There are many different ways students go about paying for their education, including applying for loans and scholarships or working jobs throughout high school. But for Omaya Shahata, a freshman majoring in social work, paying for school meant starting a GoFundMe page to raise funds for their Binghamton University tuition.
GoFundMe, a free crowd-sourced fundraising platform, can be used for nearly any cause, according to their website. Shahata’s page features updates on how much funds have been raised, as well as the story of their financial struggles and why they need to raise college tuition funds.
“As a first generation, Egyptian-American coming from a working-class immigrant family who lives paycheck to paycheck, opportunities weren’t often open to me,” Shahata wrote on their page. “I have looked through every avenue that I thought could help me and I was told that even if this whole crowd-funding thing didn’t work out, that I should try anyway because at the end of it all, I’ll be back in Virginia with a whole lot of people telling me that they ‘told me so.’”
In an email, Shahata explained why they decided to create the page and spoke about how BU’s Office of the Ombudsman helped come up with the GoFundMe idea. The University ombudsman’s primary job is to provide confidential and impartial aid to the BU community, as well as act as an advocate for fairness and equality. The ombudsman also aims to help individuals resolve any conflicts or problems they may have surrounding their education.
“I looked at probably dozens of loan options but each time I turned away from them either because I don’t have a credit history or my parents are unable to co-sign,” Shahata wrote. “I got the idea to use GoFundMe through the Ombudsman. She was the last advising resource I went to about my situation and after hearing my story, she went through several ideas on what I could do, one of them being ‘put your story out there.’”
Shahata is not the only student who faces difficulty in paying for their tuition, and the University has a variety of resources available for students in similar situations, such as the TRiO Programs, which provides support and advising to low-income and first-generation students.
Jazmine Powell, a TRiO academic counselor and one of the advisers Shahata spoke with about their situation, wrote in an email that financial constraints are a common issue she helps advise students on.
“When working for a program that provides support to first-generation and low-income students, financial concerns is unfortunately often the norm,” Powell wrote. “If students in our program are faced with financial concerns, we explore all of the available options together.”
But at times, the options students have for financial aid can be limited.
“We first advise [students] to go to the Financial Aid office, as they are the experts and have the most accurate and up to date information available to them, and then we explore other options like private loans and scholarships (although most scholarships deadlines end during the spring semester),” Powell wrote. “We try our best to support students, but sometimes even after exhausting all available resources there is still a financial gap.”
When these financial gaps become too large, students might be forced to leave the institution. According to Shahata’s GoFundMe account, they first started the page when they had six days until they would be forced to leave the University if they were unable to raise the money needed for tuition.
“Right now I am in Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York and I currently have six days until I am getting kicked out,” Shahata wrote on their page on Aug. 30.
With the funds Shahata has currently raised through the GoFundMe page, they were able to go to the BU financial aid office and show they were actively working on collecting the money necessary for tuition. The office then gave Shahata until Oct. 5 to pay off their semester fees, at which point an alternative payment plan will be offered to Shahata if they still cannot pay the full tuition.
Shahata wrote that their specific goal of the GoFundMe page was to establish an online presence so more people would learn about the situation.
“I don’t really use social media … but that got me thinking anyway; I don’t have a presence on any social media but I can make a presence on GoFundMe,” Shahata wrote. “Everyone knows someone and if this was shared enough, then maybe someone … out there would see and help me out.”
Through various shares on social media, other students have learned about Omaya’s financial struggle.
Brooke Grossman, a junior majoring in psychology, said she first read about Shahata’s story when a classmate shared the link to the GoFundMe page on Facebook.
“I saw the page when someone shared it in one of those big Binghamton University chats,” Grossman said. “I know a lot of students have financial struggles and seeing the way it can impact someone enough where they might have to leave the school is a real problem.”
According to Powell, TRiO is working with the University to better help students struggling financially in the future.
“Many students often have to take out private loans, rely on friends and family or unfortunately have to leave the institution if they are unable to come up with sufficient funds,” Powell wrote. “Our director, Steve Rebello, is in conversations with the University to hopefully better help students who are in similar situations.”
Beyond the GoFundMe page, Shahata is currently looking for a work-study job on campus and actively applying to scholarships to help cover the costs of their tuition. They said students facing financial struggles should tell someone before giving up.
“Make someone you trust aware of your situation, whether it be your suite-mate, professor, adviser, or mentor,” Shahata wrote. “There’s always someone you can go to and maybe even someone who’s been in your predicament before.”
As of Sept. 15, Shahata’s GoFundMe page has raised $5,135 of their $9,691 goal. The page has been shared 45 times on social media and 112 people have donated. Shahata intends to keep the page up until the total $9,691 is reached.