University of Hartford Grad Has A South Carolina Lawyer To Thank
Student Who Spent Years in Homeless Shelter Got 'Fairy Tale' Help With Tuition
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
May 19, 2012
Three years ago, Sara Alzioud got a call that parents of college students everywhere dream about.
"Mom, listen," her daughter Nicole Suissa, a University of Hartford freshman, told her. "There is somebody who wants to pay for the rest of my time at Hartford, and I really don't think there's a catch."
"I was stunned," said Alzioud of Brooklyn, N.Y. "Do people really do that?"
J. Edward Bell III, a Georgetown, S.C., lawyer, did. Bell had heard Suissa speak about her financial plight and the likelihood that she would have to drop out of school in a special report that aired on CNN on Feb. 26, 2009.
"You could tell from that interview, that she was ready to do something," Bell said Thursday. "She had everything someone needs to be successful, and it looked like she needed some help."
On Sunday, Suissa, 22, who spent several years of her childhood in homeless shelters in New York City, will graduate magna cum laude from the University of Hartford, without a cent of debt. She's headed to Penn State to go to law school.
"I feel extremely lucky," Suissa said this week. "I feel that it's an absolute privilege… So many of my friends didn't get to this because they didn't have the opportunity that I had with Mr. Bell. In that regard, I'm extremely grateful."
In a sense, it was the financial crash in the fall of 2008 that brought the edgy, assertive Suissa and the Southern gentlemanly Bell together.
Suissa was attending the University of Hartford with a substantial scholarship and loans, as well as a contribution from her aunt. But in the recession of 2009, Suissa's aunt told her she could no longer help and Suissa wound up with a $5,000 bill she couldn't pay.
She also discovered that she couldn't transfer to a less expensive college because she couldn't get a copy of her transcripts. The university had frozen her records because she hadn't paid her bill.
"It was completely unfair," Suissa said of the situation. "I had fought for an education my whole life. Finally I was making it happen and because of money they were going to kick me out."
While many students might have given up and left the school, Suissa was not one of them.
She had grown up in a rough environment and it had taught her, she said, "Nobody comes out to help you, if you don't help yourself. Forget it. Nobody comes out for you. It's over."
When she was 11, Suissa's father left home, leaving Alzioud and Suissa on welfare and homeless. For three years, Suissa and her mother moved from shelter to shelter.
"The people were scary," Suissa says now. "There was a lot of domestic violence, a lot of people with addictions, a lot of child abuse, a lot of sexual abuse. It wasn't the place to be."
Suissa attended eight different schools as they moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. She was beaten up once and developed a tough exterior.
In some ways, those years taught her to expect the worst of people. "People in those shelters weren't there to help you," Suissa said. "People were there to hurt you most of the time."
By the time she was in high school, both Suissa and Alzioud had jobs and were able to find an apartment. While working 20 hours a week at a commercial real estate office, Suissa rose to the top of her high school class. She was president of student government, head of a model Congress program, and she began to dream of going to law school. She watched "Law & Order" and was attracted to what she saw as the glamour of the courtroom.
"I like the art of an argument," Suissa said. "A lot of people find it boring or tedious. I never did."
When she heard about the pre-law program at the University of Hartford, it was the only place she wanted to go to college. She cobbled together a financial plan with scholarships, loans, help from her aunt and her own plans to get a job on campus.
But when her aunt's help fell through and Suissa's own earnings weren't as much as she expected, the plan fell through in 2009.
"That was when the world changed for a lot of students," University of Hartford President Walter Harrison said last week. "There was incredible need in those days and it really hasn't gone down. Unfortunately, the need is still really great."
Harrison said the university did increase its financial aid offerings, but even so can't meet the full financial needs of all its students.
So it was as Suissa was scrambling, applying for every scholarship she could find, that she got an e-mail from the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund: It was looking for students whose ability to pay for college had been impacted by the recession.
"You're damn right it was," Suissa, who is half-Puerto Rican, remembers thinking. She fired off an e-mail detailing her distress.
The e-mail found its way to CNN producer Ronni Berke who decided to feature Suissa in a national story on Feb. 26, 2009, about good students struggling to stay in school because of financial troubles.
On that same date, Bell was in a hotel in New York City. He had a trial going on and was getting dressed when he turned on CNN.
"My dad taught us there is always an opportunity if you look out for it to help somebody," Bell said, "I think we see these things every day that somebody needs help, and, if we don't respond, then who will? Everybody says someone else can do it."
Suissa struck him as an "extremely bright little girl," and he decided to make a phone call to the University of Hartford.
His law firm had helped others get their education in the past. "We've had almost 20 people go to law school that we've worked with over the years," he said.
Suissa also heard from others who want to help. A soldier in Iraq sent her $50 for books. A mother of a University of Hartford student also donated money for books.
But it was Bell who paid for the balance of her four years of college, paid off her loans, and invited her to work at his law firm as an intern. Suissa spent two summers doing that.
'I'm A Lot Nicer Now'
Suissa says that Bell's help not only got her through college, but also changed her attitude about people. "I'm a lot nicer now," Suissa said. "I don't look at people and distrust them right away. I don't think everybody is out to get me. I don't think the world is a horrible, ugly place. I did at one point in my life, and I don't anymore."
Suissa said she can never repay Bell, but she hopes to help others in whatever ways she can.
On Sunday Bell will sit with Alzioud at Suissa's graduation. It will be the first time that Alzioud meets Bell and she can't wait.
"It's a fairy tale," Alzioud said of Bell's help. "I'm thrilled to meet him … I can hardly wait."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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