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Falling grades and mounting bills

April 23, 2012

By Ora Morison

Rummaging through shelves of canned goods at a local food bank, University of Waterloo dropout Rick Kim finds himself in a place he never imagined.

“I’ve always been a pretty bright student,” he says.

In fact, he was top of his high school graduating class and received a scholarship to study nanotechnology engineering at the University of Waterloo.

Despite student loans and bursaries, Rick Kim was forced to drop out of his engineering program at the University of Waterloo because he could not afford tuition. (Photo: Ora Morison)

Four years later, after failing and re-taking some classes, Kim could no longer afford his tuition and had to quit school. Now he serves beer at a Waterloo sports bar, making just enough to sublet a room in an apartment he shares with four friends.

In his mid-twenties and $32,000 in debt, Kim’s situation is not unique. One American study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that more than one third of college dropouts listed an inability to afford tuition and fees as their major reason for leaving school.

Norah Foster, a credit counselor in Ottawa, believes the situation is similar in Canada. She says many students show up in her office near the end of term when money is tight and next term’s tuition is coming due. Like Rick Kim, they’re looking for a way to avoid dropping out, a situation Foster describes as one of the worst a young person can be in: burdened with student debt, but without a degree to get a well-paying job to pay it off.

Easy money

Kim arrived in Waterloo from Vancouver at the start of his first year of university with loans from the federal and British Colombia governments.

“It should have all gone to tuition but there were times I did spend the money on living expenses,” Kim says.

He readily admits he spent a lot of money going out to binge drink, as well on drugs at one point.

Student loans that land in a lump sum in a student’s bank account can easily be misspent, Foster says. “It just seems like easy money.”

After failing his first class, things got hard for Kim. He had been counting on a well-paying job through the university’s co-op program, but lost his co-op eligibility when he failed classes. Without any income, his debts from tuition and other costs piled up fast.

“After first and second year I started to realize I was walking on a tight rope,” Kim says.

One day, the tuition payment deadline passed and Kim was not able to pay. His student loans would not cover the total amount and his parents weren’t willing to help. Friends pitched in to make up the difference, but there was still an outstanding balance.

“Eventually, with all the loans I had to repay, and the outstanding balance that kept growing year after year … I was forced to end my education,” Kim says.

Norah Foster is sympathetic.

“You get a young person, they make a wrong turn or something, and all their hopes and dreams are taken away from them,” Foster says. “That’s not right.”

The financial illiteracy of the educated

Many Canadian young people head off to university without much of a clue as how to manage their money. As many as three-quarters of undergraduate students surveyed by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations in 2010 didn’t know that interest on their student loans would begin to accrue immediately after graduation.

The federally appointed Task Force on Financial Literacy presented several ideas to address this problem when it reported to Parliament in February 2011. Seven of the 30 recommendations related specifically to young people, including one that called for mandatory money management counseling for any person seeking a government student loan.

This kind of compulsory financial education might have helped someone like Rick Kim, but to date, none of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented.

“It was hard for me to adapt [to university life] and it took me a while to find balance,” Kim says.

Maureen Jones, director of student awards and financial aid at the University of Waterloo, says many students are overwhelmed at university like Kim.

“Where I see some students run in to difficulty is not speaking to someone at financial aid early enough,” Jones says.

Given enough time, a financial aid officer can counsel students on their personal finances before tuition and other expenses, such as books and co-op fees, are due. Jones says there are also bursaries available to students like Kim whose finances are squeezed despite government student loans.

“We try to make every effort,” Jones says, students need to take the first step by planning ahead.

Kim did receive some bursaries, but ultimately, he still came up short and the debt continues to dog him. Kim’s outstanding university tuition  — about $5,200 — was recently sent to a collection agency and he has to regularly re-apply for interest-free status on his $32,000 worth of government student loans.

The whole experience has left Kim disheartened. For now, he’s just making enough to scrape by, let alone plan for the future.  Once a straight-A student, Kim’s now so discouraged he’s not sure he’ll ever want to pick up where he left off in his degree.

He’s proof that the resources available still leave room for smart young people to fall through the cracks.


I wrote this article as part of my business reporting class at Carleton University in March 2011.


