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Anonymous donors paid off $8 million in student loans for first-generation grads. These are the alums benefiting.

Anonymous donors have pooled together $8 million to pay off college loans for up to 400 students who overcame personal hardships – from homelessness and extreme poverty — to become first-generation college students.

The donors are longtime supporters of Bay Area nonprofit Students Rising Above (SRA), and the money is intended to eliminate student debt for the graduates of the scholarship program. These donors are also passionate about tackling the issue of student debt. 

On a recent Zoom call, SRA CEO Elizabeth Devaney shared the news with the program's alumni and read a short letter from the donors. 

"People lent us a hand and now, we are able to extend a hand to these young people. Not to change who they are but to reveal who they are," the letter reads. "We believe it is important to leave the world a better place than we came into it. To that end, we have decided to pay off all student loans for the 400 Rising Star alumni to date."

Alumni of Students Rising Above on Zoom call when they were told an anonymous donor paid off $8 million in college debt.  CBS San Francisco

I am one of the 400 alumni who will benefit. 

When I was accepted into the program the summer before my senior year of high school, SRA advisers stepped in to guide me through the college admissions process. While I was in college, SRA was a pivotal support system and at times played the role that my parents, refugees from Afghanistan, were unable to because they were still adjusting to a new life in America. 

I was 10 years old in 2003 when my family immigrated to the U.S. From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I was inspired by my father, a polio survivor and former radio reporter in Kabul. Reporting on the Taliban's human rights abuses in 1996 nearly cost my father his life. 

A grenade thrown into the terrace of my childhood home and meant to silence my father instead killed my grandfather. My dad, who now lives vicariously through my work, still has pieces of shrapnel from that grenade on his leg and back. 

Once in America, my parents constantly stressed the importance of school. Watching my mother work a minimum wage job while attempting to learn English motivated me to pursue higher education.

When I had to decide between staying with my family in California and moving 3,000 miles to George Washington University in Washington D.C., SRA stepped in to help me make an emotional and business decision. SRA's advisers booked flights home on holidays, answered my questions about registering for classes, and prepared me for internship interviews. 

In addition to paying for portions of my tuition, SRA also purchased basic necessities like a laptop and printer, bed sheets, and winter clothes. 

It's the same role SRA has played for hundreds of other students, including Lorna Contreras.

When Contreras first heard about SRA in 2004, she was a high school senior cleaning homes in the Bay Area. In the classroom she found "a safe haven" from the realities of her life. In SRA, she found "a second pillar" to her family. 

During her third year at St. Mary's College of California, where she was studying politics, Contreras said her father, once captured as a prisoner of war while fighting for indigenous rights in Guatemala, "had a complete mental breakdown, which left him with frontal lobe dementia."

"That's when I was going to drop out of school," Contreras said, adding, "I thought school isn't important right now, and I'm just going to start working because there's no income at the house."

But SRA "brought in all the ammunition," Contreras said, and challenged her to not give up on school. She graduated with a politics degree and a minor in Spanish. Contreras has roughly $15,000 left in student loans after going on to complete a Masters in Psychology in 2013. 

Contreras, now SRA's director of student programs, said she's thankful for the opportunity to pass down that "hope and belief" to future SRA students.

The desire to give back to the community is one of many reasons Dr. Zachary Tabb chose to become a pediatrician. 

Lorna Contreras

In 2003, growing up with a single mother who worked three jobs and often relied on collecting recyclable items or sewing quilts, "ambitions for college kind of felt like that was something other people did," Tabb said.  

Then a last-minute decision to apply for SRA changed the "trajectory" of his life. Tabb, who grew up in Las Gatos and never met his father because his parents divorced before he was born, said he often reflects upon his impoverished upbringing. 

"There's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that you can't break free of the cycle of poverty," Tabb said. "I really think that is a generational consequence," he added. 

After finishing his undergraduate degree, Tabb spent more than two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda and became interested in medicine. He graduated from medical school from Brown University with over $160,000 in loans and currently works as the resident pediatrician at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. 

  Dr. Zachary Tabb

Tabb said he was "absolutely shocked" to hear that the weight of his student loans will soon be lifted. These "contributions," this kind of "compassion," Tabb said, "has indescribable effects" and breaks the cycle of poverty.

Every student who SRA serves in the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties comes from low-to-moderate income levels and more than 60% live below the federal poverty line. The organization also leverages a network of over 250 partner companies to provide students with summer internships, which results in nearly 80% of graduates landing jobs within a year. 

SRA, which is now 20 years old, began with about 10 to 15 students each year and has grown to help about 65 to 70 students a year.

The majority of SRA students graduate with an average of $7,000 in debt, a figure that is much lower than the national average of nearly $40,000. Devaney said she credits the organization's focus on financial literacy for helping keep the averages down but many SRA students still rack up debt due to postgraduate studies. 

For Devaney, the award to the alumni comes at an important time, as the world battles the coronavirus public health pandemic. She said SRA students, who are inured to characteristics like "grit and determination and resilience," can now "step up and lead."

Devaney said the most valuable takeaway from anonymous donors helping students with college loans is that it helps restore faith in humanity. 

"There are those who are out there rooting for us," Devaney said. "This is something that is going to help change lives and I guarantee you the students will pass it on."

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