The gay valedictorian whose story went viral this summer after he was forced out of his home and couldn’t pay for college made an appearance Monday on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
The Emmy-winning talk show host awarded Seth Owen, 18, now a freshman at Georgetown, $25,000 to add to the college scholarship fund he plans to create for LGBTQ students who, like him, do not have the financial support of their parents.
Owen talked to DeGeneres about how his parents found out about his sexuality and subsequently sent him to a religious “gay conversion therapy” program. So-called conversion therapy is a medically debunked practice that attempts to change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“In my sophomore year of high school, my dad went through my phone and found out that I was gay,” Owen told DeGeneres, who is a lesbian. “So they sent me to conversion therapy, and then after a few months, that ended. The dangerous part about that is, as a patient, I believed that this health care professional was doing what was best for me."
After disagreeing with the teachings of his family’s anti-gay church in February, in the middle of his senior year of high school in Jacksonville, Florida, Owen was forced to move out of his parents’ home. He told DeGeneres he couch surfed with friends for a while and then moved in with his best friend’s family.
A few weeks after leaving his parents' house, Owen said, his dream of attending Georgetown, where he had already been accepted, was put into jeopardy. When his financial aid package arrived, he recalled, it had been determined based on the expected contribution of his family, who would no longer be contributing.
That’s when his former teacher and mentor, Jane Martin, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for his tuition, hoping to, as she put it, “make the impossible possible." Martin's original goal was to raise $20,000, but after news outlets across the country reported on his heart-wrenching story, his fundraising total skyrocketed to more than $140,000.
In early August, much to the delight of Owen, Martin and people across the country who were following the story, Georgetown decided to offer Owen a full scholarship.
“While the campaign has been ongoing, the professionals at the Office of Student Financial Services have continued to work with me to make my dream a reality,” Owen said in a statement sent to NBC News at the time. “Due to their efforts and attention, they were able to adjust my aid package even further, my expected contribution is now $0. With these new adjustments, I will be able to attend Georgetown University this fall.”
Now, Owen is two weeks into his first semester at the prestigious Jesuit university. “It’s amazing. I absolutely love it. I would not want to be anywhere else but Georgetown,” he told DeGeneres.
He also said the Georgetown staff has been “so supportive.”
“Our residential minister actually lives on my floor,” he added. “She told me that she was there to support me, and as someone who's been through something like this with religion, it meant the world to me to hear from a spiritual adviser that they had my back.”
“That's what religion should do,” DeGeneres quickly responded. “It should comfort you and support you for being the person that you are.”
After hearing Owen’s story, including his plans to use the remaining GoFundMe money raised on his behalf to create a scholarship for other students, DeGeneres surprised Owen with a contribution.
“We’re partnering again this year with Cheerios to encourage one million acts of good, and they're inspired by young people like you,” DeGeneres told Owen. “They're going to help you start your scholarship with this check for $25,000.”
“There’s no way!” Owen said to DeGeneres upon hearing about the surprise donation. “Thank you so much.”
Earlier on in the segment, Owen had disclosed to DeGeneres — who came out publicly in 1997 — that she had served as an inspiration to him during some of his hardest times.
“I often had to look up your videos for inspiration,” he said. “There were so many times that you really pulled me through.”