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Anonymous Donors Wipe Out College Debt For 400 Bay Area Students Who Rose Above

by Michelle Griego and Jennifer Mistrot

A group of anonymous donors, moved by stories of students overcoming the direst of circumstances to succeed in their college and work careers, has given hundreds of them an eye-popping gift which could move them to even higher levels.

For more than 20 years the Students Rising Above (SRA) non-profit, co-founded by former KPIX 5 news anchor Wendy Tokuda, has provided underserved students with financial assistance, college prep, internships, career counseling and more. Now, the non-profit has announced another incredible milestone. Anonymous donors have stepped forward with a gift that will change the lives of approximately 400 SRA graduates - providing up to $8 million to pay off their college debt.

LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above

Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Devaney informed the students with a surprise announcement on a Zoom video call.

"What I want to share with you tonight is that anonymous SRA donors have presented us with a remarkable gift," explained Devaney. " [It's] intent [is] to eliminate student loan debt for you."

The students reacted with laughter, tears and even some spontaneous dancing. Most could not believe the offer was real.

"I'm shocked," said Kimberly Armstrong upon receiving the news. "I almost don't believe it."

"In awe! Flabbergasted! Taken a back," said SRA alum and software developer Alsidneio Bell.

SRA says the money will enable it to pay off the loans of around 400 students like Dr. Zachary Tabb, a Global Pediatric Health Resident Physician at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

When Dr. Tabb graduated medical school two years ago, he owed around $160,000. Now he's going to be debt-free.

"It's life changing," said Tabb. "I've had debt ... really my entire adult life. And so it's just something that everywhere you go, it follows you ... So... this has been nice in that way where I can sort of look broader in terms of what I do next."

Law school graduate Kimberly Armstrong owes nearly $300,000 in student loans. She told KPIX 5 the feeling of freedom is incredible.

"It's a shock," said an emotional Armstrong. "It's amazing. It's a relief, though. Once you start kind of setting in, there's this weight that, comes off of you. Literally, it's a weight lifted."

Bell says he thought his $55,000 student loan debt would be with him forever.

"The interest capitalized," recalled Bell. "And I had more than what I started with … And so now I'm just like, well, what do I do?"

SRA's Head of Programs Lorna Contreras-Townsend says the average SRA scholar graduates with around $8,000 in student loans, still a huge financial worry for many looking for or even losing a job during the COVID-19 pandemic, so she hopes this gift will bring peace of mind to those students.

"We are able to provide them now some financial freedom to make decisions," said Contreras-Townsend. "In their careers that really speak to their heart."

Former SRA scholar Stevon Cook hopes this donation will inspire others to give.

"People are breaking through generational poverty barriers. A lot of these young people are already miracles," said Cook. "So we hope that this sets a trend with other scholarship organizations."

Dr. Tabb agrees. "It's really a generational impact," he said. "To completely un-burden myself and all of them ... has a real multiplicative effect ... not only on [my fellow SRA scholars'] lives, but on the contributions they can make to society."

As for the donors, they wish to remain anonymous, so students like Armstrong are sending this message along.

"God Bless you," said Armstrong. "Definitely, God bless you. I thank you abundantly for even thinking about students like us."





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