Originally published Aug. 31, 2018, in The Hoya.
A GoFundMe fundraiser for a freshman kicked out of his home due to tension related to his sexuality and for refusing to attend his parents’ church raised over $140,000 to support his Georgetown education, and the university’s financial aid office stepped up efforts to support him.
Seth Owen (SFS ’22), who is gay, planned to attend Georgetown this fall before his Southern Baptist parents presented him with an ultimatum last spring: continue to attend their church, which Owen said regularly preaches against the LGBTQ community, or move out. Owen chose the latter.
“My parents said that’s the church that I’ve chosen—you can attend there or you can move out,” Owen said in an interview with The Hoya. “At one point in the conversation, I knew there was no going back.”
Tensions had been rising between Owen and his parents since his sophomore year of high school, when his father inadvertently discovered Owen’s sexual identity. His parents insisted Owen go through conversion therapy.
“I was put in conversion therapy and it didn’t last that long,” Owen said. “It is very damaging and very depressing.”
A new pastor at the family’s church was the tipping point. Owen strongly opposed the pastor’s anti-LGBTQ and socially conservative message, and presented his concerns to his parents, leading to the ultimatum.
After moving out, the Florida high school valedictorian’s dream to attend Georgetown seemed to dissolve—he had no way to cover his nearly $15,000 in remaining tuition costs based on his expected family contribution.
Owen had filed his FAFSA using his parents’ financial information, assuming that he would have some level of financial support from them throughout college. Georgetown calculated his financial aid award accordingly.
“Georgetown University admits and enrolls students without regard to their financial circumstances and is committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of eligible students through a combination of aid programs that include grants, scholarships, employment and loans from federal, state, private and University resources,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “While we cannot comment on any individual case, we work closely with students whose financial circumstances change after admission to modify financial aid assistance and ensure they can still enroll regardless of their ability to pay.”
But when Owen moved out, his financial circumstances drastically changed. Owen was couch surfing at friends’ homes and working part-time at Publix, a Florida supermarket, while also balancing the school work and extracurricular activities of a typical high school senior.
Owen submitted his change in financial status, appealing his financial aid award in an attempt to gain status as an independent student. The Office of Student Financial Services denied his first request because his parents had voluntarily submitted their financial information and because he did not make enough money at Publix to feasibly be supporting himself independently, Owen said.
Owen then tried to apply for a $20,000 private loan, but without his parents to cosign for him, he did not qualify for the loan. Owen then appealed his financial aid award a second time, providing letters from multiple sources in an attempt to prove that his circumstances were legitimate.
During this process, Owen realized that without an altered financial aid award, he would not be able to attend college at all, even if he went to a different school.
“I was talking to someone from the financial aid office and I remember breaking out in tears on the phone call,” Owen said. “Even staying in-state, I was still not able to afford it.”
In the meantime, Owen’s high school biology teacher, Jane Martin, started a GoFundMe to help meet the gap between his initial financial aid award and the cost of attending Georgetown, which is estimated to be $74,320 for first-year students in 2018-19.
Martin started the GoFundMe in June with an initial goal of $20,000. The GoFundMe quickly went viral, receiving nationwide media attention and raising $141,636 before it was closed to donations.
While the GoFundMe put the Office of Financial Services in the national spotlight, Owen’s second appeal helped him qualify for a Pell Grant, a scholarship through the Georgetown Scholarship Program and an increased unsubsidized loan. He ultimately was able to negotiate an expected family contribution of $0, although he is taking out a sizable amount in federal loans.
“The Office of Student Financial Services was instrumental in helping me enroll in the Georgetown Scholarship Program, whose purpose is to make attendance at Georgetown possible for students in a financial situation similar to my own,” Owen said in a statement initially released on his GoFundMe page. “This program also includes mentoring and networking opportunities which will help me to assist others in situations similar to the one I found myself in earlier this year.”
Owen said that the GoFundMe prompted multiple alumni to reach out to the university, and that he is aware that the university received dozens of media requests. He expressed disappointment that it seemed as if action on his case was delayed until the story went viral.
“My issue was not that my financial aid package be revised. My issue was that there was no action taken until someone reached out on my behalf,” Owen said. “They didn’t do anything until someone spoke up for me.”
However, Owen is now looking forward to beginning his first year at Georgetown after supportive alumni, faculty and staff and other university affiliates reached out.
“I’m extremely excited to attend now,” Owen said. “I’ve had faculty members from Georgetown reach out and offer their support and encouragement.”