“It was so crazy. I was freaking out.”

That was Toneva’s reaction when she got a call from EMPath asking if she wanted to meet with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. Rep. Pressley was looking to speak with constituents about their experiences with student loan debt and abusive debt collection practices. Toneva and Rep. Pressley met on October 8, 2019.

“I talked to her about companies having a moral responsibility and how we can make [collection] agencies accountable to us as borrowers,” Toneva explains.

The meeting took place about a year and a half after Toneva first enrolled in EMPath’s MassLEAP program in February 2018. At that time, she was working part-time and thinking about next steps. She had previously held a job in the financial world doing debt securities, but left because the environment felt toxic and she didn’t feel good making money off others’ debt.

“I was itching the entire time, like something’s not right,” she says. “My moral compass was off.”

During this transition period, a flier advertising a coaching program caught her eye. She enrolled in MassLEAP and began working with her mentor.

While in the program, Toneva began monitoring her expenses. “[I started] sitting down and writing down all my finances no matter how much in the red I was. Even if I wasn’t in a position to get something done, at least acknowledging ‘this is where I am’ was huge. I didn’t want finances to have me at my throat anymore.” That also opened the door for her to have conversations about money with her daughter, now eight.

With her mentor’s support and the support of lawyers at NCLC, Toneva set up a payment plan for her student loans, which she had avoided for years due to the traumatic memories it triggered.

In fact, tackling any topic related to education was a big accomplishment.

“Because of my student loans, I had trashed all my educational goals. I literally told myself, ‘I can never go back to any of those goals. I’m not worth it.’”

“When it came time to sit down with my mentor, I could not have a conversation about it. In my mind, I had to go back to the last time I talked about education – when I had just had my daughter and was getting all these calls from Sallie Mae and collection agencies demanding their money. By that time, I was in shelter, then in temporary transitional housing. So with education came all these thoughts [of that time].”

“I thought I was supposed to better myself post-grad, but that’s not what happened at all. I feel like I was bamboozled. It was like, why ever go back to education, even though I love learning? So even talking about educational goals was huge for me.

Toneva also completed her goal of taking an online EdX class about how to communicate effectively across differences.

“The class talked about micro-affirmations, which was huge for me, especially coming from a work environment with a lot of microaggressions.” Micro-affirmations, Toneva explains, are small acknowledgments of a person’s value and accomplishments. “I was glad to put a name to it, ‘cause for a while I was like, why am I not feeling valued at my place of work?”

While in MassLEAP, Toneva joined the Voices Advocacy Council (VAC) and began advocating at the MA State House on issues of homelessness, student loan debt, SNAP benefits, and more. The VAC empowered Toneva to flex her advocacy muscles and fight for justice for families across Massachusetts, including her own. Today, she continues to be an active member of the VAC as well as EMPath’s Story Sharing Network, where she shares her life experiences with various audiences.

The culmination of Toneva’s tenacious advocacy came in early 2022. Thanks to years of persistence, assistance from NCLC’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Program, and meetings with countless legislators and public officials (in addition to Rep. Pressley, Toneva met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Ed Markey, and members of President Biden’s cabinet), all $55,000 of Toneva’s student debt was cancelled due to predatory lending practices. This massive win is life-changing for Toneva and her family. “It’s spaces like the VAC that helped me become such a strong advocate. This couldn’t have happened without supportive people around me,” she shares.

Toneva also says EMPath’s coaching approach and emphasis on goal setting helped her regain her sense of self-worth. “The biggest issue coming into EMPath was having a huge lack of trust,” she explains. “I just felt like another number. To feel that is absolutely devastating. You just feel like, I’m never going to be able to pull myself out of this.”

“My mentors were very supportive, but what I had to realize is, if I’m not in the driver’s seat, forget about it. [My mentor] Megan could talk to me until she’s blue in the face, but I’m very good at ignoring and isolating because I practiced it for a very long time. When you finally come out of that stage, you’re like, ‘I’m still here, there’s still hope for me to turn this around.’”

“That’s what really came alive for me at the end of MassLEAP. I was just like, ‘Megan is ready, but are you?’”

Today, Toneva continues to budget, track her expenses, and pay off her student loans. She graduated from MassLEAP in August 2019 and is now enrolled in EMPath’s flagship program. Toneva works at a nonprofit supporting clients who have previously experienced homelessness to become homeowners – through 1:1 mentoring. She to hopes to find a meaningful full-time job outside the corporate world “doing something for the disenfranchised.”

“I function better with meaningful work,” she explains. “[In the corporate world], aggressions at work were trickling through to the home. I said, I do NOT want this. Yes, I’m making money, but how much more ahead am I really getting if I’m bringing home all this anxiety and anger? When it’s all said and done, my daughter’s not gonna be like, ‘I wish mommy worked more.’”

Toneva admires EMPath’s coaching model. “I think EMPath really gets it. Understanding poverty from a personal perspective and going into the science and stressors of it, then building a model from that – yes.”

Toneva says EMPath made her feel empowered and “completely supported.”

“As I was talking about Ayanna being part of ‘The Squad,’ I realized, everybody got a squad. Megan, Chelsea, Persis [from NCLC], other EMPath staff – all these folks are part of my squad,” she shares. “Everybody needs somebody. We weren’t made to do it alone.”

A collage of four photos: Two of them show Mikeya smiling and looking at the camera with her two sons; one of them shows Mikeya in front of some reeds with her younger son (a toddler); the final photo shows her lovingly touching her older son's cheek.

Mikeya's Story

“I still live a full and chaotic life, but it’s really organized, and I think having my vision for what I want to do long-term helped me set my goals and makes me look at it different. I don’t feel overwhelmed or stressed about it.”