Three doctors talk about how they each achieved student loan forgiveness – ranging from $44,483 to more than $416,000 – through the PSLF program and how a GradFin student loan specialist helped them get there.
Laurel Road Head of Design & Content, Eric Sutton
Dr. Joshua Ulibarri, Dr. Sheira Schlair, Dr. Michael Fishman, and GradFin PSLF Project Manager, Sarah Flemming
Eric Sutton [00:00:08] Hi, everyone. This is Eric, and you’re listening to Financing Ambition, a Laurel Road podcast. On today’s episode, I’m joined by three doctors from around the country who recently had their student loan debt forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. And they all worked with one of our GradFin student loan specialists to get there.
So if you’re unfamiliar with PSLF, if it’s a program available to federal student loan borrowers who work within the government or at a qualifying nonprofit organization. After ten years of repayment equal to 120 qualifying payments, the remaining student loan balance is forgiven.
The PSLF program started accepting applications in 2017, and since that time, $14.9 billion of student loan debt has been discharged through the program, according to the Education Department. However, PSLF is notoriously complex, with frequently changing rules and requirements, and not everyone – including many doctors – even realize that they could be eligible for the program.
So, today we’re going to talk about navigating PSLF, how one of our GradFin student loan specialists can help, and what it feels like when you find out that you’ve just had a very large five- or six-figure sum of student loan debt forgiven.
So, without further ado, I’d like to welcome to the program today doctors Schlair, Ulibarri, and Fishman.
Dr. Ulibarri [00:01:47] Thanks, Eric. Awesome to be here.
Dr. Schlair [00:01:49] Thank you so much. Yeah.
Dr. Fishman [00:01:51] Pleasure to be here.
Eric Sutton [00:01:54] Alright. So, let’s start off with a quick introduction for our listeners so they can get to know each of you a little bit better. We’d love to hear about where you’re based now, where you went to med school and did your training, and of course, how much student loan debt you had forgiven through the PSLF program.
Dr. Schlair [00:02:10] Hi, Eric. It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having us. I’m Sheira Schlair. I’m a doctor. I’m based in New York City. I work in the Bronx at Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center. I’m a general internist. I went to med school at Case Western in Cleveland, Ohio, and then I went on to train in the Bronx at Montefiore in the Internal Medicine residency program, and then did a master’s in education and a academic medicine fellowship at NYU Bellevue after that. And I’ve been working at Montefiore pretty much ever since. I also had about $45,000 or so of student loans – actually exactly $44,483 – as a GradFin member through the PSLF program.
Dr. Fishman [00:02:53] Hi, Eric. Glad to be here. I’m Dr. Michael Fishman. I’m a radiologist specializing in breast imaging. I did medical school at George Washington University and followed by internship also in DC, then radiology residency at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, and finally, a breast imaging fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. After fellowship, I worked in private practice for a few years and then came back to academia working at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for a few years. And then I’ve been at Boston Medical Center for the past five years. I’ve been a GradFin member since 2020, and I had $180,643 of student loan debt forgiven through the PSLF program.
Dr. Ulibarri [00:03:53] Awesome. Hi, Eric, this is. This is Josh Ulibarri. Super excited to be talking about this with you all today. I am a public health dentist. I did my training at the University of Minnesota up in Minneapolis and have spent the entirety of my career working in hospital systems in rural communities originally, or for the most part, in New Mexico. And then I’m currently based in Virginia. I actually had $416,623 of debt forgiven as a GradFin member, and so that was pretty exciting time.
Eric Sutton [00:04:36] I bet. Wow. So, from almost $45,000 to more than $416,000 forgiven. That’s incredible. And congrats to all of you for that. And thank you to all of you for those introductions too. Please also allow me to introduce Sarah Flemming from our grad fund team who is joining us today as our PSLF expert. Sarah, would you mind giving us a quick introduction for our listeners?
Sarah Flemming [00:05:04] Sure, Eric. I’m Sarah Fleming. I’m the project manager here at GradFin, where I manage a team of experts who assist our clients in everything needed in the PSLF process. I started working at GradFin in September of 2021, but prior to joining the team here, I worked at one of the federal student loan servicers for ten years where I built up my expertise in PSLF and income-driven repayment. Our mission at GradFin is to help student loan borrowers manage their debt in the most efficient way. GradFin has helped borrowers qualify for more than $50 million in forgiveness to date, with $98,000 in forgiveness on average per individual.
