Black Education / Schools : Cyber-begging???

dustyelbow

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Oct 25, 2005
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His debt tests the kindness of strangers online

07:40 AM EST on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

By David Scharfenberg

Journal Staff Writer

“You just feel like you’re limited,” Joe Perez, a Web designer from Cranston, says. “It weighs [on] me 24 hours a day.”



The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

CRANSTON — Joe Perez lives with his mother.

He is 28 years old.

“Yup, 28,” he said, a touch embarrassed, in a recent interview. “Best pick-up line: ‘You want to go back to my mom’s?’ ”

But Perez, unlike some of his Generation X cohorts, is no slouch.

He has a job as a Web designer. He does plenty of freelancing on the side. And despite his less-than-ideal digs, he even has a girlfriend these days.

Perez’s problem isn’t laziness. It’s something far worse: student-loan debt. And plenty of it.

At last count, the former film student owed some $207,000.

So last month, Perez did what any Web-savvy twentysomething in his predicament might do: he launched his own Web site, joesdebt.com, and began soliciting donations.

For himself.

Bold? Perhaps. Hopeless? Perhaps not.

Perez is but the latest entry in the growing field of “cyber-begging.”
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The phenomenon took off five years ago when Karyn Bosnak, a New Yorker with a taste for all things Gucci, launched SaveKaryn.com — a shameless and clever plea for donations to pay off a $20,000 credit card bill.

A string of news stories helped Bosnak retire her debt, land a book deal and inspire legions of imitators.

Since then, cyber-beggars have raised cash for everything from breast implants to cancer treatments to car payments.

And now, online philanthropist can browse through a catalog of hard-luck tales on sites such as realitycharity.com and modestneeds.org.

Experts say successful pleas combine the power of the personal appeal with humor, clever writing or a particularly heart-rending tale.

But increasingly savvy Internet users, wary of online fraud, make for a tough sell these days, according to Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

And Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said the sheer volume of cyber-begging sites has made it difficult for individual appeals to break through.

“For every one of these that work, that get attention and go viral or semi-viral,” he said, “there are an almost infinite amount that don’t.”

In fact, in the rapidly changing world of the Internet, he said, e-panhandling is already bordering on passÉ.

That might explain why Perez has not exactly set the world on fire — at least not yet.

As of last night, he had raised precisely $110.50, according to a ticker on his home page.

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Perez, who charts his growing problem on a large “debt clock” on his home page, acknowledges he could have planned better.

But he says his life shouldn’t be a financial shambles just because he went to college.

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It is a warning about the perils of student debt, he says. It is a rallying cry against the “predatory practices” of the growing private student-loan industry. It is a call to action.

It is cyber-begging with a social conscience.

Perez posts other people’s tales of student-loan sorrow on his site.

He plans to launch a series of joesdebt-like sites for financially strapped graduates across the country.

And eventually, he envisions a giant “debt clock” recording the national burden of college borrowing.

Perez says he is simply tapping into a much larger anxiety over the cost of higher education.

And that anxiety undoubtedly exists.

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Perez’s problem, for certain, is far worse than that of the typical college student.

But he is hoping his tale will resonate nonetheless.

As a senior at Coventry High School, Perez won a prestigious national award for high school filmmakers and earned a spot in the film program at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

Perez didn’t qualify for much in the way of grants since his father, a toy designer with an up-and-down income, had just hit it big with a product called “Melanie’s Mall,” a small replica shopping center complete with miniature gold credit cards.

Facing tuition of nearly $30,000 per year, the considerable cost of food and rent in greater Los Angeles and the pricey prospect of developing a high-end reel of sample work for the post-college job search, Perez quickly maxed out his allotment of low-interest federal loans.

And like a growing number of undergraduates, he tapped the $17-billion private loan industry, which has lately attracted scrutiny from Congress for its high interest rates, direct-to-consumer marketing practices and questionable financial ties to college financial-aid offices.

After he graduated in 2003, Perez took a job with a tech firm and an internship at a special-effects company.

But the tech firm soon collapsed and heart trouble landed Perez in the hospital, uninsured, with some $100,000 in medical bills — wiping out the money he had borrowed to shoot his reel.

He looked for work for a while. But after a few months, he returned home to Rhode Island, his Hollywood dream deferred.

He was able to get rid of his remaining medical bills in bankruptcy proceedings, but his substantial student-loan debt lingers.

And these days, Perez said, he spends his time fending off calls from collection agencies and wondering if he will ever be able to buy a house or launch a film career.

“You just feel like you’re limited,” he said. “It weighs [on] me 24 hours a day.”

In the end, Perez said, he doesn’t expect his adventure in cyber-begging to rescue him from financial ruin.

But he can always hope, he said.

It would be nice, after all, to move out of his mom’s house.
 

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