Nearly 50 Alabama State University seniors received the surprise of a lifetime when they heard the words “paid in full!”
The soon-to-be graduates, who thought they would not be able to graduate because of financial challenges, were ecstatic to learn in a surprise reveal that their balances to the university were cleared.
The Regions Foundation, a nonprofit initiative of Regions Bank that supports community investments, provided a $250,000 grant to help make it happen. The grant was part of the “Cross the Finish Line” fundraising campaign at ASU, which was also supplemented by donations from alumni. Organizers said the Regions Foundation grant would not only help 2021 graduates, it will also help next year’s senior class.
“We are extremely grateful to the Regions Foundation and to our alumni who met the challenge to help these deserving ASU students,” said Jennifer Anderson, executive director of development and alumni relations at ASU and executive director of the ASU Foundation.
The Big Reveal
To keep the “big reveal” a secret, the event was disguised as a financial education course that was required to help students find ways to pay their debts. Robert Birmingham, Montgomery market executive for Regions Bank, was the speaker.
The unsuspecting students, some of whom joined by Zoom, were stunned when ASU alumni, Regions Foundation representatives and University President Dr. Quinton T. Ross, Jr., joined Birmingham and broke the news of why the meeting had really been called – it was to let students know their spring 2021 remaining balances with the university were all settled, thanks to the fundraising campaign.
It took a moment for the news to set in. Then the cheers erupted. And for some, tears flowed.
Two other Regions representatives, Lajuana Bradford and Angela McKenzie, joined Birmingham in presenting the $250,000 check from the Regions Foundation to ASU.
“Regions Bank and the Regions Foundation have proudly supported Alabama State University for many years. We see ourselves as true community partners and investors in ASU students, faculty and alumni,” said Birmingham. “We are proud to be a longtime supporter of Alabama State. And we are proud to stand together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of students here today and those who follow behind them.”
Ross said the Regions Foundation’s donation shows its continued commitment to help the university “Stay Hornet Strong.”
“First, before I start, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,’” Ross asked the students, who readily responded. “ASU’s mission was to reduce students’ financial stress and to help clear the final hurdle before graduating. I want to thank Mr. Birmingham for helping us to make this such a remarkable day for these deserving students who have benefitted from the generosity of the Regions Foundation and that of the ASU alumni who participated in the ‘Cross the Finish Line’ campaign.”
The average balance of ASU’s spring 2021 graduates is $2,500. Erasing those balances cleared the way for them to walk with their classmates.
Students See a Brighter Future
Prior to the disguised event, five students were being interviewed for a marketing video when they were interrupted by a surprise visit from the Alumni/Regions “Prize Patrol” to let them know their school balances were cleared. All broke down in tears.
Misty Davis was shocked but joyous.
“I didn’t expect to cry; it was a little embarrassing, but I did,” she said. “I expected to go home and nervously wait for the decision from the University about my debt. So, for them to surprise me with the announcement that my $1,000 debt was paid off was emotional. I feel blessed.”
Davis will now enter the University of Maryland to pursue a Master of Social Work degree this fall.
Brandon Colvin, a father of two, was grappling with the realization that he wouldn’t graduate because of unpaid balances. Then he learned his balance was cleared.
“I’m very happy,” said a teary-eyed Colvin. “Life can have hiccups. It’s been a struggle. But knowing that I have the ability now to obtain this degree that I worked so hard for is like a breath of fresh air. I never would have thought that people cared about you and wanted to give back. This year! My God!”
With a cleared debt of $3,999, the 26-year-old is looking to the future.
“I plan to continue to work and take care of my family and continue to be a good citizen,” he said. “But not only that, I’m going to be the alumnus that shows up for everything at ASU. I don’t care if it’s a bake sale. I’ll be there. This institution cares about its students.”
A school balance of $2,268 was keeping Jye’Terrika Hooks from walking across the stage on May 7, but the surprise announcement was a game changer.
“I was speechless. It was emotional, and I cried on camera,” the 25-year-old said. “I want to tell the world that I’m graduating.”
Hooks said students should consider attending an HBCU, especially Alabama State University.
“I know people like to say a lot of things about HBCUs — there’s no funding, no help — but HBCUs provide a stable and nurturing environment and are more important than ever.”
Sisters Candance and Carmen Knight, who will now graduate together, said their stress level has lowered considerably now that they know they will graduate on time.
“We both cried,” said Candace, who just turned 23. “Knowing how hard I’ve been working this past year with my job and with school and trying to make sure everything was ready for graduation — paying rent, trying to help my mom and dad when I could, as well as save up for tuition — knowing that my debt was taken care of was a like a heavy lift taken off my shoulders.”
Her 21-year-old sister, Carmen, agreed.
“We were so stressed out (about) how we were going to pay off these balances to graduate,” Carmen said. “But when I found out it was being paid off, I couldn’t help but cry, and I’m not a crier.”
Both sisters, who are honor students, said their debts totaled more than $2,500.
Dr. Ross encouraged seniors to remember this day as a shining example of the difference they can one day make in the lives of those who follow in their footsteps; he invoked a term used by the ASU family to reference the beloved institution.
“We know we can count on all of you to continue this spirit of paying it forward once you walk across the stage with your degree on May 7,” Ross said. “I’m truly proud of each of you, and I know that you will go on to do great things in the name of O’ Mother Dear.”