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What do happiness, focus and connections have to do with student debt?

Unique approach wins student poet a national prize

Forest Hills — Prepare to be surprised.

If you think student loans are all about the numbers, Northern High senior Libby Kurt may convince you that it’s really about the letters. 

Not only that, she thinks student loans are as much about many things not related directly to finances. And she makes her points through poetry, likely not the first format that pops to mind. 

And in the end, numbers do matter. She was the grand prize winner in the national Next Gen Personal Finance Payback Challenge and won a $2,500 scholarship.

‘As soon as I read Libby’s entry, I was wowed,’

— Brian Johnson, Libby’s personal finance teacher

“Don’t forget about the other aspects of college. Your happiness, focus, and connections are equally important as trying to reduce your student debt.”

That advice, beginning with the letter “D” is the fourth in a string of a dozen ideas that Libby poses in her S-T-U-D-E-N-T L-O-A-N-S poetic approach to a topic that many may think is mostly about interest rates and payoff timelines.

Not that those topics aren’t important. In fact, she learned a lot about them in Brian Johnson’s personal finance class, which she chose as an elective because she thought it would be best to learn something she could actually use in the near future. And this class filled the bill, so to speak.

Libby Kurt’s acrostic poem

School isn’t cheap, so it makes sense that you want to graduate with as little debt as possible.

To minimize your debt, look for ways to reduce your tuition, such as scholarships, grants, and work-study jobs.

Underestimating the price of college essentials is a huge mistake. You don’t need to buy the most luxury items for your dorm room, stick to high-quality basics that will last.

Don’t forget about the other aspects of college. Your happiness, focus, and connections are equally important as trying to reduce your student debt.

Engage with the people around you. Joining student clubs and volunteering are great ways to make friends and boost your mental health.

Never lose focus on your academics. Spend time studying so that you can do your very best in your classes and so you don’t have to retake them.

Time is valuable, so spend your free summers both relaxing and gaining experience through summer jobs and internships.

Legitimate friends don’t need to spend a lot of money to have fun. You can have just as much fun together on the cheap.

Offset your college expenses through working, just be sure that you still leave time for your studies.

Apply for FAFSA every year you are in college!

Not taking time for yourself is a bad idea. While academics and friends are important, it’s crucial to spend time focusing on your mental health.

Spend your time well. You won’t be in college forever, so be sure to have some fun!

Forest Hills business teacher Brian Johnson wears his love of teaching about the business of money on his sleeve — and neck and head

Making Finance Engaging & Fun

Johnson is an advocate for personal finance classes in high school. In May 2022, he and three students from Northern High went to Lansing to testify before the House subcommittee. They communicated the value of such a course. 

Johnson is pleased that beginning in 2023-2024, all high school students will be required to complete a personal finance course. 

He admits he wasn’t a great student himself, so he uses games and wears money-themed outfits to make learning “engaging, fun and relevant.” Libby and her classmates played Payback Challenge, an online game developed by NGPF to help them learn about balance in college life. 

As she played, she learned about debt, salaries and how to balance friends, jobs and personal wellness with undergrad studies. She made choices about what kind of college to attend and career to pursue using the decision-tree format of the game. 

Then Libby took what she learned and wrote about it in a non-traditional way, given the encouragement from Johnson to be creative. He also encouraged her to focus on overall wellness, not just financial aspects of college life. 

“As soon as I read Libby’s entry, I was wowed,” Johnson said. He personally selected her acrostic poem to send on to the competition. Three other students’ entries were also submitted. 

She was one of two students to win the national grand prize. Forty students were recognized as Honorable Mention Award recipients. And while part of the payoff was the honor of winning top prize, she will also receive $2,500 toward her future educational pursuits. 

It seems that the course she chose because it would be useful turned out to be pretty lucrative too — a pleasant payback.

‘Don’t forget about the other aspects of college. Your happiness, focus, and connections are equally important as trying to reduce your student debt.’

— line four in senior Libby Kurt’s winning poem
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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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