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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nashua woman receives $10,000 anonymous donation to help pay off student loans

When Trish Williams was a high school student, her mother promised her she’d get a Kitchen
Aid mixer as a graduation present.

Unfortunately, the gift never came, because Williams dropped out of high school when she was 17. ...

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When Trish Williams was a high school student, her mother promised her she’d get a Kitchen
Aid mixer as a graduation present.

Unfortunately, the gift never came, because Williams dropped out of high school when she was 17.

But on May 11, about 14 years after leaving school without a diploma, Williams graduated from Southern New Hampshire University’s college of online education and was given the chance to address her fellow graduates as the student commencement speaker.

And she wound up getting a whole lot more than a mixer: She received $10,000, anonymously donated by a couple who heard her speak at the ceremony.

“I just can’t even believe that it happened,” William said Tuesday, sitting in her Fairmount Street home. “This is the kind of thing you read about in the newspaper, or in a book. It’s not the kind of thing that happens to you.”

To make the news even sweeter, the university decided to match the donation, essentially paying for the accelerated graduate program Williams starts this summer at UMass-Lowell.

“We’re pretty conscious of student debt here,” said university President Paul LeBlanc. “We try to make sure our students don’t graduate with too much debt, so when the anonymous donor came forward, we thought it would be a nice way to honor the gift if we matched it.”

For Williams, it’s a turn of events she never could have expected, and one that she said helps make all the challenges she faced on her road to higher education that much more worth it.

Growing up, Williams enjoyed reading and was always a strong student. She planned on finishing high school and earning a college degree.

But after struggling with depression and feelings of isolation in a small Massachusetts high school where the majority of students were focused on athletics, steering clear of her love of drama and the arts, she ran away from home for three months.

After that, she said, it was hard to go back to the regular life of a high school student. Her parents said they would support her if she earned a GED and attended college.

By the time she would have been a senior in high school, Williams was taking classes at a community college, studying to become an English teacher.

She did well while studying and living at home with her mother, but after deciding to leave home and try attending UMass-Amherst when she was 20, Williams struggled and once again left school.

Still, she never gave up on the dream of earning a degree.

She tried to take classes again several years ago, but as a newlywed and expectant mother, the workload was too much of a challenge.

“Things just kept happening,” Williams said. “But I always wanted this. I think because I was a high school dropout, I was especially motivated to do it. I wanted to lend myself some credibility. It didn’t seem right for me to not have a career.”

About two years ago, Williams’ husband, Brad, decided to look at SNHU’s online degree programs to continue his own education in accounting. She started studying while taking care of her two young children.

About two years after she started the program, Williams got an email from the university asking students to try out to speak at commencement this month. She decided her story might be worth telling.

“I’m not usually the kind of person who enjoys the spotlight,” she said. “But really, I thought I was so unlikely to be the speaker.”

Williams was selected, and when she got up in front of her fellow graduates, family and friends earlier this month, she said it was the perfect way to end her undergraduate career.

But Williams had no idea just how great that ending would be.

It was one week after the graduate ceremony, and one day after listening to a radio show about the rising burden of student loans and worrying about her own family’s financial stability, when Williams noticed she had an email from LeBlanc.

At first, she said, she thought it was a spam email. But when she opened it and read the message, sharing the news about the anonymous donation and the university’s decision to match it, she couldn’t help but cry.

“It’s just amazing,” she said. “It’s huge. What I owed in student loans over the years decreased by about half.”

Now Williams will head to her graduate program, with the hopes of becoming a middle or high school English teacher and with far less stress about what the education is costing her family.

LeBlanc said he believes it was Williams’ story that inspired the anonymous donation.

“We’ve had people donate after hearing students’ stories, particularly stories of hardship, but we’ve never had someone step up and respond to an individual commencement speaker like this,” he said. “I think there is a heightened sensitivity to the question of student loan debt, but in the case of this donor, it was much more genuine, heartfelt, that they wanted to help this person out.”

While Williams said she understands the donors’ request to remain anonymous, she wishes she could meet them and share just how much their generosity has helped her family.

“It makes me feel really good, and validated, to know that something I have to say had such value to someone,” Williams said. “There are no words, there are no words to describe it. I want them to know how much I appreciate it, but how can you convey how much they did?”

Danielle Curtis can be reached
at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis
on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).