Eric Sutton [00:05:28] Wow. That’s pretty impressive. Thank you, Sarah. We are very fortunate to have all of you here with us today. So, let’s get started. Let’s start off by talking about when you first learned about PSLF and at what point in your career did you even first consider pursuing forgiveness. We’re curious if that was in med school or residency or, maybe even later. Inquiring minds want to know. So why don’t we start with you, Dr. Fishman, and then we’ll hand off to Dr. Ulibarri and then Dr. Schlair.
Dr. Fishman [00:05:59] Well, Eric, I learned about GradFin from my financial advisor in fall 2020 and didn’t think that as a specialist I would qualify for PSLF, but I agreed to schedule that initial meeting. I was already over seven years into clinical practice, more than half working at a not-for-profit hospital. My impression was that PSL only applied to physicians in primary care fields such as obstetrics, pediatrics, family medicine, or internal medicine. I had consolidated my federal loans twice, first towards the end of medical school and then later in residency when the rates dropped again.
Dr. Ulibarri [00:06:39] And for me, I found out actually right around the time that I was graduating from dental school, which was in 2011, I was already interested in going into public health. And so it was just kind of a natural transition and looking at different options that were going to be out there to kind of help deal with that burden of the student loan debt. I transferred my accounts to a new loan servicer and started working with GradFin in 2016, 2017. And similar to Dr. Fishman, I also learned about GradFin through my financial advisor.
Eric Sutton [00:07:15] Okay, I see. So you both actually found out about potential eligibility for PSLF life from a financial advisor. All right, so what about your situation, Dr. Schlair?
Dr. Schlair [00:07:26] So I heard about the program through a colleague about a month before I contacted GradFin. I was about to approach my 20th year, actually, since graduating med school, and I had been paying student loan debt literally since I graduated in 2003. And I had about probably $45,000 or so in loan debt, probably or a little more than that, when my colleague had told me about loan forgiveness. I was already mid-career. I was a full professor. And then meanwhile, I was a part of a group on Facebook called Physician’s Mom Group. And it was there that I heard about PSLF and learned about all the awful paperwork that’s involved with applying, which made me hesitate. And then I heard about GradFin luckily also there, which helped.
Eric Sutton [00:08:14] Yep, the paperwork. I’ve heard I have heard that mentioned a lot as a pain point for PSLF seekers. So, speaking of pain points, I’m sure our listeners would love to know what the pain points of navigating PSLF as a doctor are. Doctor Ulibarri, I know from offline conversations that you were in a particularly challenging situation. So, would you mind telling us a little bit about that?
Dr. Ulibarri [00:08:39] Sure. So, I got into the the PSLF process in the old days. I mean, it was kind of the Wild West at the time and was trying to navigate it on my own. And it was just really challenging with the employment certifications for getting the payments credited and also with your taxes and getting all of that filed for the income-driven payment program. And just really managing all of those deadlines was challenging. If I wasn’t on an IDR program, my payments would have been about $4,500 a month, which I mean I definitely couldn’t afford back then. I couldn’t even afford that now. And so that was a big part of the process and certainly very stressful. For me, it was also an issue of moving to different facilities but with the same organization, and it was creating confusion on the servicers. And so that was also contributing to a lot of the stress and uncertainty because I wasn’t getting an accurate picture of what payments were actually being credited. So, yeah, it was it was a very interesting experience for the first number of years, that’s for sure.
Eric Sutton [00:9:59] Yeah, lots of ups and downs there. So that must have been challenging to navigate on your own and it’s good to hear that you were able to find some help with that. And about how about for you, Dr. Fishman?
Dr. Fishman [00:10:10] Well, for me, I’d say the biggest challenge that I faced was simply not being aware that this was an option for all physicians working at not-for-profit institutions. I had a friend in medical school who was going into obstetrics, and he ended up doing a different program that actually gave him money during residency and then essentially nulled his student loans. But there was no visibility of these programs either as a medical student, as a resident, as a fellow, or as an employee of nonprofit hospitals. And in my opinion, it should be a mandatory component of onboarding for all trainees and new medical jobs.
Eric Sutton [00:10:57] I totally agree. It’s shocking to me, too, that there’s just there’s not more awareness about these programs within the healthcare community. We know that the average medical school graduate in 2023 has $250,990 in student loan debt. So, I agree, they would definitely benefit from knowing more about the potential forgiveness options available to them.
Sarah Flemming [00:11:21] It’s actually a huge part of GradFin’s corporate mission to help student loan borrowers make the most efficient choice in handling their loans. And that begins with educating them and making them aware of their options like this.
