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Panthers Forward debt-relief program welcomes 150 new members

  • Community Impact
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • College of General Studies

Airi Tilley is her family’s version of a pioneer.

Not only is she the first person on either side of her family to attend college, she’s also the first to be completely independent at the age of 18.

But being first isn’t always easy. Despite working nearly full time, Tilley (pictured far right) often struggled to pay her bills. On the toughest days, she went without food or surreptitiously took leftovers from work events.

“Being a college student is a humbling experience,” she said. “Everyone is struggling, and some people feel so afraid to ask for help. We shouldn’t normalize that suffering.”

The experience left Tilley with a desire to help others. She’s working toward a degree in media and professional communications in the College of General Studies, with plans to focus her future career on organizations that give back.

And she recently learned she’s one of 150 students named to the Panthers Forward Class of 2023

Panthers Forward is a first-of-its-kind program open to all students on the University’s Pittsburgh campus who use federal loans to fund their last year of college. Participants receive up to $5,000 in direct federal student loan relief, mentoring from Pitt alumni and exclusive invitations to events and workshops.

The only condition is a voluntary one: that students pay it forward to the next generation, either financially or by contributing their time and talent after graduation.

“I like the expectation that we help people just to help people,” Tilley said. “I’m excited to be part of this community where people are caring and engaged.”

The Panthers Forward Class of 2023 includes students from dozens of majors and 10 of Pitt’s schools and colleges. Its members have volunteered in the community, conducted undergraduate research, worked in campus offices and helmed student organizations. One sings with Pitt’s a cappella group Pitches and Tones, another sits on the executive board of Delta Sigma Theta’s Mu Chapter, a third works as a patient care technician at UPMC Presbyterian. Tilley serves as the vice president of marketing, outreach and events for the Pitt Pantry.

“This is such an impressive group of students,” said Panthers Forward Director Sarah Cullen. “I’m excited to begin working with them and getting to know them. I think they are going to be really engaged.”

The class gathered as a group for the first time on Nov. 1 to hear from program partner and award-winning financial author Gene Natali about the importance of building a financial plan. In addition, three Panthers Forward alumni were on hand to discuss how understanding their finances resulted in post-graduate success. Their appearance also served as an example of the myriad ways former Panthers Forward students are giving back to the community that helped them.  

It’s a lesson that resonates with Tilley.

“In order to accomplish something great, you don’t have to win the Peace Prize,” she said. “You can feed one person, help one person, make one person happy. That’s an accomplishment.”

Since launching in 2019, Panthers Forward has offset $3.75 million in federal loans, helping 600 students address their debt. Applications for the Class of 2024 will open in August 2023.


— April Johnston-Smith