Seth Owen, a Jacksonville high school valedictorian, knew what he wanted to be from a young age: “an astronaut,” he told NBC News recently.
The First Coast High School student did his part, earning a 4.16 GPA and gaining acceptance to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in the fall.
But then Owen, 18, read his acceptance letter. The financial aid package he was offered had been based on his parents’ expected contribution — leaving a payment due of about $20,000, NBC News reported.
There was one major obstacle.
“Earlier this year — after a year of attempted conversion therapy — Seth’s parents gave him an ultimatum. He would either continue to attend the church that outwardly attacked him and his sexual orientation or he would need to leave home. For his own well-being and safety, Seth chose the latter,” Jane Martin, his biology teacher at First Coast High, wrote on a GoFundMe page she set up to help him achieve his goal of going to Georgetown.
Martin set a conservative goal — $20,000, the amount he needed to secure his start at the prestigious university. Tuition at Georgetown tops $26,000-$31,000 per semester, depending on the field of study and not including room and board, books and other fees, according to the university’s website. All told, a year at the school could run around $70,000.
After six weeks and after media outlets like The Hill, the Orlando Sentinel, The Advocate and others picked up on Owen’s story, the GoFundMe fund has swelled to more than $133,000 by Saturday morning from nearly 2,500 contributors.
His Southern Baptist parents found out their son was gay when his father saw what Owen called a “damning” but “nothing inappropriate” photo on his cellphone and questioned him about it in his sophomore year.
They sent their son to a Christian counselor who tried some form of “awkward conversion therapy” that did not work, Owen told NBC News.
The pressure from his parents and their church built to such a degree that Owen no longer felt safe at home. Toward the end of his senior year, Owen, who swam for his school’s team, left and has been crashing at friends’ houses as he concluded his high school career.
His parents told him he could either go to church or move out, Owen told WJXT NewsJax4. He asked for a compromise.
“My dad said no. I was really, really upset,” he told WJXT. “It was extremely hurtful to know that I was walking out that door not knowing what lay ahead.”
Randy Owen, his father, told First Coast News: “As far as kicking him out because he wouldn’t attend the church we attend — that’s a lie. I made clear we are not kicking him out, but we worship as a family. He’s allowed to live here as long as he worships the same way we worship. He chose to pack his bags and move out.”
Martin, his teacher, who had mentored Owen after she taught him biology, was impressed with his strength and perseverance.
“His parents have refused to support him emotionally or financially because they deem his sexual orientation inconsistent with their religious beliefs. Throughout this all, Seth held his head high and continued to work almost full-time while finishing high school at the top of his class as the co-valedictorian.”
So, she set up the GoFundMe campaign when she learned Georgetown was firm in requiring the $20,000 parental contribution.
“I know the goal seems unrealistic and the circumstances aren’t ideal, but I also know communities can make the impossible possible,” Martin wrote on the page.
On Friday, Georgetown spokesperson Matt Hill said the university “can’t comment on individual cases due to federal privacy laws.”
Earlier in the week, a university spokesperson told NBC News, “we work closely with students whose financial circumstances change after admission to modify financial aid assistance and ensure they can still enroll regardless of their ability to pay.”
On Friday, Owen released a public statement. He’s going to Georgetown in the fall.
“While the campaign has been ongoing, the professionals at the Office of Student Financial Services have continued to work with me to make my dream a reality. Due to their efforts and attention, they were able to adjust my aid package even further, my expected contribution is now $0,” Owen said in the statement.
The school’s Office of Student Financial Services also offers mentoring and networking opportunities, Owen said.
This “will help me to assist others in situations similar to the one I found myself in earlier this year,” he said.
Owen plans to enroll at the university’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and said he is exploring the establishment of a scholarship to help LGBTQ+ scholars who are in a similar position.
“I am honored to be selected to attend Georgetown University and am elated that I am now able to attend Georgetown because of the gracious donations to the GoFundMe campaign and the efforts of the Office of Student Financial Services. Thank you to all who have donated to the campaign. Your generosity will help me succeed academically this year and in the years to come,” he said.
Owen told the WJXT news station he is now eying a career as a defense attorney for teens.
“A simple ‘Thank You’ seems to be not enough for all of the support I’ve received from so many,” Owen added in his statement. “I will be seeking to pass on the kindness and generosity that I have been shown.”