University of Hawai‘i-West Oahu

Associate Professor of Community Health, Dr. Camonia Graham-Tutt, CHES

Gets $272,000 in Student Loans Erased through

Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

It pays to be a UHPA member! Dr. Camonia Graham-Tutt received valuable information and assistance from the special information sessions, offered as an exclusive benefit to UHPA members. The sessions were offered by UHPA, through a partnership with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) last year. Even though loan forgiveness falls outside the scope of services offered by a union, UHPA recognized it could help improve the quality of life for faculty. As Dr. Graham-Tutt’s story shows, loan forgiveness is like receiving a huge wage increase, or winning the lottery! 

Dr. Camonia Graham-Tutt, a University of Hawai‘i-West O‘ahu community health professor, has a noticeable pep in her walk these days now that a huge financial burden has been lifted off her shoulders. Her outstanding student debt totaling $271,785.49 has been zeroed out, thanks to the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

“This is my golden ticket,” she said, proudly holding up her official letter dated January 2, 2023, documenting the cancellation of her debt. “This is such a blessing.”

Dr. Graham-Tutt said she can now focus on “balancing life” by investing in her daughter’s education and well-being, planning for her retirement, and giving more to the community health scholarship fund she started to support for UH-West O‘ahu students who need help with covering the costs of tuition and textbooks for their courses. 

Unshackled from Student Debt

Gone are the days when Dr. Graham-Tutt had to set aside funds for loan repayments for tuition and living expenses incurred when she was earning her master’s degree in health science education at Baylor University, a private research university in Waco, Texas, and a doctorate degree in medical sociology from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Before that liberating day, she had been diligently striving to lower the amount she owed. Ever resourceful, Dr. Graham-Tutt brought down her debt by a few thousand dollars by serving as a volunteer at health clinics in Kailua and Waimanalo through the AmeriCorps/VISTA program, which provides loan forgiveness in exchange for serving those in underserved communities.

“The loan forgiveness could not have happened to a more deserving faculty member,” said Christian Fern, University of Hawaii Professional Assembly executive director. “Dr. Graham-Tutt has given so much to her students and to Hawai‘i.”

Serving the Local Community

Dr. Graham-Tutt originally had aspirations of being a pediatrician, but knew she could also make an impact through the field of community health as a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES), focusing on the social determinants of health — all of the factors that affect a person’s whole health to improve health equity. She has successfully designed and implemented sustainable community health education programs that deliver positive benefits to vulnerable communities.

Stepping Forward in the Midst of the Pandemic

During the pandemic, after successfully completing certification programs in contact tracing from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University, Dr. Graham-Tutt participated in a contact tracing program in Hawai‘i. She was a part of the efforts to educate roughly 159 individuals, including those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, had retired or were working with organizations in need of contact tracer education. She helped to equip them with knowledge on the basics of community health and epidemiology to prepare them to reach out to those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. The sessions were all taught by Zoom in the evenings, during the day, and on weekends to best accommodate people’s schedules over the course of a year.

“There were several aha moments when we realized that we had to quickly pivot and tailor our courses to suit an array of learning styles, ethnic groups and cultures. It was truly a humbling experience to teach so many of our community members simply wanting to be a part of the solution.”

Before her current position with UH-West O‘ahu, Dr. Graham-Tutt served as a postdoctoral fellow and researcher at the University of Hawai’i Cancer Center; a faculty fellow at the University of Texas Arlington, Arlington, Texas; and a research assistant for the  Black Women’s Health Imperative in Washington, D.C.

Early Influences

Dr. Graham-Tutt, born in Texas, grew up in a “home where education was always pushed.”  Her parents both received undergraduate degrees; however, they would often share: “You need to do better than us.” Dr. Graham-Tutt took their advice to heart and pursued a master’s degree and then her doctorate degree.  

Good Mentors and Friends

Dr. Florence B. Bonner, Professor Emeritus, past VP of Research and Compliance and chair of the Department of Sociology at Howard University, took Dr. Graham-Tutt under her wings, putting her in touch with organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and many nonprofit organizations.

“Dr. Bonner nudged me and gave me so many life-changing experiences. We were so close as mentor and mentee that people would think we were mother and daughter,” Dr. Graham-Tutt laughed, noting that the two have stayed in touch for the past 20 years and that even her parents have met with this mentor at her house as friends.

Doing the Same for Students

Dr. Graham-Tutt, or Dr. C., as she is affectionately known by her students, knows the power of having appropriate role models and she strives to give her students the same kind of positive experiences that she had as a student. Dr. C. will seek role models with similar cultures and backgrounds for her West O‘ahu students to emulate. She introduced the Student Research and Creative Works Symposium at UH-West O‘ahu to give students the same support she received as a student to help them achieve their research goals. 

The Story Behind the Story

The loan forgiveness program has definitely opened doors to a new life for those who worked for a government institution for at least 10 years. However, public servants may not have realized that this concession was made possible as a result of a lawsuit filed by Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member-American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union, against Besty DeVos, who had been serving as secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. The legal complaint was based on the U.S.’s failure to keep its promise to students about forgiving their loans after 10 years of public service.

Weingarten prevailed and the Biden administration was intent on implementing the program. (DevVos resigned from her position the day after the pro-Trump mob stormed the White House to attempt to stop Congress’ certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. She publicly denounced former President Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection violence.)

To ensure all public universities were aware of the benefits and eligibility requirements of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, AFT reached out to UHPA last year to partner together to host a series of informational sessions about the program for UH faculty.

Dr. Graham-Tutt was one of the first to sign up and attend the informational session held at UH West O’ahu. Dr. Graham-Tutt filled out the simple form and hoped for the best. To her surprise, she was notified a week later —with the good news about her loan.  She cautiously held off from celebrating until she received her official notification in writing at the beginning of this year.

Could Your Lucky Day Be on the Horizon?

For UHPA members who have missed out on the October 31st PSLF Limited Waiver deadline, there’s still more time to apply. Some provisions under the waiver have been extended through July 2023! Plus, it’s even better than before — now past payments on Parent PLUS loans are eligible to be counted under the waiver!

UHPA, in collaboration with AFT, offers a student loan benefit through a free and secure online platform called Summer for UHPA members who have not yet taken advantage of this opportunity.  The program helps you manage your student loan debt with simple tools and a dedicated team of experts who are ready to offer support.

Summer specializes in helping employees earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) with complete coverage, from checking eligibility to submitting necessary forms online. It also assists you with yearly recertification after enrollment to ensure all requirements are met.

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