Your Turn

An Open Letter of Gratitude

By Celine Coggins ’95

I started my second year at Holy Cross in a free fall. My mom died on August 7, 1992, just two weeks before the start of school, leaving unresolved questions about whether I’d return to the Hill and how I’d pay for it if I did. After escaping to the College from a run-down city high school in Medford, Mass., my first year on Mount St. James had convinced me I’d reached the Promised Land. The possibility of not returning was the only thing that could intensify my already-searing grief.

My financial aid package, calculated earlier that year on the assumption of two living, working parents, resulted in a bill that was impossible in the context of my family’s new reality. In those chaotic days between the funeral and the first day of class, my father and I reached a half-solution about my future. I would return to school—but with only a fraction of my tuition for the semester paid.

A month later, after evading a continual flurry of pink notes from the bursar’s office requesting my immediate attention, I went in to meet my fate. The conversation began predictably enough with a mini-lecture on the importance of promptly responding to “official College business.” But then it took an acute turn—for the better. I wasn’t being tossed out of school. On the contrary, an alumnus had heard of my situation and wanted to pay my tuition for the remainder of the year on the condition that he (or she) would remain anonymous. Stunned, I accepted. In that moment, the trajectory of my life was permanently altered.

A week later I was asked back—surely to retract the offer, I thought. Again, my assumption could not have been more wrong. The donor had decided to extend the offer and cover my tuition through graduation.

My memory of that day is dominated by a feeling of overwhelming gratitude— but at the time that gratitude wasn’t for the future I’d been given. I couldn’t comprehend that then. I had just turned 19 and the scope of my perspective didn’t extend much beyond the present tense. What I remember is running to lunch at Kimball, silently thanking God for the chance at a second life with my friends and a pass out of the sadness of my home life.

Today, with the distance of almost two decades, it is impossible to describe how much this event permeates the core of who I am. I have two daughters. I have a Ph.D. I think about my anonymous benefactor every single day. Making good on that person’s investment frames my worldview and motivates me to live a purposeful life.

An individual I will presumably never know gave me Holy Cross—the education, the degree, the experiences—as a gift. It is strange not to be able to say thank you. I wonder if this person assumes that the poignancy of this gift, made so long ago, has faded over time. I feel compelled to write publicly that it has had the exact opposite effect. I appreciate it more every day.

This gift set the context for my last three years of college and helped me to take advantage of the lessons Holy Cross aspires to instill in all students: intellectual curiosity, civic responsibility and faith. Certainly my faith was part of that dark time in September 1992, when my future hung in the balance. I have distinct memories of lying in my bed in Clark, scared, and invoking a prayer more universal than the Our Father: “Dear God, if you just grant me this one wish I promise I’ll never ask for anything ever again. Please let me stay at Holy Cross.” Somehow my less-than-pious prayer was answered. I can’t help but attribute that, in part, to divine intervention. Yet the facts are clear: Someone in our community came to my rescue. At a time when my faith was greatly shaken, I received the greatest blessing of my life. It’s not easy to reconcile why a gift from one person to another solidified my faith in God. I just know it did. It’s also not easy to try to see God in everyone I encounter. But how could I not? That person I just passed on the street could be him or her.

Since graduating, I’ve learned that an education is the most profound gift one human being can give to another. Opportunities compound over time, each enabled by its predecessor, all originating from a common starting point. Holy Cross was the point of origin in my life that shaped the arc of possibility for everything that has come after it. My donor must have known the incalculable value of his or her gift then. It has taken me half a lifetime to grasp—and I know it will take me the rest of my life to adequately say thank you.

Celine Coggins ’95 is the founder and CEO of Teach Plus, a national nonprofit organization that strives to provide urban students access to effective, experienced teachers. To learn more about Holy Cross’ current financial aid policies, visit holycross.edu/financialaid.