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Panthers Forward program fills financial aid gap for last-year students

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Students

As an undergraduate at Pitt, Pranitha Pothuri (A&S ’20) fell into the dreaded financial aid gap. Her parents didn’t make enough money to cover the difference between her merit scholarship and the total cost of college tuition, but they made too much money for grants and similar aid.

So, when she spotted an advertisement suggesting she was eligible for $5,000 of student loan debt relief through the Panthers Forward program, she felt relieved.

“I was so glad to at least qualify for something,” said Pothuri, who hopes to attend medical school. “A lot of scholarships have really stringent requirements I didn’t meet — you have to be from a certain background or have so much financial need.”

Panthers Forward is different. The first-of-its-kind program is open to all students on the University’s Pittsburgh campus who use federal loans to fund their last year of college. Participants not only get up to $5,000 in direct federal student loan relief, but they also receive mentoring from Pitt alumni and exclusive invitations to events and workshops.

The only condition is a voluntary one: that students pay it forward, either financially or by contributing their time and talent as a Panthers Forward Friend (PFF) or alumni mentor after graduation.

Since launching in 2019, Panthers Forward has offset $2.25 million in federal loans, helping 450 students address their debt.

Inioluwa Ogunsemowo (EDUC ’21) was one of them. Ogunsemowo, like Pothuri, was looking to cover the difference between the scholarships she had earned and the tuition bill she received when she joined Panthers Forward last fall. For that final semester, the difference was about $5,000.

“Panthers Forward basically covered the last semester of my senior year,” Ogunsemowo said.

But it wasn’t just the money that mattered to her. Despite joining the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ogunsemowo and her fellow participants were still offered the full slate of mentorship, events and workshops, and even got a surprise, end-of-the-year Zoom party with a DJ and trivia.

“College is an intimidating place, financially and socially,” Ogunsemowo said. “Getting that kind of support is definitely necessary.”

Pothuri agrees. Having graduated in the spring of 2020, she enjoyed a more typical Panthers Forward experience with in-person financial literacy symposia and small-group mentor meetings. The intimacy of the program was a welcome contrast to her large, lecture-hall classes, she said. She felt like she belonged to something special.

“We had so many different majors, ethnicities and career goals,” Pothuri said of her 2020 cohort, “but we were all so passionate about Pitt.”

Panthers Forward depends on that kind of passion to succeed. When students relish their experience in the program, they are more likely to give back, return to it or recommend it to other students. Ogunsemowo is already planning to become a mentor when she graduates from her physical therapy graduate program in 2023. And, last year, in a survey of participants, 100% of respondents said they would recommend the program to a friend.

“Of course, there’s the money, which a lot of people are drawn to,” Ogunsemowo said. “But there’s so much more, and you’ll regret it if you don’t take advantage of it.

“Oh, and the swag!” she added, laughing. “I love that jacket (they) gave me so much. I intense studied with that jacket on.”

To apply, visit the Panthers Forward website. Applications close at midnight on Sunday, Sept. 26.


— April Johnston-Smith, top photo taken before COVID-19 pandemic