“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.