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Attacking 2 problems with 1 job

Everything was supposed to go smoothly.

A college education. A job. An easy path to paying off $10,000 in student loans.

But things didn't go as planned for Deborah Benigni of Bradenton, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a broadcasting degree in May 1991.

She stacked up 70 or so rejection letters looking for a job. She worked for free, trying to get her foot in the door in public relations and marketing. She worked for minimum wage at the mall. She finally managed to get a part-time job at a small advertising agency in Bradenton.

Meanwhile, the government was calling: Remember all those loans you got for college? Time to start paying them back.

Benigni was able to get a temporary deferment on paying back the loans. But she also began thinking about changing the system for other recent college graduates in her shoes _ jobless, disillusioned and saddled with student loans.

"In the '80s, college graduates immediately walked into big jobs and we just assumedthat when we came out that was going to continue," said Benigni. "It didn't."

Rather than feeling sorry for herself, she got to work.

Benigni decided to propose an alternative plan for paying off student loans and she has been writing to Florida lawmakers, other state officials, representatives in Washington, D.C. _ even the White House.

Her plan combines President Bill Clinton's proposals for encouraging young people to pay for education or repay student loans through public service, and her concerns about the national parks system, which has been burdened by budget problems, lack of adequate staff and poor pay and training for employees.

"It just clicked: Why not take two areas having problems (the parks and unemployed graduates) and use them to solve each other," said Benigni.

Her proposal: The "New American Park Service Auxiliary Corps," NAPSAC for short. NAPSAC would allow college graduates to pay back their loans by working in one of the country's national parks.

Under the program, graduates would enlist in the corps and agree to pay back their loans, as well as the interest that would accrue over 10 years, through service at a national park.

NAPSAC would immediately pay back the principal, to a maximum of $5,000, but would keep the interest and use it to run the program.

The enlistees would receive basic federal government medical coverage; group housing; uniforms; use of park service vehicles for transportation to and from work, and a $100 a week tax-exempt stipend to cover food and expenses.

The minimum cost of the program per participant would be about $15,000 a year, which Benigni says is less than what first-year rangers and many other parks staffers earn.

The advantages would be many, she says. Among them: The National Parks system would receive additional ranger staff and increase the visitor-to-ranger ratio, and the NAPSAC program would help decrease the number of defaults on student loans.

Benigni has gotten lots of encouragement and nice letters about her proposal, including one from Vice President Al Gore.

"You have raised a very interesting issue, and I agree that it merits thorough consideration," Gore wrote. "As I work with the President to pursue goals of particular importance to the American people, I know that I will benefit from your views."

Benigni says she'd like to go from encouragement to action on her proposal. That hasn't happened.

Larry Arnold, director of Florida's Office of Student Financial Assistance, said he isn't sure a program like Benigni's would change things dramatically.

"You're still going to have defaulters out there," he said. The loan default rate has remained fairly steady because of better collection efforts and other changes, Arnold said. The national default rate is about 13 percent or 14 percent now, and Florida's default rate is similar, Arnold said.

He said he has seen surveys that indicate many graduates would not want to participate in a pay-back program that involves public service. "The expectation of those that will work would be about 10 percent of total borrowers," Arnold said.

Benigni acknowledges that working in a national park wouldn't be for everyone.

But a desperate, unemployed college graduate might consider it.

"I've talked to a number of people in this situation, and when your options are a national park or McDonald's, what would you choose?" Benigni said.

"I worked in a mall for four months and it drove me nuts. I'd sooner be out in the woods somewhere. Bears are sometimes easier to deal with than people."

Benigni acknowledged her proposal will need some fine-tuning, but meanwhile she'll continue pushing it with anyone who will listen. She recently sent a copy to Ross Perot.

"Whoever it takes to get it out there, we're going to try it," she said.