David Leestma, 21, is a junior at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Mich. He will graduate in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in heating, ventilating and air conditioning, and with zero debt.
You took a year off between high school and college. How come? I wasn't sure what I wanted to do for a career, and I didn't want to go to school unless I knew. So I got a job at Sam's Club working at the cafe for $9 an hour. Over the year, it became clear what I didn't want to do -- I didn't want to work in retail the rest of my life. I went on a couple of job shadows with friends of my family. On one, I spent time with a mechanical engineer. He designed HVAC systems and got me interested in that.
Why did you start at a community college rather than a four-year college? Grand Rapids Community College was cheaper, and it gave me the option to live at home. The plan when I started was to transfer to Ferris. As far as I know, it is one of only a few colleges in the country that offer a bachelor's degree in HVAC. The community college had a program with Ferris, so I had a guarantee that I wouldn't have a problem transferring my credits.
You have four younger siblings. Were your parents able to help with the college costs? They said that I could live at home free and eat all I wanted. But I haven't gotten any money from them for college.
What were some of the ways in which you paid for college? I had a paper route from ages 12 to 18, and I saved all my money from that -- about $6,000. I saved most of my money while I worked at Sam's Club. At the community college, I had a Pell grant [a need-based federal grant, up to $5,550 this year] that covered most of my college costs. I still get a Pell grant, and I also have a scholarship -- $4,000 a year, which covers over half of my tuition. I pay a couple of thousand dollars a year more for tuition and fees, plus $3,000 a year for room and board. I have enough money to cover this year's costs, and I should have enough to cover my last year.
What has been your biggest challenge so far? At Grand Rapids, I did two summer, two fall and two winter semesters in one year, and I worked part-time at Sam's Club. I went to school and worked pretty much round the clock, except for Sundays. I did homework on lunch breaks. It was crazy.
Do you have advice for other students? From the start, I've always looked at what job I'm going to get when I finish. That's the whole goal of going to college for me. So take your time to choose what you want to do. You can change your mind after you start college, but taking more classes costs money and extra time.
Any regrets about the way you've done it? No. A lot of the other students I talk to are $10,000 or more in debt. I like where I'm sitting financially right now. It's a blessing.
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