When Jonah Okike-Hephzibah ’16 launched a crowdfunding campaign Tuesday on the GoFundMe website seeking donations to help cover $14,000 in tuition fees just two days before his money was due, he did not expect many people to respond. Two days later, he raised over $20,000.
Okike-Hephzibah, who received a Jack Kente Cooke Scholarship worth $40,000, said he had not realized that the scholarship was distributed in two parts — $20,000 for the first semester and $20,000 for the second semester. He had planned to use it to pay for his entire first semester, and save up for second semester. Two days before his bursar deadline, he realized that his bifurcated scholarship left him with $14,000 in remaining balance — money he did not have.
Desperate, Okike-Hephzibah said his friend suggested he try using the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. While initially hesitant, he decided he had no other options and launched the “Keep Jonah at Cornell” campaign.
“I haven’t used GoFundMe before, it was kinda just an all or nothing way. I was honestly very hesitant about doing it,” he said. “I’m definitely not someone who loves attention and everything so I wasn’t exactly sure that I wanted to go through with it but the circumstances called for a drastic action.”
Okike-Hephzibah, a transfer student from Santa Monica University, described his difficult journey to Cornell as “a first-generation undocumented minority student from a single-parent home shared with my five siblings” on his GoFundMe page.
“More than anything, I want to accomplish my educational goals and give back by designing innovations such as prosthetic limbs for veterans,” he wrote on the page. “But to do that I find myself in this terrifying and humbling position, needing, once again, to reach out for help so that I can continue to work hard to achieve my dreams,” Okike-Hephzibah said.
While Okike-Hephzibah admitted that he made a mistake in not knowing about his outstanding balance, he said he was incredibly humbled and grateful to all the people who donated money to cover his tuition.
“I was very shocked, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It’s definitely had an effect on me, I’ve seen how good the human race is and that there are people that are genuinely nice out there. It’s definitely solidified my goals to get to a point where I can give back to my community, to my family. It’s just solidified everything.”
Okike-Hephzibah attributed the success of his page in large part due to word of mouth and social media.
John Lowry ’16, president of the Class of 2016, shared Okike-Hephzibah’s campaign on Facebook, generating considerable hype. After the campaign successfully reached its goal, he posted again and wrote that he had reached out to Juliana Batista ’16, Student Assembly president, to discuss ways to help other students in tight financial situations like Okike-Hephzibah’s.
After successfully raising $14,000, Okike-Hephzibah he extended the funding goal of his GoFundMe page in the hopes of raising enough money to cover the coming semesters.
“I’ve been looking into different loans and stuff but it’s kind of hard to qualify because you need a cosign,” he said. “So I’m just hoping that maybe if I can reduce the amount that I need to take out, or if I can get some help [on the GoFundMe page] or find some scholarships to help cover the difference then It won’t be so hard to pay for the next semester.”
Okike-Hephzibah’s GoFundMe sits at $20,170 as of Thursday night, with a new end goal of $28,000 — enough to pay his tuition for the coming year.
“I promise to share updates if I receive any scholarships or grants and make adjustments to the goal to reflect that,” he wrote in an update on the page. “If I still end up with any funds in excess of what I need, I will pay your kindness forward to other students who find themselves in a similar situation and who are in need.”
Prior to coming to Cornell, Okike-Hephzibah said he attended Santa Monica University, where he juggled clubs, work and a 4.0 GPA. An active member of a program which promotes STEM majors for minority students, he said that since transferring to Cornell he now aims to build a company that works with prosthetic limbs and robotics.
Reflecting on the experience, Okike-Hephzibah said he won’t let those who invested in him through his GoFundMe page down.
“I’m definitely really thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to continue my education here and I will definitely try my best to succeed,” he said. “I’m willing to prove my worth.”