Elease Dillard clearly remembers when she learned about the cost of a college degree.
“It was a sunny day and I was in the financial aid office as a high school senior, excited about this next chapter of life,” she said. “Then I was told about the costs and the average amount of student loan debt. My sunny day immediately felt cloudy.”
A few months before, Dillard had changed her mind about playing college basketball. Instead, she wanted to focus on her studies in a STEM field. This meant she would not have basketball scholarships for college.
“While college is discussed a lot with high school students, the costs are not often included in those discussions,” she said. “Because I made the choice about basketball, I decided that paying for college should be up to me.”
Dillard recognized her two choices. One was to take out loans, leaving her in debt. Or she could take action to find a way to fund her education. She chose action.
Dillard also chose GGC, which offers very affordable tuition.
“I am blessed the cost to attend GGC was less than other schools,” she said. “I earned enough to fund my entire freshman year debt-free. I took action again, and funded my second year debt-free. By this time, I found a groove and duplicated what worked.”
In 2015, Dillard walked across the GGC commencement ceremony stage, biology degree in hand and debt-free.
While at GGC, Dillard discovered that not everyone knew how to fund their education. She shared tips and strategies with her peers, many of whom went on to win scholarships or obtain other funding for school.
Two GGC experiences helped change Dillard’s career goals. During her junior year, she took a GGC Honors Program course called “How to be a Global Change Agent.” The course caused her to “deeply reflect” on how to make a positive impact in the world.
Then two weeks before graduation, she gave a speech in a GGC business course about funding her education debt-free. To her surprise, the class responded with applause ... and questions.
“This was a powerful moment because it highlighted a void,” she said. “Students lack a go-to resource to fund their education debt-free. They longed for a program that didn’t exist. So I decided to change that.”
Dillard founded her company, The Student Navigator, in 2016 and published a book, Funding College Debt-Free: Your Interactive Guide Towards Living a Life of Freedom, Passion, and Purpose, in 2017.
Dillard’s plans did not go smoothly. Her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and she devoted much of her time to helping with his care. When he passed away, her savings were almost gone – but she didn’t give up on her calling to help students.
“My parents raised me in a household where ‘winners never quit and quitters never win.’ They instilled in me the core value that you do everything with 110 percent effort and with excellence,” she said. “I was not going to quit – on myself, my family and the students whose lives will be changed by freedom from the bondage of student loan debt.”
Today, Dillard hears from students and parents about how they have successfully reduced or avoided debt due to her counsel.
“After speaking to a group of students and parents, I met a father of five who thanked me with tears in his eyes because he had hope that all of his children would be able to go to college and fund it debt-free,” she said. “That is what I find most rewarding and is the reason why I do what I do every day.”
Dillard maintains close ties to her alma mater, and has served on the GGC Alumni Association Board for four years and has held the office of secretary. She is often seen participating in campus events, always offering encouraging words.
“I want to encourage students to dream big. If you have a dream inside of you, don’t quit,” Dillard said. “Your struggle will one day be a part of your success story. You have what it takes!”
Read more about the college, its student and alumni in GGC's Engage Magazine.