Eric Sutton [00:11:34] Sure. Yeah. And, you know, it can be surprising when you when you learn about how complex the rules are of the federal repayment programs and how much they can change with things like limited time waivers and intermittent policy updates and so forth. And of course, adding another layer of complexity, you’ve got the Biden administration’s proposed student loan debt cancellation plan. It’s been in the news quite a bit lately. Not all federal student loan borrowers know that regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court’s eventual ruling on that Biden plan, there are still federal student loan forgiveness programs available for, you know, any remaining balance that you might have with the federal government. So, this is something actually we explored in depth in a recent Financing Ambition episode with GradFin’s founder, Chris Walters.
But getting back to the discussion at hand today, we talked about the pain points you experienced along the way and you all got help from our team at GradFin, which is awesome. And you know, I’d love to hear exactly how working with a student loan specialist impacted your experience in a positive way. You know, how did it make it easier? So why don’t you go first, Dr. Ulibarri, how does your student loan specialist help resolve your situation and help you get almost a half a million dollars of student debt forgiven?
Dr. Ulibarri [00:13:09] Sure. So, the biggest pain point for me in the process is I had been moved between a couple of different servicers. And there was one in particular that I think I ended up with for approximately a year and those payments were a big chunk of what wasn’t being credited. And so when I started working with GradFin and they audited all of my history, they were able to really pinpoint and identify what was going on there and ultimately were able to bridge the gap between me and my servicer as to what we needed to do and what we needed to do to get those resolved. And ultimately, I had been looking at it for a period of time. I mean, it probably had been a couple of years at that point. And once I started working with GradFin, I feel like we had it resolved within probably half a year. So that was a big improvement.
The other issue that I was facing, as I mentioned earlier, it was submitting these employment certifications to get my payments credited. But I was just moving to different facilities within the same organization and that was creating some issues on the servicer’s end. And so we were also able to get with them, get on a call, communicate what was happening, and make sure that my account reflected that, yes, I had been with the same organization the entire time, and that also really streamlined the process of getting those payments credited.
Eric Sutton [00:14:48] Yeah, that sounds like that could have been a real headache. So awesome that you had the right support and you didn’t have to spend your time sorting all of that out on your own. So, Sarah, a couple of questions for you after hearing that is what Dr. Ulibarri experienced typical of the types of issues that a student loan specialists can help resolve and what other types of issues come up along the way? And how does the student loan specialist get involved to help resolve them?
Sarah Flemming [00:15:17] Yes, our team sees a lot of unique situations with different changes in employment and we’re able to help walk our clients through the application process every step of the way. We can also help with uncovering missing payments, especially when loans transfer like that as a loan history tends to get lost in the mix. So, we’ve helped clients handle application denials, incorrect payment counts, missing employment and numerous hurdles. One major thing that we do for our clients is help them appeal any potential errors on the servicers end, and we continue to follow up until the correct results are received. So we also help guide through any actions needed to maximize the forgiveness benefit.
Eric Sutton [00:16:04] Okay, let’s hear from you. Dr. Schlair, how did a student loan specialists help in your situation?
Dr. Schlair [00:16:09] Well, I mean, before you were talking about pain points. Right? And I certainly heard from my peers about them but basically – I feel guilty saying this – but I didn’t have to experience any! And that was because of GradFin. I did familiarize myself with loan forgiveness to sort out if I was a candidate. Similarly to what was said already, I wasn’t certain that I qualified despite being a primary care doc because I work in an academic setting. I just wasn’t sure no one had told me. And so that part was a bit complicated. But honestly it wasn’t until I met with a student loan specialist that I was totally confident that I qualified, and I worked with GradFin for just several months. They helped with organizing everything. It really helped me to have someone to just be the guide and to tell me exactly what to do.
I guess my working with GradFin helped me from in a in a very personal way, from an emotional and spiritual standpoint, quite frankly, to know that I had someone who was dedicated to this. That was majorly important. I think that was actually the biggest thing for me in this situation that was that stands out beyond the organizational help and just navigating and being done with it. I felt that I needed that. Just knowing that there was a group that knew exactly what had to be done. There was no question. There was just tremendous peace of mind. You cannot put a dollar amount on that. Most of us are working full-time and we have many of us have families and we have busy jobs with a lot of stress.
Eric Sutton [00:17:47] Yeah. I love that you called out peace of mind and how priceless it is, and I couldn’t agree more. So, there isn’t really a way to put a dollar amount on stress elimination. It’s just it’s invaluable. Okay, so how about you, Dr. Fishman? How did your student loan specialist help?
Dr. Fishman [00:18:05] Well, first of all, the wonderful team at GradFin explained that, in fact, I did qualify for himself as a specialist, which was a shock. And then proceeded to walk me through the steps of the process. It all seemed overwhelming, but they were by my side, facilitating each step and reassuring me that everything was moving along as expected. GradFin team updated me with changes to the PSLF program, including that months that loan payments were on pause during COVID still counted towards my ten years of service and in the fall of last year, a new change that my years of residency and fellowship also now counted, even though the loans at that time were in deferral or forbearance. This pushed me over the threshold, and they were patient with my innumerable questions and concerns. That was probably a pain in the butt.
