(This is the first in a series about college applicants and the circumstances that shaped their choices this spring.)

Tonaylor Richardson wanted to go to Spelman College and nowhere else. The campus was like home, where she should have been. For years, she wondered if she had what it took to get in.

In December, a high school physiologist in Jacksonville, Florida, saw blue balloons floating on her laptop screen. “Congratulations,” the message said. She danced around the living room, imagining herself at Atlanta’s historically black women’s college.

Richardson was a determined student, with a 3.7 grade point average, known for exuding optimism. After seeing the five-figure gap in her financial aid letter, she refused to worry — a number that could wreck her dreams. She believes that everything will work out somehow.

But her mother, Latonia Richardson, wasn’t so sure. She is a single parent with a master’s degree in health administration but has no savings. A head injury kept her from working long hours, and last fall she found a full-time job with the local government, earning $49,000 a year.

Spellman’s financial aid award leaves her with a $43,000 shortfall. That’s just one year. But she already knew she was ineligible for a Parent PLUS loan. She has burned her 401(k).

Even as she celebrated her daughter’s acceptance, she felt anxious. Also feeling guilty for not having a better financial plan. One day she asked herself, “How the fuck am I going to pay?”

The Richardsons, whose expected household contribution is $0, are on the wrong side of two major disagreements. One involves family wealth: The net worth of the typical white American family is about 10 times that of the typical black family. The fewer resources students have, the shorter their realistic list of college options, barring a scholarship miracle.

Then there is the wealth gap between institutions. Spellman and other historically black colleges are still struggling: They are chronically under-resourced campuses that serve many students with enormous financial need. HBCUs’ endowment and aid budgets are dwarfed by those of many predominantly white colleges, limiting how much they can fund admitted applicants.

Let’s look at Wellesley College, a small, wealthy, and predominantly white-female institution in Massachusetts that enrolls about the same number of students as Spellman. In 2019-20, the average net home price for a household earning $30,001 to $48,000 in Wellesley was about $8,000, according to federal data. In Spellman, it’s about $43,000.

Taylor Richardson understands this divide, which has shaped her and many other students’ choices. But just as she refuses to worry, she refuses to sit still. The wealth she needed to get into Spellman wouldn’t fall from the sky. She had to pull it off herself.

From December to March, she applied for nearly 50 scholarships in total. She wrote article after article and recommended letter after letter of recommendation. She waited.

MeterAny teen who has applied to college in recent months will have their preferred campuses in mind. Still, some students are at greater risk than others.

Richardson wanted something rare: a campus she could surround herself with young women who looked like her. Who can relate to her experience. Who will be her supporting sister and lift her up. She is eager to do the same for them in return.

She attended predominantly white schools her entire life. She has dealt with bullies and is known as the N-word. She enjoyed certain aspects of her high school, but felt like an outsider a lot of the time. “It’s almost impossible to find out who you are,” Richardson recently told chronicle“while trying to demonstrate that your existence as a black woman has value in a place that doesn’t understand or refuses to understand.”

Richardson plans to major in biology, go to medical school, and become an obstetrician. Also an astronaut.

Since reading, she has fantasized about soaring in the sky Find where the wind is going 9 years old. This is the autobiography of Mae C. Jemison, a doctor, engineer and former astronaut who was the first black woman in space. The book gave Richardson a role model and deepened her interest in the stars and constellations. Her mother would watch her draw the shape of the Big Dipper with her fingers in the air.

not long after reading Find where the wind is going, Richardson went to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. The experience, especially the simulated rocket flight, excited her. She took home a pack of star stickers and placed it on the ceiling of her bedroom. At night, they sparkle. Every time she and her mom move, she peels them off one by one and takes them to her new home.

Although Richardson loved space camp, she hadn’t seen black girls there, which was frustrating but inspiring. So, she became an activist. She wants to inspire young black women interested in science, technology, engineering and math, but they may not see themselves entering those fields — or be encouraged to do so.

As a student space ambassador, aka Astronaut Starbright, she visited the school in a blue NASA jumpsuit. Later, she was saddened by STEM inclusivity in speeches she gave nationally and abroad.

Crowdfunding came naturally to Richardson, who and her mother funded her trip to space camp through GoFundMe.In her teens, she raised about $20,000 to send 100 girls in Jacksonville to see hidden images, a 2016 film about three black female mathematicians who played key roles in the construction of the U.S. space program. She used the remaining funds to set up a scholarship to enable a young woman from Florida to attend space camp.

