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Staying the course

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Grudgingly, Jeremiah Ockunzzi ’17 had made his peace.

“I loved Furman, but it was a good two years and that was the end of a chapter in my life,” he says. “I was going to Ohio State.”

Being a Buckeye wasn’t the Cleveland native’s first choice out of high school, and it certainly wasn’t Ockunzzi’s first choice midway through his sophomore year at a school with about 95 percent fewer students that had come to feel like home. There was nothing to be done, however.

“Come January, my dad lost his job, and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Furman,” Ockunzzi says. “It was kind of like pulling up roots. I was scared to have to start all over again at a new place, leave all of my friends.”

Out of options, or so he thought, Ockunzzi told his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers the bad news in a group message. The texts and calls of support he expected; the suggestion to look into Furman United for a final Hail Mary pass he didn’t.

“I searched it and didn’t see an application, so I was kind of perplexed,” he says.

Ockunzzi picked up the phone and found himself talking to Forrest Stuart in the financial aid office. No promises were made, but by the end of the conversation the tunnel’s end seemed to be a little less black.

It was no illusion.

”I filled him in on the story, and he said write a letter of appeal and we’ll talk about it,” Ockunzzi remembers. “It was three days later. I was expecting a month, two months, and three days later he came back and said we’ll give you the money you need to come to Furman next year. I mean, it was an absolute miracle. It’s one of those little things that helps you realize just how blessed you are.”

Furman United began in 2008 as a lifeline for students caught in the undertow of the Great Recession. The program was supposed to be temporary, but, backed by a grant from the Daniel-Mickel Foundation in Greenville in its first year, Furman United became a permanent part of the University’s financial-aid landscape.

Since 2008, Furman United has given more than $876,000 to more than 165 students. There is no formal application process, no set number of recipients per year, and each case is handled on an individual basis.

“If you analyze the text of Furman’s foundational documents and create a word cloud, you see one word that is dominant—student,” Stuart, Furman’s associate vice president for financial aid, said in an email. “Furman United reflects the mission of a student-centered institution that expects a lot out of its students yet supports them when times are tough.”

Ockunzzi is spending the summer back home in Ohio building genetic sequences for a pharmaceutical company. He has already earned a provisional patent on a research idea for cancer treatment, and not content with his biology/sociology double major and afternoons spent practicing as a member of the track team, Ockunzzi plans to add chemistry for a major trifecta with an eye on earning an MD-PhD and becoming a pediatric congenital cardio-thoracic surgeon.

A lifetime high achiever, he attended Saint Ignatius High with his sight squarely focused on an elite private school in the South. Just not this one.

“I had to fight to go to Furman in the first place. Duke was my dream school, and when I applied there it was a foregone conclusion (in my mind) that I was going to get in because I was coming out of one of the best college preparatory in the U.S.,” he says. “I had a 35 on my ACT, a 4.3 GPA—I was going to get in. Then I got wait-listed, and at that point Duke had been the only school that I had applied to. I didn’t know where I was going.”

Ockunzzi’s college counselor put Furman on a list of similar institutions he might be interested in instead. He was surprised by what he discovered.

“I started looking into schools, and it turned out Furman actually had a higher acceptance rate into medical school than Duke did, which threw me for a loop,” Ockunzzi says. “But that’s actually what I picked based on. I came for a visit, did my interview, and I fell in love with the place.”

So in love he ended up turning Duke down a month later when he was taken off the wait list and offered admission. His parents weren’t quite so smitten, however.

“When I told them I had decided to stay with Furman my dad actually didn’t speak to me for two whole weeks because he was so upset,” Ockunzzi says. “That was a tough month in the household because they were so frustrated with me.”

They soon came around as well, to the point Ockunzzi’s father, Kevin, was nearly as devastated as he was about the transfer—and nearly as happy when he got the news in May about Furman United.

“He was taking a nap, and when I got the email I ran upstairs and started jumping on the bed like an 8-year-old . . . He thought someone was breaking into the house or something,” Ockunzzi says. “He started crying.”

Ockunzzi says emotions overwhelmed him more than once as he read Stuart’s email over and over, and he has already devised a way to express his gratitude in a more concrete way. A member of Alpha Phi Omega, Furman’s service fraternity, Ockunzzi is in charge of organizing its first fundraising 5k this year, and all proceeds will be given to Furman United.

“Honestly, it was his transparency with the situation he and his family were experiencing combined with his proven resilience and tenacity to graduate in spite of those circumstances,” Stuart said when asked what about Ockunzzi’s situation got the attention of Furman United. “I don’t know if changes lives is what I would say (about Furman United), because Furman changes lives. Furman United just enables students to continue to experience the entity that is Furman.”

Donations to Furman United can be made here or by calling 864-294-3431.

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