Eric Sutton [00:19:02] I’m glad to hear it. I’m sure you had just as many questions as everyone else involved in this complicated process. So, all right, I’m afraid we’re getting toward the end of our time together. But before we part, I definitely want to make sure we talk about the most exciting part of all of this, which is, of course, your actual forgiveness event, the elimination of five- and six-figure dollar amounts of debt. So, I know for our listeners who are early in med school or residency, this is going to be the bright light at the end of the tunnel for them. So, Dr. Ulibarri, since you had the largest amount forgiven in this group, why don’t you go first?
Dr. Ulibarri [00:19:40] Yes, The only benefit of having the largest student debt amount in the group, I would say. Working with my GradFin specialists, through the end of 2021 beginning of 2022, I was getting close that I should have been eligible for forgiveness. But because the servicer wasn’t updating all of those months of payments that should have been counted during the pandemic, I was definitely a little bit uneasy about it. And so we scheduled a call spring of 2022, and my GradFin specialist and I kind of determined that, yeah, I should be ready for eligibility. So she called the servicer. We set up a conference call, and on that call basically had the representative from the servicer go through and verify that, yes, I was eligible for forgiveness. And so, I think it was maybe six weeks or so after that, I got notified from the servicer and it was just like, boom, you know, Almost $417,000 wiped off the books. So, there was a lot more relief probably for me than excitement, but also to steal a little bit from Dr. Scholar. It was, you know, really having a company like GradFin in my corner to ensure that all of that stuff got taken care of and navigated. And, you know, at the end of the day, through all the hurdles, I mean, that last piece and getting the loans forgiven went really, really smooth. And so that was probably the best part of the whole experience for multiple reasons.
Eric Sutton [00:21:30] Cool. I hope you celebrated some had a party or maybe went on a vacation or something.
Dr. Ulibarri [00:21:34] I definitely did.
Eric Sutton [00:21:36] Excellent. Sarah, is that typically what happens when someone reaches that 120 qualifying payment mark? Does the grad fund team will reach out and sort of initiate that conversation with the servicer?
Sarah Flemming [00:21: and 50] Yeah. So, we do still send out celebratory emails once we get the final notice. Once the official forgiveness letters receive, we do a final review behind the scenes just to make sure all the balances add up on our end to our records and confirm that the full forgiveness is received, which is typically the case. From there we send out an email adding up the total forgiveness amount, congratulating them on the huge accomplishment, and we include their financial advisors in that email as well. That’s not only because it’s relevant to their financial plan, but it’s also great because the financial advisor usually keeps us CC’d on their celebratory email as well. But the forgiveness process in the end happens in steps like that, and it can be normal to have that sort of suspected forgiveness before the official letter comes in. And that’s when, yeah, a lot of times we like to just reach out to the servicer, make sure it’s coming, or just the reassurance call with grad fans saying, hey, we see this all the time. It’s coming. Some early indications are that the servicer updates the qualifying payment count to 120 or above. That’s usually your first sign. From there, it’s typically followed by the balance being reduced to zero. And then finally, and this could take a couple of months from that fact, actually, but finally you get that official forgiveness letter.
Eric Sutton [00:22:53] Okay. Good to know those individual steps and that there are steps in that it can take some time. All right. So, Dr. Schlair, what did it feel like for you when you found out you finished your 120 qualifying payments and the rest of your debt was forgiven?
Dr. Schlair [00:23:06] Well, I actually discovered it a little differently in that I was nervously, I guess you could say, regularly checking my servicers website to see that it would go to zero because I heard that’s what would happen. And so I actually did discover it. I think it was even on a Friday afternoon or something like that. And then I ended up emailing someone, at Gradfin that I’d been in contact with regularly who wrote back to me the day later saying, “Congratulations!” And so I was in disbelief, honestly, until I got that congratulations email that Sarah just described. And then when I got it, I was shocked. I was excited. I had this feeling of, Is that really true? And I do think that there were a lot of emotions. There was happiness, there was excitement, but there was also grief and recognition of what I had gone through, the sacrifices I had made, quite frankly, over many, many, many, many years of training and that I had arrived. I want to use that word. But I felt like this feeling of I had arrived. And that’s not a feeling, but it’s a word. But it was like, relief, I guess.
Eric Sutton [00:24:14] Wow.
Dr. Schlair [00:24:15] It was very meaningful.
