Ilhan Omar, the second-term Congresswoman from Minneapolis, made student debt central to her first run for office in 2016, when it was still a fringe issue. Six years later, national student debt forgiveness has become a policy reality. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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One of the key players in the fight to forgive student debt: Minnesota’s own Ilhan Omar.

“It’s been a lot of elbow grease to try to get to this moment,” the Congressional Representative from Minneapolis told Sahan Journal on the same day that President Joe Biden announced a historic executive order to forgive up to $20,000 in student loans for 43 million borrowers. 

Student debt has been a cornerstone issue for Omar since her first legislative race in 2016, when she unseated state Representative Phyllis Kahn. Key to her win was strong student support in a district that included the University of Minnesota. Since arriving in Congress in 2019, she has authored student debt relief bills, pushed for debt cancellation on the Education and Labor Committee, and met with President Joe Biden about it.

And it’s personal for Omar. In her 2020 memoir, This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee to Congresswoman, she wrote about her experience attending a for-profit college as a new immigrant. The school, she writes, pressured her to take out student loans without, in her view, properly disclosing the fact that her classes would not transfer to another institution. 

After Biden announced the debt forgiveness Wednesday, the second-term Congresswoman told Sahan Journal she felt “really excited” and “overwhelmed with emotion.”

Months ago, she had met with Biden about student debt cancellation, she said. “He made a commitment to me that it was going to happen in August, and kept his word, and I’m really grateful for it.”

Some of the plan’s details that stand out to Omar:

  • $20,000 student debt cancellation for Pell Grant recipients. “It would literally eliminate student debt for 20 million people,” Omar said.
  • Most people with federal student loans will benefit. Of the 45 million people with federal student loans, 43 million will see at least some debt forgiveness. (The other 2 million have incomes above $125,000, and won’t qualify.)
  • A provision where borrowers on an income-based repayment plan will not accrue interest. Omar described this as “one of the most significant parts.”

She spoke with Sahan Journal, hours after the major policy announcement, about her advocacy for student debt relief, her personal history with student loans, and next steps for borrowers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about your education history. So you started out getting an associate’s degree at a for-profit college and wound up taking on loans. How did that experience shape your passion for this issue?

You know, it took years for me to be around folks who understood what it meant to fall into the trap of predatory colleges and universities, what it means to be a first-gen college student. I was a new immigrant. I’d only been in the country for five years when I went to college. And so my family didn’t have the literacy, the fluency in the system, to help me navigate it. 

It took years for me to be around folks who understood what it meant to fall into the trap of predatory colleges and universities, what it means to be a first-gen college student.

And it’s become a passion of mine to try to help others recognize the traps that are out there, and how to build support systems for people like myself. And folks who are not just immigrants or first gen, but also are coming from families who, again, don’t have the kind of fluency that is necessary to stand up to people who are trying to exploit you. 

You’ve written about how you felt that process was exploitative, especially to refugees, veterans, and first-generation college students. Can you say more about the challenges that immigrants and other first-generation students face with the financial aid process?

I mean, the challenge is real. Forty percent of people who have student debt are not college graduates. They don’t even have a degree. That just really amplifies the kind of problems that are out there and what the challenges really look like. 

Forty percent of people who have student debt are not college graduates. They don’t even have a degree.

You have people who come to you, who court you, who tell you they’re going to help you through this process. And when you are just in need of a friend, and are trusting, you’re like, This is great! Here’s someone who’s going to help me fill out an application. Here’s someone who’s going to help me sign up for the classes that I need. And you don’t know the right questions to ask. And so you take everything that they say to you to be true.

In my case, I did find out that this wasn’t really the place I needed to be. But I was in deep, and I wasn’t a quitter, and I felt like I should at least get a degree out of it. And I did. I got an associate degree and it helped me find employment and thrive. But a lot of people feel trapped. And you don’t have a successful way out of a system that is not serving you.

What were some of the challenges to get to this point?

In ’16, when I was talking about student debt cancellation, a lot of people ridiculed us for being naive, for having a dream of doing something that the country was never really going to be on board with—it was never going to be mainstream. We find ourselves in a time where student debt cancellation is not a fringe issue. It’s not a naive issue. It’s very mainstream. Even people who don’t have student debt, who didn’t go to college, are supportive of debt cancellation. 

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We’ve had all of the Tri-Caucuses in Congress [the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus] sign on to letters and publicly come out asking the president to cancel. Chuck Schumer has been helping us lead that effort in the Senate with Bernie [Sanders] and [Elizabeth] Warren. And now we have the president who’s adopted it and is carrying it out himself. 

It feels incredibly validating. And a lot of us who thought this day could come feel vindicated in our advocacy.

What do you hear from your constituents, especially students of color and immigrant students, about student loans? How do you think today’s announcement will affect those students?

I’ve heard from a number of people who are excited. The majority of the people who are reaching out are those who are in that bracket of having almost the entirety of their student debt wiped out. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of them see the kind of new opportunities that are going to be available to them. 

For people who were looking at continuing to pay down their student debt that actually never goes down—as many of us who’ve experienced it know—this is a fresh start to be able to think about starting a family, buying a home, starting a business, and contributing to society in other ways.

Many immigrant families have the extra burden of caring and supporting family in other parts of the world. So when you are that college graduate and you get that job, your whole family is looking to you to support them.

Many immigrant families have the extra burden of caring and supporting family in other parts of the world. So when you are that college graduate and you get that job, your whole family is looking to you to support them. When you’re barely making it and trying to make ends meet, it’s just a lot of anxiety and stress, and a lot of people feel weighed down by all of it. 

So it’s really exciting to hear from people who are happy and are in tears about all the new possibilities.

Now you’re the mom of a college student and you still have your own loans, right? 

Yeah. 

How do you see student loans affecting your generation and hers?

I think my generation and hers are probably the ones that are burdened by student debt the most. It was one of the reasons I got involved in this fight. She was 14 when I started talking about it, because I recognized that in four short years, she was going to be going to college and having to worry about the cost of getting an education that everybody tells us we need. 

Now we have two other ones in the pipeline that go to college in two years. Adnan is turning 17 and William, my stepson, is also 16. They’re starting their junior year now. So that is real for my family, and I know it’s real for a lot of families. It’s a lot of stress and anxiety to navigate a system that failed you, and try to make sure it doesn’t fail your offspring, as you are still trying to navigate it.

What do you think are the most important next steps in making sure borrowers are able to access the relief they’ve been granted? What will you be watching for next?

The rollout. We’ve already gotten a briefing from the administration and are asking questions about the way the rollout will take place. We hope that whatever website they set up in the next couple of days is transparent, easy, and accessible.

I’m doing [Instagram] Live tonight. We’ll do an informational rally, hopefully at the University of Minnesota, in a week or so once we have more of the details to share. I think there’s just a lot of work that those of us who carry this issue have to do now to try to make sure everybody who’s eligible is able to access this relief. And then get ready for the next phase of this fight.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...