Photo: Seth Owen
Everyone loves a story with a happy ending. One of the most heart-warming stories of recent months is that of high school senior Seth Owen. Accepted into Georgetown University – but estranged from his parents because he is gay – Seth was unsure if he could attend college. His biology teacher set up a GoFundMe page and Seth’s story went viral: it was picked up by the media, including landing Seth an appearance on the Ellen Show, and thousands of people donated to help him pay for school. Today Seth is a freshman at Georgetown.
However, Seth is only one of the thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students who face challenges realizing their dreams of pursuing a higher education degree. Student loan debt in the U.S. is now only second to housing debt with students owing almost $1.5 trillion. According to a survey by Student Loan Hero of 11,000 LGBTQ individuals, LGBTQ students accrue $16,000 more debt on average than their heterosexual peers.
For 18 years, Point Foundation has been providing higher education scholarships to LGBTQ students; awarding almost 400 scholarships since 2002. Every day we hear stories from students that echo Seth’s: young people who are rejected by their parents, shunned by their churches, and subjected to bullying at school. Indeed, the Student Loan Hero survey found that only 39 percent of respondents feel completely accepted by their families, and 33 percent report being kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Last year more than 6,000 students who genuinely need help started our application process. Point Foundation currently has the financial resources to support scholarships for 97 students, but we are actively raising funds to help even more LGBTQ young people. Getting to know some of these bright and eager students through personal essays and interviews fuels our desire to be there for them. Just like the family rejection that Seth faced, many of these LGBTQ young people have been told something is wrong with them, that they are a disappointment, and that they will never amount to anything.
Every year I read scholarship applications from LGBTQ students who are surprised to learn that there are people in the world who want to help them get their college education. After so much rejection, the idea of acceptance let alone encouragement is foreign to these young people.
Dawn Betts-Green, a Point Foundation scholarship recipient from a small town in Alabama, is now working toward her Ph.D. at a college in Florida. She is hardly alone in telling us how “empowering” it is to discover that there are people she doesn’t even know who are eager for her to complete her education so that she can “have a chance.”
Point Scholars, left to right (back): Ryder Fox, Tarek Ali, Mel Ferrara, Filipe Gomez (front): Leanne Ho, Lucas Dickerson, Dawn Betts-Green
LGBTQ students like Seth and Dawn are pursuing degrees at all levels of higher education: from community colleges to doctoral programs. Many are first-generation students, people of color, students with disabilities, or caught in the limbo of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Being LGBTQ is only one of their identities. These young people deserve an equitable opportunity to attend college without impediments put in their way because of who they are.
Rather than hoping that the story of every LGBTQ student seeking to go to college attracts national attention and leads to a happy ending, let’s rewrite the all too common plotline where they are held back, and their aspirations debased. We must provide these young people with encouragement and financial support through many more scholarships and greater options for financial aid. Let’s make Seth Owen’s story the last time an LGBTQ student needs a surprise happy ending to be able to pursue a higher education degree.
Jorge Valencia is Executive Director & CEO of Point Foundation. Applications for 2019 Point Foundation Scholarships are accepted online starting Nov. 1, 2018, at www.pointfoundation.org/apply.