A Promise Fulfilled

Photo of Sarah Banks

A Promise Fulfilled

Sarah Banks’ story is yet another example of how a college hopeful became a soon-to-be college graduate all because of the G. Wayne Clough Georgia Tech Promise Scholarship.

The Diagnosis

When Sarah was just 11, her father, David, was diagnosed with cancer. By itself, that would be overwhelming for any family, but for the Banks family, matters were complicated by the fact that he was self-employed and single-handedly took care of the family financially through his own trucking company.

Once they learned that his “bad case of pneumonia that wouldn’t go away” was, in fact, lung cancer, Sarah's mother and then 18-year-old brother were forced to try to keep the business operational so they could keep the family financially afloat.

“My God, it was horrible,” said Sarah’s mother, Penny. “I didn’t have the talent my husband did to run his business. My son and I just did the best we could.”

The Best Wasn’t Good Enough

Initially, David remained involved in the business, but about six months after his diagnosis, he could no longer handle any aspect of the company’s affairs. The family’s income began to dwindle while their health care expenses grew.

Their medical bills – nearly $6,000 per week at one point – simply added insurmountable insult to injury. With their health insurance providing only partial coverage, Penny was soon facing a dilemma that compounded the worry she already faced in trying to keep the family business going – while maintaining some sense of normalcy for her children who were, by now, fatherless.

“We had to dip into Sarah’s college fund just to make ends meet,” recalls Penny. “So then I became worried sick that she wouldn’t be able to get an education.”

Penny originally did all she could to ensure Sarah remained unaware of just how dire their financial situation was. When it was time to begin applying for college, however, it dawned on Sarah that part of that process would entail ascertaining whether the colleges she was interested in were affordable.

At that point, mother and daughter had that hard conversation in which Sarah was told that the family didn’t have readily available funds to support her college aspirations.

So, Sarah got to work, taking on the responsibility of researching her financial aid and scholarship options. And up came Tech Promise, opening the door for Sarah to enter the university she just knew would provide “that great college experience.”

The Tech Promise

“I’m not sure if I’d be at Tech if it weren’t for Tech Promise,” says Sarah. “I’m not sure if we would’ve been approved for the student loans.”

Looking back on the way things worked out, Sarah clearly sees just how much of an advantage a loan-free college experience is. Realizing her dream of going to college minus the debt burden has allowed her to focus wholeheartedly on the mission at hand.

Without the distraction of worrying about meeting loan payments, she has been able to study and fully engage in all that Tech has to offer – including extracurricular, work study, and study abroad activities. She’s lived the total college experience.

Because she’s so grateful for that advantage, Sarah has made it a point to actively promote Tech Promise so other college hopefuls facing serious financial hardship might have a shot at Tech.

In fact, to her list of titles, including team-in-training president at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and accounting secretary for Relay for Life, she has added Georgia Tech Promise program ambassador. And she’s proud to be one of the very first.

“I became a Tech Promise Ambassador because I’d like more people to be aware of it. My worst nightmare would be someone not applying to Tech because they think they can’t pay for it. But the fact is a lot of students are not even aware of Tech Promise and don’t apply to Tech because they know they can’t afford it,” said Sarah.

She uses her part-time position at the Office of Undergraduate Admission to wear her Tech Promise ambassador hat so she can spread the word about the scholarship that can literally change the direction of a Georgia student’s life.

For Sarah, Tech Promise led to a change of familial significance: She’s the first in her family to graduate from college – an opportunity for which Penny is equally as appreciative as Sarah.

“You have no idea how grateful I am for Tech Promise,” Penny said. “There’s no way Sarah would’ve been able to get into Tech without it; yes, she had the academic ability to get in, but I couldn’t afford to send her.”

Penny’s message to other parents about Tech Promise: “It’s a godsend. Even if you think you can’t financially swing a Tech education, still look into it. Don’t give up.”

A No-Repay Loan

Since its inception in 2007, more than 600 students from 87 counties across Georgia have benefited from Tech Promise. The program is the first of its kind offered by a public university in Georgia, serving as a handsome financial aid complement to those most in need.

Sarah’s hope is that by being a face for Tech Promise, she can help remove the stigma that students may associate with needing scholarship assistance because of financial hardship.

“You shouldn’t be ashamed to receive need-based financial help,” she says. “A lot of people do get financial help – just in the form of loans. But with Tech Promise, you have this wonderful opportunity: a scholarship you don’t have to pay back.”

As Sarah looks forward to graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration (with a concentration in leading and managing human capital) this month, what would her dad think of it all?

Penny knows: “He would be so proud of her because she was his baby. I can just see him up there smiling.”

Editor's Update: Sarah was among almost 1,000 ramblin' wrecks who walked across Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion stage during the undergraduate commencement ceremony held Dec. 14. With her bachelor’s degree in business administration in hand, she plans to continue contributing to marketing and business development at Samuel Shapiro & Co., the freight forwarding and customs brokerage firm where she recently completed her summer internship.

Writer: Brigitte Espinet
Graphics: Rhys Black
Video: Maxwell Guberman
Photos: Rob Felt