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Student turns to GoFundMe to finance Vanderbilt tuition - The Vanderbilt Hustler: Student-turns-to-gofundme-to-finance-vanderbilt-tuition

Cassie Wessely

Student turns to GoFundMe to finance Vanderbilt tuition

Says university did not meet financial need, despite tragic circumstances

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GoFundMe is is a crowdfunding platform that allows people to raise money for events ranging from life events such as celebrations and graduations to challenging circumstances like accidents and illnesses.

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2014 12:00 pm

“Please help me stay at Vanderbilt,” Cassie Wessely’s GoFundMe page asks of visitors. The rising sophomore says that she will no longer receive adequate financial aid from the university as a result of recent tragic family circumstances. Consequently, she turned to the crowdfunding website in a “last ditch” effort to continue her education at Vanderbilt.

“After everything I had worked for, I was not about to give up on Vanderbilt without doing whatever I could do to make it work,” she said.

According to Wessely, her mother took her own life weeks before the start of her first year and her father is currently jobless, both factors contributing to her inability to pay for her 2014-15 tuition fees — or to receive financial aid from the university. While this may seem at odds with Vanderbilt’s commitment to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need, Wessely’s situation is unique.

Wessely explained that her mother, who was unemployed, had residential custody over her when she was first accepted to Vanderbilt and received her first financial aid award in the form of a need-based grant. Under her father’s custody in the following year, however, Wessely’s financial aid grant dramatically decreased. The new grant was based on the past year, during which her father was employed.

“We calculated everything after factoring in what I personally would be able to contribute from working, as well as what my parents would be able to contribute,” Wessely said. “After we played with numbers and loans and everything like that, we came up with about $25,000 left that still had to be found and there was so little time to make it happen.”

Since 2009, Vanderbilt, through the Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative, has vowed to meet 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of undergraduates who are admitted to the university — with no loans. The amount a student receives is based on numbers derived from his or her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) file, College Board’s CSS Profile and consideration of additional factors.

According to Wessely, she included the information regarding her circumstances in both her FAFSA and CSS Profile applications.

Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions, said that federal law and university policy prohibit specifics of individual student financial aid eligibility and rewards to be disclosed without the expressed consent of the student. He also, however, assured that Vanderbilt is committed to making Vanderbilt affordable for every student.

We have been made aware of the student’s online initiative and are reaching out to her to determine to what extent her financial situation might have changed,” he said in a statement to The Hustler. “We invite students and/or their parents to inform us of unique circumstances which impact a family’s financial circumstances.”

Some have raised questions as to why Wessely's change in circumstances would not have also resulted in a corresponding change in financial aid, given the Financial Aid Office’s consideration of “additional factors” when determining the final financial aid package.

“How is it that not having a parent to depend on makes somebody's Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) rise to 100 percent of the total cost of attendance?” one student asked.

Christiansen, however, insists that Vanderbilt is dedicated to meeting the needs of every student.

“Making a Vanderbilt education possible for students regardless of their economic circumstances is a top priority for the university,” he said.

Wessely said she attempted to directly contact the Financial Aid Office last week after being notified of her award, but received no response at the time. It was then that she decided to turn to GoFundMe.

“I was absolutely devastated at the possibility that I might not be able to attend Vanderbilt in the fall,” she said.

It remains unclear as to whether Vanderbilt will adjust Wessely’s grant. However, following her successful GoFundMe campaign, it appears that Wessely will be able to stay at Vanderbilt regardless. She said she is thrilled to be able to finance her tuition for the 2014-15 school year.

“I will be able to stay at the school of my dreams and I couldn't begin to tell you how much it means to me,” she said.

Her online campaign opened on July 5, and by Thursday afternoon, more than 800 donors had contributed over $38,000 to her campaign — far beyond her original $25,000 goal. Her account continues to grow as more donations come in. As of noon on Thursday, her campaign had accumulated $38,935.

“I’m praying daily for a miracle,” concluded her original GoFundMe request, which was featured as at the top “popular now” on the website’s homepage for over a day. It seems that miracle has been granted.

“It was just a last chance effort that I had never imagined would turn into what it turned into. Yesterday was such a rollercoaster of emotions and I was just so overwhelmed with gratitude, disbelief and happiness at what was happening,” she said to The Hustler. “After witnessing the power of the Vandy community, I am so blessed and proud to be able to say that I am able to continue to be a part of it.”

Wessely was also clear that she has no hard feelings toward the university.

“I just want to make sure that you know I'm not trying to paint Vanderbilt financial aid in a bad light,” she said.

