Rejected by parents, gay valedictorian is going to college, with $50K from donors
With no financial support from his parents, Seth Owen thought he'd have to give up his college dream. Then his mentor helped "make the impossible possible."
By Alexander Kacala
Seth Owen, 18, said attending college has always been his “life goal,” one he has been working on diligently since elementary school.
“I was the nerd in fifth grade who walked around recess talking about how I wanted to be an astronaut,” Owen told NBC News. “I was always in a textbook, always in the library, always reading something.”
With a 4.61 GPA and an acceptance letter from Georgetown University, it seemed like the high school valedictorian’s dream would become a reality. But when he received his financial aid package from the prestigious school, a different reality set in: The financial aid package had been determined based on the expected contribution of his family, a family he said drove him out of his home due to his sexuality.
“I started to cry, because I realized there was no way that I could go to college,” he said. “Georgetown was my only option, because I had already denied my other acceptances.”
With Georgetown refusing to amend his financial aid package and $20,000 needed for his first year’s tuition, the Florida teen thought his situation was hopeless. But then his former biology teacher stepped in.
“Seth was just a kid that really stood out to me,” the teacher, Jane Martin, told NBC News. “He was super ambitious and was always trying to go above and beyond to make sure he could be as successful as possible.”
Martin set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for Owen’s tuition, hoping to “make the impossible possible,” and she succeeded. As of Tuesday afternoon, the fundraising page raised over $50,000 — more than double its initial $20,000 goal.
Trouble at home began for Owen during his sophomore year of high school, when his Southern Baptist parents discovered he was gay.
“I was writing a paper, and my dad decided to check my phone late in the evening,” Owen recalled. “He found a damning photograph of me and another guy. Nothing inappropriate, but it clearly indicated that I was gay.”
Owen said his dad informed his mother of the discovery, and the two questioned him about his sexuality until 4:30 a.m.
“Soon after, they sent me to a Christian counselor,” he said. “It was clear that their intent was for me to walk out of therapy straight.”
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“It was not like a conversion camp, but it was definitely awkward conversion therapy where they tried encouraging stereotypical masculine tasks and things like that,” Owen added. He said he participated in the Christian therapy program for a “few months” before eventually convincing his parents to let him stop.
Conversion therapy, also known as "reparative therapy" or "ex-gay therapy," aims to change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite widespread opposition from health associations, like the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 700,000 LGBTQ Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 have been subjected to this practice at some point in their lives, according to a 2018 report from UCLA’s Williams Institute. The report also estimates tens of thousands of LGBTQ youth currently between the ages of 13 and 17 will undergo “gay conversion therapy" before they turn 18.
On February 11, two-thirds of the way through his senior year, Owen said he left his parents’ home for his own well-being.
“I started bringing up my disagreements with the church that they attend. I mean, there was just incident after incident,” Owen said. “They talked very negatively about the LGBTQ+ community. They said that gay people would not serve in the church. Then they were talking about transgender people as though they weren't human, and that really, really bothered me.”
Owens said he tried to convince his parents to let him attend a different church, but they refused. They then gave him an ultimatum: attend their church or move out.
“The worst part was I was packing my bags, and I was walking out the door, and I was hoping that my mom would stand in my way. I was hoping that she would say ‘I love my child more than I love my religion.’”
Just a few weeks after leaving his parents’ home — when he was sleeping on friends’ couches and thought things couldn’t get any worse — Owen received his financial aid package and tuition total from Georgetown.
“I was just devastated once again,” he said of realizing his college dream was in jeopardy.
When Jane Martin, who taught Owen freshman biology and served as his mentor throughout high school, found out about his situation, she met with other teachers and students to figure out a way they could help him.
“We know that he's not the type of person to always say, ‘I need help.’ He tries to be very solution-oriented and deal with things on his own,” Martin said about Owen. “We just got to the point where we came together and said, ‘This is something where we need to take the lead, and make sure that he gets what he needs”
Martin set up a fundraising page for Owen’s tuition on GoFundMe, with a goal of raising $20,000.
“I know the goal seems unrealistic and the circumstances aren’t ideal, but I also know communities can make the impossible possible,” Martin wrote in her GoFundMe plea.
Six weeks and more than 750 donations later, the fundraising page surpassed $50,000.
“After we had hit $2,000, Seth was just like, ‘I'm so surprised that people, like, actually care about me,’” Martin recalled.
“He has had so much support and so many people reach out and say ‘You're not alone,’ and ‘It gets better,’ all of the things that we all need to hear when we're queer teenagers and are suffering,” Martin, who is also gay, added. “I'm just excited for him to have this community literally come around and put all of our arms together and bring him up and raise him up for the first time.”
If Georgetown does end up readjusting Owen’s financial aid package, which Owen and Martin are still hoping for, they plan on using the donations to create a scholarship fund for other teens facing a situation similar to Owen’s.
A spokesperson from Georgetown told NBC News the university “admits and enrolls students without regard to their financial circumstances and is committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of eligible students.”
"While we cannot comment on any individual case, we work closely with students whose financial circumstances change after admission to modify financial aid assistance and ensure they can still enroll regardless of their ability to pay,” the spokesperson added.
Owen said he hopes his story inspires others to talk more openly and honestly about the adversity they’re facing.
“I remember growing up and saying I had really strict religious parents, and people would brush it off,” Owen explained. “If someone were to say that to me today, I would sit down, and I would ask them, ‘What's going on? What's going on at home? What's happening? What kind of messages are being preached in your church?’”
When asked what he would say to his sophomore self or other teens facing similar issues at home, he said, “I would tell that sophomore kid to hold their head high, roll their shoulders back and be exactly who they are.”
“It’s difficult to be who you genuinely are when you have all this pressure around you from all these different people in your life,” he added, “but if you become comfortable with who you are, you're that much more equipped to face these difficult times.”
Owen plans to move to Washington, D.C., next month to join Georgetown University's Class of 2022.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Owen's GPA was 4.16: It was 4.61.