Samantha Mendez volunteered in schools long before she took up the mantle of teaching. For eight years she helped in elementary classrooms in Raton Public Schools.

“I did whatever they needed, whether it was bulletin boards, whether it was working one-on-one with students,” Mendez tells SFR.

Her experience working with students with disabilities—and seeing the demand for special education teachers—pushed Mendez to pursue a career in education.

Seven years later, now with a master’s in education from New Mexico Highlands University, she will finally finish repaying her student loans with the help of a state program designed to help teachers like her.

With the last of her four children heading to college this year, the loan repayment program has had a positive impact on her family’s financial situation.

“It’s money that I’m not having to put out there,” she says. “To support my family, we all know it takes two incomes, pretty much, just to make things work out.”

The Teacher Loan Repayment Program, runs through the New Mexico Higher Education Department and is issuing up to $6,000 a year to pay off student debt for qualifying teachers, working in high-need areas and schools.

As a special education teacher in the rural community of Raton, Mendez fits both qualifying criteria.

In New Mexico 45% of graduates left school with an average of just under $21,000 in student loans, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Mendez could be considered lucky compared to her peers; her student loans only totaled $11,000.

Though the average doesn’t distinguish between those who graduated with a master’s in education and, say, a bachelor’s in business, the longer students spend in higher education, the larger their debt grows. That’s true nationally, where the issue of student debt has become a political and cultural flashpoint.

The national student loan debt hovers just below $1.6 trillion, according to the US Department of Education, borrowed by some 43 million Americans.

Loan forgiveness programs and student debt cancellations have seen recent action elsewhere. South Carolina State University announced earlier this week the use of CARES Act and American Rescue Plan funding to eliminate $9.8 million of student debt for students who are struggling financially. Other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Virginia State University, announced similar plans.

At the national level, President Joe Biden canceled $3 billion of student loans, but federal spending to address this debt was missing from the American Families Plan, which allocates $1.8 trillion for education and family programs. With no widespread cancellation outlined, more targeted efforts will chip away at the massive tab.

The New Mexico Higher Education Department loan repayment program is one of those targeted efforts—teachers working in the state in underserved schools and subjects benefit from the financial support.

The award is open to New Mexico educators with a valid teaching license and three years of experience in the state. Eligible candidates must also work in either a low-performing school or a high-need area, which includes: bilingual education, early childhood education, special education, STEM and career and technical education.

Educators fulfill a two-year service obligation as part of the program to demonstrate commitment to New Mexico’s students. Candidates only have a little over a week left to apply, with minority applicants given preference. The application portal closes Aug. 1.

The higher education agency says some of the individuals who stand to benefit from the program are veteran teachers who went to school before current financial aid programs were in place. Even if a teacher’s schooling predates those financial supports, they can apply and receive repayments if accepted.

And teachers can reapply when their award cycle ends, says higher education spokeswoman Stephanie Montoya.

“It’s not just a one and done,” Montoya tells SFR. “If you are continuing to teach and you continue to fulfill that commitment, then the aid can continue to be available to you.”

The effort to support educators comes in response to a longstanding teacher shortage in the state.

In Santa Fe, the district hosted a hiring fair on Wednesday in an effort to get teachers in the classroom before school starts in early August. Over 70 teachers left the district after the 2020-21 school year, and Santa Fe Public Schools needs to get educators to fill those gaps.

At the beginning of the week, the district advertised 60 teaching vacancies. A number of candidates accepted offers Wednesday, while SFPS hopes to significantly reduce the number of vacancies in the coming days as more potential teachers sign contracts.

A number of financial aid opportunities aim to get more New Mexicans teaching in classrooms. Programs like Grow Your Own Teachers and Teacher Loan-For-Service provide assistance to support aspiring educators. The repayment program is for those who already have debt and want to eliminate those loans.

The loan repayments—this fiscal year’s budget allocated $2 million to the program—doesn’t come close to a fraction of a drop in the national bucket. But the money will relieve a significant burden for some New Mexican educators who are still chipping away at their debt.