From Globetrotter To Desert Dentist: How Ashley Abaie Refinanced Her Undergrad Debt And Saved Over $10K
By Jason Compton, SoFi
In our latest SoFi member spotlight, we celebrate Dentist’s Day by spotlighting member Ashley Abaie. Ashley provides reduced cost dental care to the Native American, underserved, and homeless populations of the Phoenix area.
After withdrawing from her first college she spent years traveling the world, and as a result discovered a passion for healthcare and service. She returned to the U.S., earned a degree in international public health, and then went to dental school.
Ashley spoke with us about how she’s tending to her undergraduate loans, paying off her dental student debt through service, and finding the right work/life balance for her and her young son. Her story drives home how finding the right career can take a lot of soul searching and travel to see how other people live.
Name: K. Ashley Abaie
Locale: Phoenix, AZ
Alma Mater: Arizona State University (BA Global Health), Midwestern University (Doctor of Dental Medicine)
By Day: Dentist
SoFi Member Since: January 2016
SoFi Loan: $60,520
SoFi Savings: $10,523
You have a personal connection with dentistry. What can you tell us about that?
My father is a dentist, and I worked for him quite a bit growing up. I remember being nine years old and developing patient X-rays! Over the years, I did just about everything in that office, including assisting with patients and managing the books.
After less than two years at William and Mary—a school many would be thrilled with—you dropped out. What happened?
I grew up middle-class-ish, and never got out of that bubble where everybody’s basically the same and without any real problems. In my freshman year of college, I went on an alternative spring break to Reynosa, Mexico, where we built a concrete home for squatters who had been living in a cardboard house. The experience totally wrecked my perspective of the world, and forced me to ask myself where I was going and what I was doing with my life. Until that point, I was a French major surrounded by a bunch of upper-middle-class white kids. I had what I call a quarter-life crisis!
How did dropping out set you on the path to a dental career?
When I was 19, I lived in Mexico for nine months and did a lot of translation for doctors and dentists—something I can still do today because I speak five languages. After that, I went to places like West Africa and Ukraine. Traveling gave me the time I needed to figure out what I wanted to do, and what people needed from me.
When I moved back to the U.S., I went to Arizona, where my parents had relocated. After I received my degree in public health from Arizona State University, I planned to go to medical school. But my dad’s dental assistant had a personal crisis, so he asked me to fill in. The first case we worked on together was an 85-year-old man. We had to reshape his whole bottom jaw and give him dentures. It really changed his life.
Working with that patient really hit home for me. While I was traveling, I saw many old and young people in desperate need of good dental care. For example, there are a lot of kids in the world whose teeth are rotting out.
So, two weeks before I was supposed to take the Medical College Admission Test, I took the Dental Admission Test instead. I did really well and got into my first-choice school. Midwestern University put me in front of a lot more patients every day than the average dental school would have, and I didn’t have to do things I already knew how to do from working with my dad, like cleaning instruments and making crowns.
Tell us about the scholarship program you entered to help pay for dental school.
I applied to the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) and received a full tuition scholarship to Midwestern University. The federal government paid for all four years of tuition and fees—that’s about $86,000 per year—so it was really important!
I found out about NHSC just by searching on Google. I considered applying to the Air Force scholarship program, but I knew I wanted to have a family and wouldn’t be able to deal with being a mother and being deployed. School started in August, and I didn’t find out I was awarded the full scholarship until October. The alternative would have meant taking out loans like everybody else.
As part of the terms of the program, I owe four years of public service at a federally qualified health center.
How did your life change after you enrolled in dental school?
I married a guy from Ukraine and my son was born the summer between my first and second year of dental school. The situation was abusive, so I left my husband and went through most of dental school as a single mom. It was rough—I was broke and exhausted. But I graduated in the top 25% of my dental school class.
Tell us about your current job.
I’m a dentist at Native Health, which is funded by both the federal government and the Indian Health Service. We see native and non-native patients—many are immigrants, homeless, or otherwise down on their luck. On an average day I might work with a five-year-old, an 85-year old, and then get a translator on the phone for a patient speaking Swahili. It’s pretty cool!
To meet the NHSC requirement, I only have to work four years at Native Health or another federally qualified health care center, but I wouldn’t mind working there five or 10 years. The patients are kind and appreciative, and it’s a nice place to work. The atmosphere is good, and I get to do what I love and be paid for it at the same time.
Considering your tuition-free dental education, what motivated you to become a SoFi member?
I don’t have dental tuition debt, but I still have undergraduate loans. When I dropped out of William and Mary, I didn’t have enough money to even think about paying back my debt, so I got by on minimum payments and deferments. Then I took on more debt attending ASU. Some of my loans were at 8.7%, and they really racked up a lot of interest while I was in dental school. I also had to survive four years of expenses as a single mom attending school, so I had a lot of childcare and living expenses to deal with as well.
How has being a SoFi member impacted your life?
I consolidated and refinanced my loans, so my interest rate is now is just 5.7%, which is over 1% lower than my average rate before, and the repayment term is three years shorter. Paying less interest helps me get out of debt faster, and allows me to save for the future. Working full-time as a single mom is hard—it just is, there’s no way around that. But I do my best, I love my kid, and we spend a lot of time together.
What are your financial goals for the near future?
I want to be completely out of debt by time my four-year NHSC commitment is up. Then I would love to buy a house and travel with my son. I want him to do awesome things and experience the world. We just took a long weekend trip to the giant redwoods in Northern California. Experiences like that are priceless.
Do you see yourself entering private practice at any point?
I don’t want to do anything other than work in public health. Private practice would probably be more lucrative financially, but that’s not why I went to dental school. I want the freedom to take care of the people who need it most.
Whether your debt is from a decade-ago false start in undergrad or a fresh graduate degree, SoFi can help you reduce your payments and focus on saving for the next phase of your life. Check your rate for student loan refinancing.