Investing locally … in graduate students

Speaking as a graduate student in counseling at the Center for Graduate Studies o f Asheville-Lenoir-Rhyne University, my degree should be seen as an investment in the local economy, as well as a long-term investment in the health and wellness of our community.

I have worked for the last two and a half years at a local shelter for youths who are runaways, homeless or troubled. All in all, they are decent kids who are in crisis and need a safe place to live for a few weeks. Recently, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in counseling so that I can continue to work with these kids on a deeper level. Is this not a local investment?

But the only options for paying for my studies are either battling in the gladiator pits for scholarships and grants (of which I have been awarded none so far) or accepting government loans at 6.8 percent interest. No local banks or credit unions offer personal or student loans (without a large chunk of collateral). If we’re talking about investing locally, shouldn’t there be more options?

I had an opportunity to raise this concern at a March forum on socially responsible investing, which was hosted by Lenoir-Rhyne. The forum panel included representatives from Self Help/Carolina Mountains Credit Union and Mountain BizWorks; attendees included directors of the Asheville Area Arts Council and Asheville Grown Business Alliance.

After the panelists had discussed investing locally and socially conscious investment portfolios, I raised my hand and articulated my thoughts. There were encouraging nods and murmurs in the audience, yet the panelists responded that they were unaware of any other options. The credit-union representative said frankly that they didn’t do student loans. The investment broker commented that 6.8 percent was “usurious” but had no practical recommendations. When I asked how I could continue to move this conversation forward, one of the audience members recommended that I contact the Mountain Xpress, to add my voice to its series on investing locally.

What if there were a group of local investors able to make student loans to graduate students and expect a modest return? Even a 4 to 5 percent return could make about as much money as your average portfolio, and way more than a certificate of deposit. To protect the investment, there would need to be a legally binding contract, as well as a commitment that the graduate student invest a certain number of years in community work.

Another idea, proposed at the forum, was the creation of a network of local counselors. There are hundreds of licensed professionals working here in Asheville, but they are not organized professionally. What if Buncombe County mental-health professionals decided to throw in $20 per year each, to “pay it forward” into the next generation of counselors, selecting one student annually to receive a $5,000 scholarship? This approach need not be limited to the counseling profession; supporting Asheville students seeking graduate degrees in such fields as sustainable business, teaching or nursing, for example, would be a way to invest in the community at large.

There is a fair amount of complaining in this town about the economy or tourists or how difficult it is to break into the art scene. I hope my ideas have demonstrated an issue, raised some questions, suggested some possible creative solutions and sparked conversations that move the issue forward. I intend to work with Lenoir-Rhyne in continuing to bring together creative professionals and, specifically, to work toward a local counseling network.

Papillon DeBoer works as a case manager at a local crisis shelter for youth. An artist and photographer, he is a graduate student in counseling at Lenoir Rhyne Center for Studies in Asheville. DeBoer can be reached at papillon.deboer@my.lr.edu.

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