“We need a fundamental reworking of how education works.”
Before Memorial Day weekend, the United States Army composed a tweet asking its former servicemen and servicewomen to reflect on how their time in the Corps “impacted” them. The clumsiness of the language immediately backfired, as Americans around the country piled on with stories about how the military left them maimed, shell-shocked, and abandoned without the physical or mental aid necessary to contend with lifelong trauma.
But one story, in particular, stood out. It came from 45-year old Michael B. Clark, a former combat medic who is currently earning a Masters in Public Health at NYU. Here’s what Michael said.
”I was the first in my family to go to college on a ROTC scholarship but I came out as gay (in 1992), the Army kicked me out and made me pay back the scholarship. At age 45, I still owe money on that,” he tweeted.
For the uninitiated, the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship is one of the Army’s trademark pipelines for servicemen to enter higher education. There are ROTC offices on hundreds of college campuses, and the students within the program receive a full-ride scholarship, all the amenities of university life, and a civilian degree. The only difference is those students are simultaneously training to be an officer within their chosen branch of the military by taking specific ROTC courses. A student could lose ROTC status for a variety of reasons, such as criminal activity or academic decline, and until the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011, one of those reasons could be sexual identity.
Michael’s story isn’t unique. In 2010, 21-year-old Sara Isaacson was forced to pay back her ROTC scholarship after coming out as a lesbian during her studies at UNC. In 1991, The Chicago Tribune reported on a gay student named Robert Schwitz who was the second student in two years to have his ROTC status annulled at Washington University. Even today, long after the supposed legislative equaling in the armed forces, a trans student named Map Pesqueira is set to lose her ROTC scholarship at UT Austin following Trump’s new transgender military policy.
Michael Clark is currently in Kenya, working with an organization that aims to protect vulnerable people from the country’s punitive anti-sodomy laws. When I called him up on WhatsApp, he was quick to remind me that his particular struggle goes far beyond sexual identity. He is still in student debt, and thinks he might be until he dies. Clark grew up very poor, with no financial literacy, in Salem, Oregon. The military was the only chance he had to go to school, and today one of his tentpole causes as an activist is student debt forgiveness. Read our conversation below.
So how did you end up joining the military?
I grew up in a really poor family, and that was the only option. My dad was in the military but not for very long. I knew he wanted me to be in the military as a family thing, and my sister went into the military as well. Being a smart kid in a town where you’re not expected to succeed, I didn’t know what else to do. At that time, I was starting to question my masculinity. It was like, “I could do this, I can prove that I’m a man.” Those military recruiters, they rope you in. I enrolled my junior year of high school, and I went to basic training between my junior and senior year. I did it very, very young. And in that process, I had found out about the ROTC scholarship and had applied for that.
So the ROTC was always the carrot on the stick for you, even back in high school.
Yeah, because it was the only way I was going to be able to go to college. I didn’t know about other scholarships. You go to a wealthy school — a wealthy school has guidance counselors that will find opportunities — but at a poor school, you don’t get that.
I would imagine that once you got to college, you didn’t feel like you had to be super secretive about your identity.
Yes, when I got to school I was starting to become more politically aware and I was definitely edging towards activism but still trying to maintain [some ambiguity]. I was going to a conservative Catholic school and part of a military program. I knew anything on campus had to be by the books.
So tell me about what happened when you went off to college with your ROTC scholarship?
I started college, and that’s when I was doing the ROTC. At my medical training, I had a boyfriend who was in another platoon. When I went back home to Oregon, there was this thing in 1992 and 1993 called Ballot Measure 9, a constitutional amendment to outlaw homosexuality. It was all over the news. All over everywhere. I was going to a Catholic school called the University of Portland, which at the time was very conservative. To combat that, me and another student tried to start a “Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Student Alliance.”
It was never me coming out — I never said I was gay. I just said the school had a problem. The school denied us from being a club, and it just kind of escalated from there. ROTC asked me to resign [from the scholarship], and doing so, forced me to forfeit the scholarship, which meant that I had to get student loans in an emergency.
[Editor’s note: We reached out to the University of Portland, which told us it could not disclose any information about former students under guidelines set by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The school did not provide further comment.]
Do you remember anything specific about when you were served those papers?
I just remember them yelling at me, “Sign!” And I remember my hand shaking. I don’t think I even knew what I was agreeing to when I signed. At the time, I don’t think I even knew I was going to lose the scholarship.
That was my next question, if you fully understood the ramifications of resigning from ROTC.
Yeah, I don’t think so, because after that happened, it was like a week later, I heard, “They’re going to kick you out of school if you don’t pay soon.” I was like, “What do you mean?” I remember going to financial aid, and they were like, “You have to get this loan, and this loan, and this loan, and your mom has to cosign.” It was very difficult, and very stressful to get all that. I was hyperventilating at the number, because it was like, $36,000 for that first semester. Which is three times more than my mom made in a year.
If you do research, you find that a lot of people have experienced something similar to what you went through. At the time, did you know that? Or did you feel alone?
I felt completely alone. This was before the internet. There was no way to communicate with people that this was a regular thing. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco several years later where I learned about the Servicemen’s Legal Defense Network that was helping people that were being investigated. But that was three years later. At the time, [the military] were scarier than the police.
When did it start to dawn on you that you were going to have these loans hanging over you for a very long time?
I got the loans right away. I received all of this hate on campus from the priests specifically. It was just so much. It was a breaking point. I dropped out completely. For a very long time, we’re talking many years, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a stable address. I moved around. I didn’t know I had all these loans due, because when you drop out of school those loans immediately become due.
Because I was super poor, I didn’t join the credit system until much later in life. When you sign up for a credit card, that’s when all of these creditors can find you. It was probably 10 years later that I found out that the Department of Education had sold those loans to a bunch of other people, and each of those other people all had collections against me, and they were all accruing interest. I had no idea of what was legitimate or what was not. I didn’t understand that some random credit collector was actually the owner of the loan I had with the Department of Education.
It was stupid, but also, I had no financial literacy. How was I supposed to know this kind of stuff? I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t have a credit card.
It is kind of wild to think about how a lifetime of student debt is all rooted in one fraught afternoon in some ROTC office.
Yeah, with all the debt I’m accumulating now, I will likely die before my master’s is paid off.
You mentioned in your Twitter thread that you’re passionate about student debt forgiveness, I’m curious to hear more about that.
It’s a moral obligation. Who benefits from an educated population? It’s companies. The companies that are benefiting from having people that are educated, and school prices are getting so out of whack. You talk to people around the world who can get their master’s for $3,000 a semester. And you’re like, “What? Why am I paying so much more?” It’s a uniquely American problem. Everybody I know who’s ever gone to school is still paying for it. Forgiving student debt in itself is not what we need. We need a fundamental reworking of how education works.