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  • tj houlihan Houlihan posted at 8:55 am on Fri, Jul 11, 2014.

    Gameday Posts: 2

    Keep your chin-up Cassie. Those of us, who are giving, give with our eyes wide open. For those pointing to Cassie's decision to pursue crowd funding instead of (or prior to) the financial aid "appeals process" and or "Vandy's commitment to making Vanderbilt affordable for every student". Cassie might not have been aware of these options, and there are no guarantees that they would've provided everything that she needed or been timely enough. Cassie pursued a very innovative option that was successful, yet left her open to the judgment and criticism many narrow minded and naive people. Cassie, keep thinking outside the box and don’t let others shape your perception. Anchor Down.

    Vanderbilt MS 1993, MBA 2000

  • Ava Akcerson posted at 3:35 am on Fri, Jul 11, 2014.

    Ackersonlip Posts: 1

    In the future, I hope The Hustler does a better job researching for their articles. In an article about financial aid in the context of having one parent not work, why is there no mention of the appeals process? Vanderbilt financial aid doesn't WANT to lose any Vanderbilt students - partially for altruistic reasons, but also because losing students is bad PR and no school wants a high attrition rate. I have had friends go through the appeals process for financial aid. I thought about going through it myself. Please make a note to try to make this article as complete and well-informed as possible by mentioning there is an appeals process.

    It might do well to contact Cassie as well. It seems that she was unaware of the appeals process, which got this entire thing started. Now, this definitely isn't a hit on Cassie or the Vandy financial aid system...but it's amazing what lack of information and miscommunications can cause.

    Vanderbilt financial aid is certainly backed into a corner on this one. The PR is already against them. Likely, with the appeals process, Cassie would have gotten the aid she needed. Now, I imagine she will most certainly get the aid she needed, given how this entire thing is blowing up. Unfortunately, that does leave the question of the 40k and where it should go. If Vanderbilt wants to be technical, they should cut the financial aid they would have originally given her (through an appeals process) down because she has a surplus of money. If Vanderbilt wants to be altruistic (and more to the point - if Vandy wants to save face in terms of PR), they will give her a wonderful package. It's not a choice I envy though.

  • Cheryl Wessely posted at 4:26 pm on Thu, Jul 10, 2014.

    theStepMom Posts: 1

    Her financial aid was based upon her custodial parent's income. We were shocked that we did not need to contribute last year as they could tell that her father made decent money by the child support her custodial mother included in her income. Since we had minimal tuition to pay, we paid for all her travel and incidental expenses. We also paid to have her horse get boarded near her as she needed the solace of her horse.

    The death of her Mom was devastating. She was the one to find her. Throughout her high school years this child had to deal with her mother's physical and mental illnesses, and despite that stayed number 1 in her class until her 7th semester, then graduated 3rd. She is an amazingly hard working and christian girl. Despite her emotional turmoil she still wanted to go to the college of her dreams on schedule.

    I don't think our household income will qualify her for any financial aid (we are now the custodial). We suggested she transfer to a public school where her contribution from work, a student loan, her college fund and what we could further contribute would be easy. Because she was so sad it took a long time for her to meld into the vandy community. Near the end of the school year so many reached out and embraced her that we saw the Cassie we knew coming back. We didn't want her to have to change schools after making so much progress. But with my husband losing his job, and not knowing if he will be employed the next year, we thought it was the best idea. We will not be able to support our family on my income alone.

    Cassie accepted that but thought appealing for help through GoFundMe was worth a shot. We are amazed and grateful for the response. And yes, she has exceeded her goal and the extra will be set aside for next year's tuition. If any of you speaking negatively knew this young lady at all, then you would be not be insinuating the these things. There are no new cars in her future, and all of us will be paying it forward hands down. Vandy has definitely won our commitment.

    Here is her Mom's death notice if someone needs the "proof" that she lost her Mom.

  • Vanderbilt Student posted at 1:26 pm on Thu, Jul 10, 2014.

    VandyVan101 Posts: 5

    While the support from the Vandy community has been fantastic and a joy to see, this whole issue is pretty silly. The fact of the matter is, when a parent loses a job, Vanderbilt will adjust your financial aid to account for the change in income. When my mother lost her job, I contacted my financial aid adviser. She asked for documentation about unemployment benefits and an estimate of our yearly income. A week later, I had an additional $20,000 in need-based aid. It sounds like this student was not aware of this appeals process. I'm sure Vandy will cover most of her costs.