” it says.

A pirate is a fantasy he has always had for his life.

“I like boats, and I will probably retire some places that have a lot of water,” Dean said.

However, family is a larger source of happiness for him.

Dean is a father of three – Jennifer Hovis, 27, Logan Hovis, 17, and Paige Hovis, 11.

“Seriously, Paige? You can’t deal with your own things?” Dean picked up the phone as he was walking away from his desk and had to pause his conversation with the customer.

“He is a family person,” McWhorter said. “He talks a lot about his daughters.”

On his phone, the wallpaper is a picture of his three daughters, standing next to each other while smiling beautifully.

“Family to me is like unconditional support,” Dean’s daughter Logan said. “We all have the same sense of humor, so when we get together, we’re really funny and making each other laugh. We just get along really well.”

Unlike many other people in their 50s, Dean is an experienced “netizen” who owns various social media accounts: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and even Tik Tok. One of the reasons for his many social media accounts is his job as an Internet Sales Manager. But he also sees social media as a bridge to bond with his daughters.

Dean talked about his previous job as a counselor at Division of Youth Service and working with troubled juveniles.

“Kids make bad decisions and do stupid things,” he said. “Friend is not what I see as my job. Me and my daughters are close but I’m their father.”

Logan said that his dad cared a lot about their self-discipline.

“He is kind of strict on me about my grades,” Logan said. “But I just know it because he sees me as a really good student, so he wants me to do really well.”

“For my 11-year-old Paige, her primary job is to keep her room clean and bring me the dirty laundry. God, she’s been wearing the same jeans for three weeks,” Dean laughed. “Last time she locked the door (to keep me out of her room), I removed the door handle, so she can’t lock it.”

Although Dean has the thought of moving to Florida in the future, he said he would stay around Columbia with his children if they chose to stay. After all, the family is his priority, and he takes care of them.

Guidance from God

In addition to his job and family, God is important to Dean’s life as well.

Dean grew up going to church with his family on Sundays at Midway Locust Grove Methodist Church, and he keeps this habit to the day. Dean’s sister, Julie Bader, drives an hour from Bevier, where she currently lives with her husband, to Columbia to join the family at church.

“Without God in my life, I wouldn’t have guidance in my life,” Dean said.

Sharing the same religious belief is part of the reason why the Hovis family sticks very closely. They have brought the sense of community at church to their own family.

“I go to church right now with my grandpa, because my grandma recently passed away, and I don’t want him to go to church alone,” Dean’s daughter Logan said. “Religion definitely plays a really big role in my whole family. We’re all pretty religious people, and we all definitely have that belief system that we grow up with. It influences a lot of the things we do.”

“I’ve been very fortunately blessed,” Dean said.

As the sun went down, Dean turned off his computer, grabbed his car key and drove back to his house.

At the end of the day, the family gathered around and prayed for the dinner. The house was full of laughter again.