Am I gonna be able to figure it out this time?
I HAD to figure it out.
I’ve gotten this far, there has to be a way.
Those were my thoughts as the deadline for paying my tuition at Arizona State University was approaching. It was December 1984, and I had completed the fall semester of my 3rd year at ASU and you’d think I would have figured out how to pay for school by that time. I would go through this stressful period almost every semester.
I had just made the competitive gymnastics team. Prior to this, I was like 10-15 other guys in the gym doing something I loved and hoping I’d become good enough to actually compete one day. Coach Robinson was rare among college gymnastics coaches in that he allowed guys like me who were not on scholarship and who may never make the team, to train in the same gym at the same time as the competition team.
I finally achieved one of the things that I set out to do. I became a college gymnast. We were scheduled to compete in Mexico over the holiday break and then continue training with our next competition sometime in January. Classes would begin mid January and in order to continue being on the team, I had to actually be enrolled as a student. This weighed heavily on my mind.
There were three deadlines. If I missed the first deadline, I would be kicked out of all the classes I was signed up for and then just hope I could get back in them once I did pay tuition. If I missed the second deadline, I could hope for late registration. If I missed the late registration deadline, It was over. Only the first two deadlines applied to me because the late registration was a week after classes started. I needed to be an official student at the start of the spring semester. If I didn’t pay in time, I wasn’t sure if the registrar’s office would send out some campus wide notification like a police All Points Bulletin that Jerry L. Burrell was no longer recognized as an enrolled student and should be escorted off campus if identified. My mind was going to these weird places in the grip of the uncertainty.
How could I get this far and be this close to one of my dreams coming true and not be able to experience it because a couple thousand dollars stood in the way. I had already asked my parents for too much. I didn’t want to put them into the position of having to borrow any more money on my behalf. I’m not even sure how I or they paid for my second semester at ASU or my dorm room and meal plan for the whole first year at ASU.
During my first year at ASU as I learned more about financial aid and loans, I became excited about the possibility of being able pay tuition and complete my degree at ASU. As soon as ASU’s financial aid office began accepting applications, I submitted mine. I then applied to be a resident assistant (RA). That way my dorm room and meal plan were taken care of and I would make a little money also.
I was awarded some financial aid for my second year at ASU, I got the job as an RA and I landed a paid summer internship at an office in downtown Denver (filing, typing, errands, etc). This allowed me to attend ASU for another year.
The summer after my second year at ASU, I got a paid internship with Procter & Gamble. I don’t remember why I had tuition for the fall semester of my third year but not the Spring Semester. I was still an RA so I had a place to stay and food to eat but even that would be lost if I were no longer a student.
The dorms are closed during holiday break, so I was staying with my frat brothers Derrick and Ed. I was embarrassed about not having money for the spring semester and so I told no one and did my best to keep the worrying from seeping into how I interacted with people.
After exploring all the options I could think of short of asking my parents or anyone else, I reached a point where I just prayed that it would work out. I had this interesting relationship with God. If I was a good person and helped others and was a contributor to what was good in the world then I expected God to arrange things in such a way that I could continue being and doing all of that.
I found myself relying on this belief.
In spite of this, I still had absolutely no idea how this was all going to work out.
But, I had gone through so many of these “I’m not sure how this is going to work out situations” that somehow ended up working out that I had faith it would happen this time. Maybe it was more hope than faith because there was a whole lotta fear and a whole lotta worry. After losing my appointment to West Point and navigating my way to ASU, I didn’t want to have to start all over someplace else.
As the days passed, thinking about how I arrived at that point in my life, it occurred to me that if anyone knew my story, they would agree that it would be a travesty for me to lose the opportunity to keep contributing to the good in the world because of a little thing like $2200 tuition. Go Fund Me didn’t exist at this time and I would not have gone that route anyway but I knew ASU wanted student’s like me. I didn’t have time to deal with finding out who at the University could help me so I sat down and started writing a letter to J. Russell Nelson.
The letter spelled out all of the ways I contributed to the good that existed on campus and in the surrounding community. I did not keep a copy of the letter and don’t remember exactly what I wrote but I didn’t just ask him to fix it so I could continue attending ASU. I positioned myself as someone who was not only taking advantage of all the opportunities to grow while a student at ASU but also someone who was giving back. I was the epitome of what they envision when they consider all the applications that come through their mailbox. I had a GPA that was around 3.0. I was a resident assistant. I was in student government. I was in a fraternity that did so much good on campus and the surrounding community. I was a non-scholarship student-athlete that would be representing the University at competitions around the country. Finally, I figured I was just an all around great guy who brought so much to the University already and had more to bring if only I was able to. I painted the picture for him that if there was anyone to bet on who was an example of ASU fulfilling their mission of educating for responsible citizenship, I was that guy.
Time was of the essence, the gymnastics team and I were set to go to Mexico and when we got back there wouldn’t be much time left so mailing this letter was out of the question. I went to Mr. Nelson’s office and asked the receptionist to make sure that he received it, all the while knowing that it was possible someone else opened his mail and he may never see it.
We went to Mexico, we competed, I had an amazing time but don’t remember many details because constantly playing in the back of my mind was the thought, “what if Coach gets a call from the University telling him that I had not paid my tuition yet.” I couldn’t help but think that since I had written that letter it triggered a whole stream of consequences that might result in me somehow being considered a non-student. I missed the course deadline while we were in Mexico and had been removed from the spring semester classes I had registered for. The second registration deadline was a little more than a week before classes started.
One day in early January after practice, I got home to Derrick and Ed’s place and had a message. Mr. Nelson’s office had called. I called back and a pleasant sounding woman asked if I would be able to come by the office. She said ASU awarded a student a merit scholarship but the student decided not to attend ASU so they were offering to take what was budgeted as a scholarship for this student and apply it to my tuition account.
We scheduled a time for me to visit, I hung up the phone, sat down and allowed this overwhelming feeling of gratefulness to wash over me. I cannot describe this feeling of awe and amazement and gratitude all at the same time. I was given another chance.
Merit scholarships are usually awarded to incoming fall freshmen and this was spring semester. I don’t know if there really was a scholarship student who chose to go elsewhere or if they just had the power to waive any student’s tuition but needed a cover story to keep that power from becoming public. I don’t care either.
J. Russell Nelson was the President of ASU at the time. Either he or someone on his staff threw me a lifeline and I am forever grateful for it. I cannot imagine how my life would have unfolded had I been forced to leave ASU right when my gymnastics dreams were becoming reality.
The lesson I learned from this experience, I continue to apply. People in positions of power will figure out ways to help those who they deem deserving of their help. This usually means when you help people get what they need, they or their allies help you get what you need. ASU, and by extension Mr. Nelson, needs their students to become responsible citizens. Their stated mission is to help their students become that. Even then, ASU was a huge machine with over 45,000 students. Whether the system works or not, I was the proof they needed to tell themselves the system works. Someone on the President of the University’s staff was inspired enough by my letter to either bring it to the President’s attention or the attention of someone who was willing and able to correct a glitch in the system and it changed the trajectory of my life.
An even simpler lesson with deeper meaning is that when people (Me and the ASU President’s staff) make choices that align with our purpose then “somehow, someway” we continue to fulfill our purpose.
I remain grateful!