Va. church wipes debt for Howard stu­dents

34 se­niors at uni­ver­sity ben­e­fit from $100,000 raised by con­gre­ga­tion

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY MOR­GAN SMITH

Mya Thomp­son doesn’t get much sleep.

The 25-year-old se­nior is en­rolled in seven classes at Howard Uni­ver­sity. Some days, she has class from 10 a.m. un­til 7 p.m., with only enough time to pick up her 6-year-old son, Ma’Khi, from school and to eat be­fore her overnight shift as a dis­patcher for D.C. 911 emer­gency ser­vices. She has to choose be­tween eat­ing, sleep­ing or study­ing dur­ing her lim­ited breaks.

Thomp­son ar­rives home be­fore dawn — 5 a.m., maybe 6 a.m., de­pend­ing on how busy work is — and sleeps for a few hours be­fore re­peat­ing the rou­tine.

To add to her stress, Thomp­son was in dan­ger of not grad­u­at­ing. She owed about $2,500 to Howard in tu­ition, and she didn’t know how she would be able to pay that debt.

But last week, a small mir­a­cle — an enor­mous act of kind­ness — hap­pened.

Al­fred Street Bap­tist Church in Alexan­dria de­cided to clear the debt of 34 Howard stu­dents, in­clud­ing Thomp­son. The uni­ver­sity chose full-time stu­dents with a grade-point av­er­age of 2.0 or higher who demon­strated sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial need, with bal­ances from $100 to more than $3,000, said Crys­tal Brown, Howard’s vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Dur­ing a 30-day fast that in­volved lim­it­ing con­sump­tion of food, so­cial me­dia and money, church mem­bers were asked to ab­stain from un­nec­es­sary pur­chases and, at the end of the month, con­sider do­nat­ing the money they had saved to a char­i­ta­ble cause.

Par­tic­i­pants did not know the cause that would ben­e­fit from their gen­eros­ity, but church lead­ers promised to pick a wor­thy re­cip­i­ent. The Rev. Marc Lavarin said the idea of do­nat­ing to Howard — among the na­tion’s lead­ing his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, known as HBCUs — came to him dur­ing prayer.

“I thought, ‘What bet­ter way to cel­e­brate Black His­tory Month than in­vest­ing in the young, black heroes of HBCUs?’ ” he said.

Al­fred Street Bap­tist Church has a long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with HBCUs. About 60 per­cent of its con­gre­gants at­tended an HBCU, and the church hosts a fes­ti­val for prospec­tive HBCU stu­dents each year.

In ad­di­tion to the gift to Howard, the church do­nated $50,000 to Ben­nett Col­lege in North Carolina, one of two re­main­ing women-only his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. The school was in dan­ger of los­ing ac­cred­i­ta­tion.

More than 4,000 par­ish mem­bers con­trib­uted to the $100,000 given to erase the debts of Howard se­niors. On Jan. 31, the stu­dents re­ceived an email from the Of­fice of Fi­nan­cial Aid say­ing a “spe­cial fi­nan­cial aid op­por­tu­nity” awaited them. Stu­dents had to re­port to the In­ter­dis­ci­plinary Re­search Build­ing on cam­pus to claim their prize.

Stu­dio lights and a cam­era crew met them. Al­fred Street Bap­tist min­is­ters and staff joined the Of­fice of Fi­nan­cial Aid to sur­prise the se­niors, and made a video of stu­dents’ re­ac­tions to show the con­gre­ga­tion.

Per­rye Rollins, a 22-year-old Howard se­nior who re­ceived $8,000 from the church, said she is still in shock and feel­ing grate­ful.

“Now, I can fo­cus on school, my goal is to earn a 4.0 for this se­mes­ter, and with this gift I can now put all my en­ergy to­ward that goal and not worry about pay­ing bills to grad­u­ate,” she said. Rollins has re­lied on fi­nan­cial aid and as­sis­tance from fam­ily and friends to pay her tu­ition, but “there’s al­ways a gap” be­tween the aid she re­ceives and what she owes the uni­ver­sity, she said.

Mil­lions of stu­dents strug­gle with debt in the United States. Ac­cord­ing to the per­sonal fi­nance web­site Make Le­mon­ade, more than 44 mil­lion bor­row­ers col­lec­tively owe $1.5 tril­lion in stu­dent loan debt in the United States.

At Howard Uni­ver­sity, about 95 per­cent of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion — which to­tals 8,616 — re­ceives fi­nan­cial aid. Pay­ing the $24,966 yearly un­der­grad­u­ate tu­ition is a “big is­sue for a lot of our stu­dents,” Rollins said.

Thomp­son said she is re­lieved and hum­bled by Al­fred Street Bap­tist’s gen­eros­ity.

“They have lifted a huge weight off of my shoul­ders,” she said.

The Rev. Howard-John Wes­ley, the church’s pas­tor, said he hopes the gift in­spires other churches to con­trib­ute to their lo­cal HBCUs — through fi­nan­cial dona­tions, jobs or men­tor­ship.

“We’re blessed, and we be­lieve when you’re blessed you should be a bless­ing to oth­ers,” Wes­ley said. “These 34 stu­dents are go­ing to change the world, and we’re just glad to be part of their ré­sumé.”

EVE­LYN HOCKSTEIN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mya Thomp­son, 25, is a se­nior at Howard Uni­ver­sity and one of 34 re­cip­i­ents of a $100,000 do­na­tion from Al­fred Street Bap­tist Church. “What bet­ter way to cel­e­brate Black His­tory Month than in­vest­ing in the young, black heroes of HBCUs,” one church leader said.

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