Eric Sutton [00:24:16] Yeah, that sounds really powerful and and so great that you were able to experience that. That’s fantastic. So, finally, Dr. Fishman, let’s hear let’s hear from you. What was it like for you?
Dr. Fishman [00:24:28] So I was a little bit impatient. It was hard to wait, not knowing what would happen. It was hard to believe that forgiveness was even possible, that it was around the corner. And I received an email from MOHELA on January 20th of this year that all months that had submitted did qualify for PSLF, and GradFin reassured me – because I was still in disbelief that this was actually happening – that the loans were simply waiting for the Department of Education to forgive and discharge the loans.
A few weeks later, on February 15th, I received a letter in the mail from MOHELA that listed an outstanding balance of zero. It blew my mind. I was overjoyed. And in a state of complete disbelief, so grateful to have all of this money – $180,000 plus dollars completely vanish, completely forgiven. Since that day, I have been a walking advertisement for GradFin and the benefits of going through the PSLF process.
Eric Sutton [00:25:43] Hmm. I bet you have. That’s an incredible story. And congratulations to you, too. And also a really, really good note for us to end on today. The spectrum of emotions across the board. I love that. Dr. Schlair, you talked about how there is even some grief or just some gravitas, you know, attached to the fact that you realized just exactly what you had gone through and you sort of arrived at a new chapter in life. And that’s just really awesome to hear. So, thanks to you all for sharing your student loan forgiveness journeys with us today. We’re really grateful you could take some time out of your busy schedules to join us. And Sarah, of course, for stepping away from your busy schedule helping doctors like those here with us today. So, thanks again to each of you for joining us. To close out, Sarah, would you mind sharing for our listeners what they can do if they have PSLF questions and they want to take advantage of our free 30-minute forgiveness consultation?
Sarah Flemming [00:26:40] Yeah. To see if PSLF is the right path for you or what else grad thing can do to help you manage your student loans, book a 30-minute consultation with us and follow the onboarding instructions from there.
Eric Sutton [00:26:52] Excellent. Thank you, Sarah. We’ll be sure to include a link to schedule that free 30-minute consultation and the episode notes Thanks again to everyone here and thank you out there for listening. For more information on student loan forgiveness and repayment options, follow Laurel Road on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and visit us online at https://www.laurelroad.com/student-loan-forgiveness/.
And please stay tuned for the next episode of Financing Ambition.
Schedule a free 30-minute forgiveness consultation with one of our GradFin student loan specialists here.
Only the U.S. Department of Education is able to make a final determination of whether a borrower’s payment history is compliant with federal repayment programs. See student archives for more details. This podcast is produced for information purposes only and is not an offer or solicitation of any product, any views, opinions, findings and conclusions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of Laurel Road or its affiliates. Laurel Road, KeyBank and its affiliates are not providing any financial, economic, legal accounting or tax advice or recommendations in this podcast. The information contained in this recording may not be current, and Laurel Road has no obligation to provide any updates or changes. Neither Laurel Road nor any of its affiliates makes any representation or warranty of any kind as to the accuracy or completeness of the information in this podcast, and expressly disclaims any and all liability around such. Our guests may receive compensation for promoting Laurel Road. Unauthorized use or reproduction of this podcast is expressly prohibited. Loan approval is subject to credit approval and program guidelines. Programs, rates, terms and products vary and are subject to change at any time without notice. Student loans, mortgages, personal loans, and credit cards are not FDIC insured or guaranteed. For more information and disclosures, go to Laurel Road AECOM. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank member FDIC.
This podcast is produced for information purposes only and is not an offer or solicitation of any product. Any views, opinions, findings and conclusions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of Laurel Road or its affiliates. Laurel Road, KeyBank and its affiliates are not providing any financial, economic, legal, accounting or tax advice or recommendations in this podcast. The information contained in this recording may not be current, and Laurel Road has no obligation to provide any updates or changes. Neither Laurel Road nor any of its affiliates makes any representation or warranty, of any kind, as to the accuracy or completeness of the information in this podcast and expressly disclaims any and all liabilities around such.
Our guest(s) have received compensation for promoting Laurel Road. For more information and full disclosures, go to [Laurel Road-dot-com]. Loan approval is subject to credit approval and program guidelines. Programs, rates, terms and products vary and are subject to change at any time without notice. Unauthorized use or reproduction of this podcast is expressly prohibited. Student loans, mortgages, personal loans, and credit cards ARE NOT FDIC INSURED OR GUARANTEED. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank, Member FDIC, Equal Housing Lender and NMLS number 399797.
Get tailored Laurel Road resources delivered to your inbox.