In fall 2007, Danielle Powell enrolled in Grace University in Omaha, Neb., to pursue a degree in psychology. She chose to study at Grace, a Christian college, because her older sister lived in Omaha and she was “offered generous scholarships.” Powell played on the women’s volleyball team and did well in school.
During the spring 2011 semester of her senior year, Powell traveled to Mississippi to work at a civil rights foundation to finish her degree. While there, Powell and another student began a same-sex relationship. After the relationship became known by Grace, Powell was suspended. Shortly after, Grace began billing Powell for $6,300, the amount of her scholarships for that spring semester, which had been revoked.
Powell was determined to finish her degree; so, after careful reflection and consultation with her mentors, she decided to apply for readmission to Grace. In order to re-enroll, Powell had to fulfill the university’s requests to live off campus and go through a prescribed program that addressed sexual relations. She had also planned to repay the $6,300 and tuition for her final semester through her job’s tuition reimbursement program.
But the night before she was going to register for the spring 2012 semester, Powell received an email from Michael F. James, executive vice president of Grace, stating she’d been expelled.
“He stated they had enough firsthand information from individuals that I had been deceitful and they couldn’t affirm my Christian character,” explained Powell during a telephone interview with Diverse. “Christian character was a requirement for degree conferral.”
Powell consulted attorneys, but had no grounds on which to fight her expulsion. Grace is a private institution, and the administration may expel students that they feel don’t meet a code of conduct.
After her expulsion, Powell stopped receiving monthly statements requesting payment of the $6,300. Then in October 2012, when she called to request her transcripts so she could apply to another school and complete her degree, Powell said she was told by the financial aid office that she could not receive her transcripts because she still had the $6,300 balance.
With no options left, Powell’s wife Michelle Rogers (the two began a relationship after Powell’s suspension and wed on Dec. 8, 2012 in Iowa) started a petition on Change.org asking people to persuade James to waive Powell’s tuition debt. At press time, more than 60,000 people had signed. With each signature, an email is sent to James. Since the story broke last week, Powell has received offers from individuals to pay off the $6,300 for her. A college in Chicago offered to pay off her debt and allow her to complete her undergraduate education at no cost. She has declined.
“Even though this is my personal story, it’s definitely something that resonates with a lot of individuals and is a relevant issue in our society,” said Powell, 24.
Powell continues to consult attorneys regarding the $6,300. Powell said, initially, individuals from Grace claimed the money was federal aid that had to be repaid. She disputes this, indicating she also took federal student loans and is well aware she needs to repay that money. She did not take any federal aid for the spring 2011 semester. The $6,300 represents scholarship money.
Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization for student leaders and campus groups working to create a safer college environment for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) students, said that, while he finds the expulsion sad, he acknowledges that it is the right of a private institution. He finds its insistence that Powell return scholarship money “ridiculous.”
“That is beyond comprehension,” said Windmeyer, adding that he has not previously heard of a situation like Powell’s where repayment of scholarship money is sought. “It shows how much more work we have to do when it comes to treating Americans equally.”
Campus Pride serves as a resource for high school students who are already out and want to learn about colleges that are LGBT-friendly. There is an online index with information. For students who come out during college, there are mentors who can provide assistance in transferring.
“The index includes information about campuses that are religiously affiliated … and are doing many positive things for LGBT students,” Windmeyer said.
Powell said that, since the story broke in the media, Grace has indicated it will provide her transcripts. This was also confirmed in a statement James sent to Diverse.
“From the very beginning, we have been and remain willing to provide transcripts to the student in question,” the statement reads.
“Grace University is run on biblical principles; therefore we do not employ collection agencies or take legal action, nor do we report to credit agencies to collect debt. Our policy is to notify the student of the debt, and we believe it is up to the student to uphold their obligations,” the statement further noted.
Even though she faces no apparent long-term consequences, Powell says she will persist until the debt is formally forgiven or waived.
“It is a big deal because it’s other people’s educations and finances at question in the future,” she said.
As for her own future, Powell and Rogers are planning careers in social justice. Rogers is preparing to apply to nursing school. Their goal is to work with women and children in poor communities who’ve suffered sexual abuse.