By GRACE L. WILLIAMS
For Montclair Local
When it’s time to navigate college planning, it’s understandable if parents and students aren’t sure where to turn or what to do first. So just ask Montclair resident Mariama Diallo to tell you all about her family’s good fortune.
Diallo’s daughter, Safiatu “Safi” Barry, is a 2021 Montclair High School graduate. She started her freshman year at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in late August. At drop-off, both mother and daughter underwent the classic rites of passage found on campuses across the country, including ensuring Safi had what she needed to make the dorm room feel complete: an abundance of twinkly lights.
But they also brought plenty of good vibes with them. A handful of days before, Safi’s dream of attending Howard was hanging in the balance due to one pesky detail: the tuition. Resolving that problem made the dream come true.
Safi was a good student in high school and applied to many colleges. She also had the freshman class humblebrag of watching as college acceptance letters rolled in. Howard University was her dream school, but the financial aid package and tuition situation were less than exciting.
“We didn’t want her to graduate $100,000 [in debt],” Diallo said. So, choosing a Plan B of sorts, mother and daughter considered putting Howard on hold and began to look at more affordable options. They considered Rutgers, where Safi could commute and save on housing costs.
Husband and wife David Sterry and Arielle Eckstut, who run the local service The Book Doctors to assist authors in getting books written and sold, weren’t having any of that. Sterry had worked with Barry as a mentor in a college essay-writing program run by Succeed2Gether — a Montclair-based organization that aims to close opportunity and achievement gaps. Barry was one of the program’s first two graduates.
Safi falls into a financial category that may be familiar to some. According to Sterry, Diallo, a single parent, earns too much money for Safi to qualify for enough scholarships and aid. Yet she cannot afford to pay Safi’s way independently. Deciding this wouldn’t do, Sterry and Eckstut stepped up and started a GoFundMe page to bridge the gap.
“We had to raise 20 grand in 10 days,” he said. “We sent it to everyone we knew, and contributions came in.” From there, “we started getting contributions from people we didn’t know. Slowly but surely, we were creeping toward our goal.”
Safi, in a video accompanying the fundraiser, said she was excited to be accepted to Howard, “because a kind of was doubting myself a lot.” She didn’t expect to get into colleges, and then found herself being accepted to most of those to which she’d applied. Howard, her first choice, was the first to send her an acceptance.
As donations poured in, donors made their stories known as well. Some shared that they saw themselves in Safi’s story. Some “wrote notes that they had been in the same position,” Eckstut said. Others “had never been in that position but wanted to give Safi something of what they had.”
“When David called me, and told me how much money we raised, I was just surprised,” Safi says in another video accompanying the fundraiser. “I was very surprised, but I was just so over-beyond happy, and I just wanted to come here and tell everyone: Thank you, so much. And now, I’m officially going to Howard University tomorrow morning. Mission accomplished.”
In all, the fundraiser had collected $20,500.
Rising college tuition has made plenty of headlines over time. Universities have received a stern rebuke from consumers about the cost of paying for college, and for good reason. In 2021, educationdata.org estimates, 65% of students graduated with some kind of debt. Digging deeper, students have $1.73 trillion in total debt, and borrowers number 43.2 million, with an average of $39,351 each in student loan debt.
Meanwhile, when they graduate, the job market isn’t always understanding or accommodating to their plight. Zip Recruiter estimates that entry-level jobs offer an average of $21,000 to $45,000 per year in starting salaries.
Paying tuition is only part of the package, however. Diallo, who is originally from West Africa and came to Montclair over a decade ago for the schools, says that other costs are a factor. “We spent over $1,000 just for applications, and the SAT is in there,” she said. “There’s so much to navigate. Even communicating with the administration from institutions was very challenging.”
A gap in resources and know-how when it’s time for college is something that nags the duo from The Book Doctors. So in response to Safi’s experience applying to college, they set up Pathways Forward, a program within Succeed2gether that encourages students to start thinking about college early and often.
“My blood was boiling [over it,]” Sterry said. “I wanted to start a program to give kids without money some of the advantages their rich peers were getting.”
Their pilot project to help Safi get to college was on the fly, but the plan going forward is to formalize the resources “so that kids will be able to not only apply to college and hopefully get in,” Eckstut said. “[They’ll] also be set up financially to go without having to do a GoFundMe.”
In addition to locals and out-of-towners who were inspired to help, one notable donor included a marathon runner, who shared a desire to help Safi reach her goal. Once the fundraiser reached its target, Safi got the good news.
“It was such a joy for both of us that we were able to take Safi to the finish line,” Sterry said.
As she settles into her new life as a student at Howard, the kindness from the community and beyond is something she and her mother are sure never to forget. It also fits with a proverb from Diallo’s homeland.
“We have this saying in African culture that if you want to go fast, you can go alone,” she said. “But if you want to go far, you have to go with someone else.”