Can you catch suicide? Journalists and doctors disagree on how to get people to stop killing themselves

April 23, 2012

By Ora Morison

Murder and crime have been grabbing headlines since printing presses started to run, but self-murder, or suicide – a crime under English common law until 1961 – has long been a verboten topic for the media.

It used to be that if a person died by suicide, even the most dogged of reporters withdrew from covering the story, but these days journalists are more comfortable reporting on self-inflicted deaths.

When 15-year-old Jamie Hubley from Ottawa killed himself last fall, journalists’ reports abounded. More than 150 newspaper articles mentioned Hubley in the months following his death, and over the past year, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have run feature series on youth suicide.

This kind of coverage is a victory for some – namely journalists who believe it is their job to report on even sensitive and tragic events – but to others, it’s treading on dangerous ground. Psychologists who study suicide and work daily with suicidal people say reporting on suicide can encourage more people to kill themselves.

Dr. Marnin Heisel, a clinical psychologist at the University of Western Ontario and one of Canada’s leading suicide researchers, said journalists’ work can “glorify” a suicidal person, and detailing the methods people use to kill themselves can inadvertently become a how-to guide for another person thinking about suicide.  In the medical community, this idea that reporting on one suicide can spur others is called the “contagion effect.”

“The media will publish what they think people are interested in, but they also shape interest,” Heisel said.

Read more…

The 25th Hour – Carleton’s current affairs television show

April 23, 2012

I dabbled in hosting for this episode of the 25th Hour! Lots of fun.

In Search of a Classroom

April 23, 2012

Felicia Pacentrilli, Daniel Bitonti and I created this documentary as part of our workshop class at Carleton University, 25th Hour. Thank you to all of the hardworking young teachers willing to speak to us.

Life behind the bar

April 23, 2012

By Ora Morison

Barista is Italian for bartender. A beautiful word that in North America describes the perhaps mundane job of serving coffee to people who can afford a $4 drink each morning.

More often than not, being a barista is a temp job and those who work it blend into the background of someone else’s morning routine. Baristas are often young – youthful enough to stand on their feet all day – and in transition.

Whether a starving student, a starving recent grad, or a single mother trying to keep her child from starving, the barista is often someone who has left one life phase and is trying to get to another.

Ottawa’s Bridgehead chain of coffee shops employs baristas at its dozen locations across the city. And, from their place behind the bar, these people seem to have found a way to make ends meet while they go through their transitions.

“It’s surprisingly fulfilling,” 22-year-old Will Assad says. He’s been working full time at the Bridgehead on Ottawa’s Sparks Street mall for seven months, since he lost his job at a recording studio.

Read more…

Entrepreneurial immigrants: Thriving, not just surviving

April 23, 2012

Ilyas Tekin, a Turkish engineer, arrived in Ottawa in 2010 and immediately started up a business. (Photo: Ora Morison)

By Ora Morison

Ilyas Tekin is an engineer. At least, that’s what you could call him in Turkey. In Canada, he’s an entrepreneur.

Since immigrating to Canada in 2010, Tekin has started his own company, working in almost the same field as he did in Turkey, but unable to do any actual engineering. Instead, in Canada Tekin is an exporter rather than a manufacturer of machine parts.

Ilyas Tekin, a Turkish engineer, arrived in Ottawa in 2010 and immediately started up a business.

“We are not selling engineering services,” Tekin says. “But I thought I could manage a good business here.”

Read the full story published on Ottawa Insight as part of my business reporting class.

Finding what others discard

April 23, 2012

By Ora Morison

Paramount Gold and Silver Corp. is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The rock is what’s buried under the ground in Nevada and northern Mexico, where the company has found a supply of left over minerals at former mine sites. The hard place is the stock market, where uncertainties related to global events far removed from Paramount’s control are pinning down  its stock price.

The company relies on issuing shares to fund expensive drilling and metallurgic testing at its Sleeper and San Miguel mining sites in Nevada and Mexico, respectively. For the fiscal year ending June 2011, Paramount spent close to $8 million on exploration, about eight times the next biggest cost and the largest single contributor to Paramount’s $28 million loss for the year.

Read the full story on Ottawa Insight. This article was written as part of my business reporting class. Each student followed an Ottawa-based public company and wrote a profile, as well as quarterly report stories about their company.