In 2018, Richardson raised more than $50,000 — Oprah Winfrey later matched — to send 1,000 young women to watch the film a wrinkle in time Buy them a Madeleine Engel book. “This is a fantasy movie, not about some white boys fighting evil,” Richardson wrote online, “but about a black girl overcoming evil.”

In February, Richardson launched another GoFundMe campaign: “Help StarBright get to college.” She explained that even with federal Pell Grants and all the student loans she could apply for, she would end up well below her first year Total amount required for all expenses – estimated at $50,000, including books and shipping.

Richardson raised half of the money in about two weeks. By March 26, she had made $32,000. That day, she tweeted a simple request: “My first year of college will be paid if my 1,754 followers donate only $15!”

TonAlthough Richardson had her heart set on Spellman from day one, she applied to 30 colleges in total and received nearly two dozen offers. But acceptance when aid is insufficient does not represent a viable option.

Several colleges Richardson attended offered her some financial aid, but not enough to make them affordable. She was accepted into an Ivy League school that basically offered full service to students from low-income families. But she didn’t end up with a huge reward.

That’s because the agency denied her mother’s request to waive a requirement that both parents must submit detailed financial information before applications for aid can be considered. She just doesn’t have that kind of relationship with Taylor’s father — who lives in Atlanta with his wife and their two kids — in a relationship that would be comfortable discussing the complexities of paying for college. “We never talk about money,” she said.

By the end of March, none of Richardson’s scholarship applications had been accepted. Her mother kept thinking, Oh my god she can’t go to Spellman.

It hurts. After all, she does a lot for her daughter. When Taylor struggled with reading and ADHD in second grade, she read to her regularly and took her to the library for books and audiobooks. She provided her with several telescopes for observing space. She is surrounded by models of what she calls “black excellence,” whether orthodontists, pediatricians, or mentors.

But the mother couldn’t solve one problem: Taylor Richardson, an accomplished student who raised $350,000 for causes and devoted thousands of hours in community service, her activism inspired a A documentary and mural honoring her, her commitment moved the city of Jacksonville to pass an official resolution honoring her “distinguished and unprecedented work as a teen philanthropist and advocate for STEM education, literacy, and social justice”—finally May not receive funding to choose colleges like other applicants.

As spring rolls around, Latonja Richardson encourages her daughter to consider colleges other than Spelman, including Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. Howard provides her with substantial aid that will cover about half of her attendance costs.

But that still leaves a gap of about $25,000 a year. Is that possible?really a choose?

Richardson still believes she will find a way to reach Spellman. Then April came — and so did an email.

Richardson’s mother opened it up: Taylor received a full scholarship from Morgan Stanley. The financial services company recently launched the Morgan Stanley HBCU Scholars Program, a $12 million program designed to pay for a small group of students attending Howard College, Spelman College and Morehouse College All educational expenses for four years.

Richardson’s mother cried, “Thank you, Jesus!” She tried to FaceTime with her daughter, who was in class. That night, they had dinner to celebrate.

One would-be astronaut-Ob-Gyn, who actually talks about delivering a baby on Mars one day, has earned every penny of the journey. However, her mother understands that luck determines, among the many accomplished and deserving students, who ends up receiving the award.

A few weeks later, Richardson traveled to Atlanta for Spelbound, a two-day program for Spelman admitted students. Walking around, Richardson felt that she could finally… breathe. She experienced the intimate atmosphere of the sister church and saw the dance steps performed by the students. She ate vanilla ice cream with Oreos at a social gathering with Morehouse students. She met future roommates and was delighted to see so many young black women who, as she put it, “love each other.”

Richardson is going to Spellman. All because she was given something too rare: a huge scholarship, like a treasure that fell from the sky, allowing her to get into a college of her choice but couldn’t afford. She plans to use the funds she raised on GoFundMe to pay for expenses — maybe rent an apartment in Atlanta, plus medical school — and help students in need.

Late one Wednesday night in May, Richardson was studying anatomy in her room, surrounded by a Black Lives Matter banner and posters of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj.she stopped to look despicable Me And have been wondering if she’ll change her prom dress in time for next weekend.

Richardson thought about how grateful she was to be on her way to her first choice college. She thought of all the students who couldn’t say the same thing. She entered a message into her phone: “No one should be unable to go to school for lack of money. Period.”

She slept under the star-studded ceiling.