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'They remembered us': EMU graduates touched by donors' $599, no-strings-attached gift

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Last Saturday, Heather Irvine woke up a bit sad, and then went on her routine run around Eastern Michigan's campus. Her route took her right by the Convocation Center, where the parking lot was empty.

Recent EMU graduates Alejandro Rodriguez and girlfriend Alexis Berent.

It was supposed to be packed for graduation, until COVID-19.

"There was not a single car in the parking lot. It was just quiet and desolate, and that's when it hit me," Irvine said during a recent phone conversation. "This sucks." 

Two days later, Irvine woke up to an email that instantly brightened her mood.

GameAbove, a well-connected group of Eastern Michigan donors, had pledged a $2 million gift to fund a one-time payment of $599 to each of this spring's graduates (undergraduate and post-graduate), as well as $400 for each incoming freshman in the fall. That $599 gift will go to each of the 2,270 graduates, and the $400 gift will go to a yet-unknown number of freshmen.

Irvine, 51, a post-graduate student who has family to feed and bills to pay, didn't know what to think about the email from GameAbove.

"You feel like it's too good to be true," she said. "Is this really happening?"

The gift doesn't completely ease the sting of missing out on a commencement ceremony, though at least Irvine has had one before, during her undergraduate days.

Alejandro Rodriguez, 24, recently graduated with a degree in media studies.

The $599 gift (it's not $600, because at $600, it becomes taxable) will be huge for him and girlfriend Alexis Berent, 22. They still are paying on their Ypsilanti apartment while quarantined with his father in Saginaw. Rodriguez was all set to interview at a TV station in Saginaw, until COVID-19 led to a hiring freeze.

Rodriguez and his girlfriend didn't qualify for the federal stimulus, and have applied for unemployment.

"Yeah, it's a month's rent," Rodriguez said of the GameAbove gift. "This is a really tough time.

"Six-hundred dollars may not be a lot of money to a lot of people, but it really helps struggling grads like us. We should be interviewing for jobs right now, I should be on the phone with The Detroit News trying to get them to employ me or give me an internship.

"I was kind of ecstatic."

The gifts from GameAbove, of which former Eastern Michigan and Detroit Lions quarterback Charlie Batch is a big booster, have no restrictions, and don't need to be paid back. They are expected to be deposited into student accounts by May 8.

Graduates can withdraw the gift or use it toward future university education, like undergraduate students looking at the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to further their schooling in graduate school.

While there's nothing expected in return, Irvine was so touched, she has pledged to give 10% of her gift back, to go toward current students in need.

"I am a lucky one. I have a support system," said Irvine, who is on furlough until at least mid-July from her job as a graduate teaching assistant. "So many others do not.

"It's one thing to give to a university and say, 'Here's the money,' and they decide what's going to happen. But it's to me. This is personal. They brought this to me and my very good friends that are graduating with me.

"It just meant everything. We felt so alone. We felt kind of forgotten. But they remembered us."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984