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March 25, 2013

The New Change Agents


Photo Credit: Jeff Riedel

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CAUSE: Reducing student loan debt

TWITTER: @SallieMaehem

AUDIENCE: 171,135-plus petition signatures

IMPACT: Sallie Mae changed its forbearance fee policy for struggling graduates.

Backstory: In May 2011, Stefanie Gray graduated from Hunter College with a master's degree in geography—and $130,000 in debt administered by Sallie Mae, the nation's largest private issuer of student loans. Eight months later, Gray still hadn't found a job, but she owed $700 a month (with 9.75 percent interest) toward her three 20-year loans. When Gray asked for an extension, Sallie Mae said she could temporarily suspend her payments—if she paid another $150 every three months, a $50-per-loan forbearance fee. "I panicked," recalls Gray. "I had no way to avoid defaulting."

Action plan: Gray started a petition on change.org in October 2011 urging Sallie Mae to drop forbearance fees. She started a Tumblr called Occupy Student Debt, featuring recent graduates holding signs with the value of their student debt, and she promoted her campaign on Twitter.

Results: After change.org sent her petition directly to its 20 million users, 20,000 people signed in one day—and the signatures kept coming. In January 2012, change.org brought Gray to Washington, D.C., where she dropped off her petition at Sallie Mae's office during a press conference while wearing a cap and gown. Within hours, Sallie Mae announced a policy change—it would still charge the forbearance fee but apply it to a lender's loan balance. "My campaign worked because I provided a face to an issue that's mostly about numbers," says Gray.

Today: Gray hopes Sallie Mae will drop the forbearance fee altogether but is focusing her efforts on looking for a job.

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