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

Crushing student loans don’t need to be a rite of passage.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

The U.S has amassed $1.73 trillion in student debt. This saddling debt crisis has limited generations of young adults from accumulating wealth, disproportionately affecting Black students, who carry more debt than their white counterparts and has exacerbated the racial wealth gap for 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 am a Black college graduate who didn’t have the luxury of having my college tuition paid for by my parents. I attended a school where tuition and room-and-board ran approximately $20,000 a year, and still, I managed to graduate debt-free. I share my story not to boast but to offer the next generation of students advice with hopes that they, too, graduate free from backbreaking student loan debt.  

Ashley McCullough (Courtesy photo)

Preparing early for college was a key driver in my success, opening doors to many opportunities. While most students wait until their junior year to begin preparing for college, my mom, who is my biggest advocate and supporter, began pushing me as a freshman to take the free SAT and ACT prep courses my high school offered. (That early prep paid off when I was a junior.) She understood the intricacies that came with navigating college admissions and did not want anything to stand in the way of my success. 

I also took advantage of college prep programs and internships. Through the education nonprofit NAF, I participated in a paid internship with Wells Fargo. My internship at the company helped me learn valuable skills in finance and money management. This experience boosted my resume and provided talking points for my scholarship applications.  

I was determined to minimize my debt. 

My test scores, GPA, and unique high school internship experience helped me stand out on my college applications, resulting in acceptance letters from more than a dozen universities. As I explored what each university had to offer, I knew that I wanted to attend a Historically Black College and University, or HBCU. Living in North Carolina, where there are 10 such schools, including public options, meant I could choose a school of my dreams while taking advantage of in-state tuition. After attending several college tours with my mom, 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 tag team scholarship applications — no scholarship was too big or too small. Without a college fund, I knew the alternative route was to fund my education with loans. I also knew what that could mean for me long-term, so I was determined to minimize my debt. 

At first, I believed I would only earn a free ride if one college awarded me the money. But the culmination of each scholarship would prove otherwise. After receiving multiple awards from organizations such as Thurgood Marshall College Fund and UNCF, among others, I exceeded $30,000 in scholarship funds for my first year. I realized that graduating debt-free was a real possibility. So long as I maintained a 3.0 GPA for the next four years (and I did), many of my scholarships would renew automatically. 

In May 2015, I walked across the graduation stage with my head held high, knowing that I accomplished what so many others dreamed of. I am proud and grateful for the resources and family support I received throughout my journey. 

Scholarships played a big role in my ability to graduate debt-free. And I have vowed to pay it forward. In 2011, I launched the Ashley B. McCullough Princess Project at my alma mater, Olympic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. The nonprofit awards scholarships and assists parents and senior girls on their journey to and through college. This year, the Princess Project awarded $2,200 to help a student fund her education and pursue her dreams.  

Going through college, I had a village of support behind me, and today I strive to be part of someone’s village by creating opportunities for more students like me to pursue their education. I want students to know that financial support is out there, that with a plan and a little determination, your degree need not mean decades of student loan debt. 

Ashley McCullough is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, and a proud graduate of North Carolina A&T State University. She now serves as the accounting manager at the Los Angeles-based Thorn, a nonprofit that combats child sexual abuse material on the internet. McCullough is still giving back to the world as she does in her daily walk.