Scholarships allowed me to graduate college debt-free. Now I’m paying it forward.

The United States collected $1.73 trillion in student debt. The burdensome debt crisis has limited generations of young people from amassing wealth, disproportionately affecting black students, who take on more debt than their white counterparts, and exacerbating the racial wealth gap of this population. Recent data shows that Black college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates.

I’m a college graduate from Black University and I didn’t have the luxury of having my parents pay for my college tuition. I attended a school where tuition and room and board was running nearly $20,000 a year, however, and was able to graduate without debt. I’m sharing my story not to brag but to advise the next generation of students in hopes that they too will graduate from the bewildering student loan debt.

Ashley McCullough
photo courtesy

Preparing early for college was a major driver in my success, as it opened doors to many opportunities. While most students wait until their junior year to start preparing for college, my mom, who is my biggest advocate and supporter, started pushing me as a freshman to take the free SAT and ACT prep courses my high school offered. (This early preparation paid off when I was young.) I understood the complexities that came with navigating the college admissions processes and didn’t want anything to stand in the way of my success.

I also benefited from university preparatory programs and internships. Through the nonprofit NAF Education, I participated in a paid internship with Wells Fargo. The internship at the company helped me learn valuable skills in finance and money management. This experience enhanced my resume and provided talking points for my scholarship applications.

My test scores, GPA, and unique training experience in high school helped me stand out in college applications, resulting in acceptance letters from over a dozen universities. When I explored what each university had to offer, I knew I wanted to attend a historical black college and university, or HBCU. Living in North Carolina, where there are 10 such schools, including public options, means that I can choose my dream school with the benefit of in-state tuition. After attending several college tours with my mother, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University became my first choice.

From the moment I decided North Carolina A&T was the school for me, my mom and I would mark the team’s scholarship applications—no scholarship was too big or too small. Without college funding, I knew the alternative route was to fund my education with loans. I also knew what that could mean for me in the long run, so I was determined to reduce my debt.

At first, I thought I’d only get a ride if a college gave me money. But the crowning of every scholarship will prove otherwise. Having received numerous awards from organizations such as Thurgood Marshall College Fund and UNCF, among others, I exceeded $30,000 in scholarship money in my first year. I realized that graduating without debt was a real possibility. As long as I maintain a 3.0 GPA for the next four years (and have done so), many of my scholarships will automatically renew.

In May 2015, I passed through graduation with my head held high, knowing that I had accomplished what many had dreamed of. I am proud and grateful for the resources and family support I have received throughout my journey.

Scholarships played a huge role in my ability to graduate without debt. I have vowed to push it forward. In 2011, I launched the Ashley B. McCullough Princess Project at my Olympic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. The nonprofit awards scholarships and assists parents and grown-up girls on their journey to and through college. This year, the Princess Project awarded $2,200 to help a student fund her education and realize her dreams.

While in university, I had a village of support behind me, and today I strive to be a part of someone’s village by creating opportunities for more students like me to continue their education. I want students to know that financial support is there, and that with a plan and a little determination, your degree doesn’t mean decades of student loan debt.

Ashley McCullough is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina and a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University. She now works as an accounting director for Los Angeles-based Thorn, a nonprofit that combats child sexual abuse material online. McCullough continues to give back to the world as she does in her day-to-day walk.

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