The future of Tessa Wilkerson’s college career depended on a website she created in 10 minutes. One month before her senior year, her college savings ran out. As a last resort, Wilkerson registered her story on a crowdfunding website called gofundme.com.She had paid her way through college since her sophomore year, when her parents cut her off financially. They refused to support her college education after she transferred to IU from Brigham Young University.Not only was it cheaper, but BYU was considered the only college option for her family, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilkerson said. “They said their money was only good at BYU,” she said.A Stafford Loan she applied for and savings from a part-time teaching job covered only a fraction of this fall’s tuition. A friend directed her to gofundme.com. Within 24 hours of registering, she received more than $7,000 in donations. Parents of friends, high school acquaintances and strangers donated enough money to keep her enrolled. “They saved me,” Wilkerson said. Wilkerson’s struggle began during her freshman year at BYU in Utah. As a lesbian attending the largest religious university in the United States, she faced misunderstanding and homophobia. “I was born and raised Mormon, and I love being Mormon,” Wilkerson said. “It wasn’t my whole personality, but it was a huge part of who I was.” She was almost kicked out of BYU during her first few weeks due to expressing her homosexuality, which the school prohibited. She began to question if she chose the right school, she said. “People at BYU wanted to grow in their spirituality and find the person they wanted to marry,” Wilkerson said. “For me, I felt like I didn’t belong.”Wilkerson and her girlfriend, Hannah Varnau, a senior at Butler University, began dating three and a half years ago. The long distance relationship was difficult to begin with, Varnau said, and the environment at BYU made it even harder.
“Each step was magnified because she had already crossed a line by liking me,” Varnau said. Because of that, Wilkerson kept her sexuality a secret, she said.
By the end of her freshman year, Wilkerson decided transferring to IU was her only option. It had the arts administration program she was interested in and was closer to her hometown, Carmel, Ind. That was when her parents cut her off financially. Her parents’ decision to stop paying for school wasn’t directly related to her sexual orientation, she said. It was also due to IU’s higher cost. “They were convinced I would go into mountains of debt,” she said. “They refused to facilitate that at all.”Although they don’t discuss finances, Wilkerson said she still continues to speak with her parents on a regular basis. Her parents were unable to be reached for comment. “They don’t agree with my choices, but they are still present in my life,” Wilkerson said. Determined to attend IU, she lived in the residence scholars program, which offered students reduced-priced housing in return for labor. Wilkerson also worked at football games and the Telefund and Writing Tutorial Services simultaneously. At that time, she applied for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Alumni Association’s Emergency Scholarship. The scholarship, provided through the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Support Services, is awarded to IU students who lose financial support from their parents after coming out. “On my way home from a failed attempt at the IU scholarship office, I passed the GLBTSSS and thought maybe they could help me,” Wilkerson said. Throughout the next two years, Wilkerson transferred between IUPUI, Ivy Tech
Community College and IU, taking any classes she could afford. By early August 2013, she had transferred five times. “I was trying desperately to stay in school no matter what it took,” she said.Wilkerson said when she transferred back to IU, the academic recruitment scholarships she initially received were no longer available. “I started by talking to my parents,” she said. “Then I needed to take out another loan, but my parents told me they wouldn’t co-sign on it.”Everything changed when Wilkerson’s friend introduced her to the online do-it-yourself crowdfunding platform. She said the original setup of her profile was the result of goofing around. After uploading a video explaining her situation, friends began spreading Wilkerson’s story across all social media outlets. Her roommate, senior Stephen Skolnick, said it was a group effort to help Wilkerson raise funds. Skolnick’s father and stepmother contributed donations and helped spread the word. There were a few of us who were like a little fundraising team,” Skolnick said. “All of us were hanging out, and we were up all night blogging, sharing and tweeting trying to get that page link out there.”
The response was something Wilkerson never expected, she said. Since creating the gofundme.com profile in early August, her page has been viewed almost 3,000 times and raised more than $8,000.In return for donations, Wilkerson mails her sponsors hand-written notes or home-baked cookies. Generosity of friends, old professors and strangers allowed her to pay this fall’s tuition in full, she said. “I realized I was going to be fine after that,” Wilkerson said. “This has been the most incredible experience of my life.”A life-sized Severus Snape cutout from a past movie theater job and an old family portrait are displyed in Wilkerson’s Bloomington apartment living room.They’re objects she carried while transfering schools, reminding her of obstacles she overcame, she said.“I learned that you can’t plan for a lot of things in life,” Wilkerson said. Twenty-six days after starting her crowdfunding campaign, Wilkerson stepped into her first class this year at IU. She said she will finally get a chance to have a normal college experience.“There are people out there who are willing to donate money for those who need it,” Wilkerson said. “It gives me hope.”