Thomas Speta knew his dream college, Sarah Lawrence, was going to be a stretch financially.
“I came from a very middle class family, pretty smack dab down the middle,” Thomas said as he explained how he had his “head in the stars” regarding college tuition. “I was shooting a little above my means, but I knew that it's where I wanted to be.”
Despite an academic scholarship that covered about half the annual cost of college, the expensive flight from his hometown of Calgary, Canada, to New York and the unfortunate Canadian dollar to U.S. dollar exchange rate added up. But it seemed like his parents were going to help close the gap.
“The first year they said ‘This is expensive. We want to do what we can, but we won't be able to pay all of it,’” Thomas said. So as Thomas finished his freshman year heavily involved in theater, he anticipated a similar arrangement for future years. But during that summer before sophomore year, he was out with a friend when his dad texted him: “Don't bother coming home.” His parents had found his collection of drag costumes.
Suddenly, Thomas was on his own, yet paying for school at a rate calculated based on an expected family contribution.
“I spent the year working, I spent the year saving as much as possible. I was looking for scholarships, I was trying to do my best,” he said as he remembered struggling to pay for school.
“My sophomore year I was pretty much in the financial aid office once a week,” he said. “I was getting down to the wire and I was pretty nervous.” He was still $8,000 short of paying off the bill for his sophomore year, and if he didn’t pay it within a specified time period, the college wouldn’t allow him back for his junior year.
More than 40 percent of LGBTQ students who delayed school for financial reasons cite lack of family support as a major factor in unaffordability. Thomas was almost part of that number.
Then a teacher recommended crowdfunding.
Thomas was hesitant at first; part of him didn’t want to ask for money, and besides, too many crowdfunding campaigns seemed frivolous to him.
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“My teacher helped me justify it in my mind,” he said. “Sometimes you need to put your pride aside.”
In April 2015, he posted his campaign.
“When I posted this on Facebook, a lot of my friends were like ‘I didn't know this was happening to you,’” he recalled. “My friends started donating, but they also started sharing it.” (His story even made it into the student newspaper.)
Nearly 200 people donated to the campaign, some with $6, one anonymously with $1,000. The campaign was scheduled to last about two weeks. He reached his goal in two days.
"It was incredible,” Thomas said. “I had such an outpouring of support.”
The money meant Thomas could pay off his remaining bill and come back the next year to a financial aid package that had been adjusted for the disappearance of his parents’ support.
“The next two years both financial aid packages I received...were incredible--it's a $70,000 a year school and I only ended up paying $5,000 for my junior year and $8,000 for my senior year,” he said. “It was one of those schools where you're not just a number on a page.”
He graduated in 2017 and yes, he has student loan debt. But he wouldn’t tell his high school- aged self to go anywhere else.
“I've got the rest of my life to pay off student bills,” he said.