Launched in 2018, Pitt’s Panthers Forward initiative is designed to support student success and reduce the burden of debt for those who have taken out federal student loans in their senior year.
In addition to the financial assistance, the students are connected with a network of mentors and life skills programming, said Panthers Forward director Sarah Webb. “Through PF Connect, a private engagement platform, members have access to fellow members of the community and event details. Events focus on varying topics all important to the transition from college,” she said.
The year wraps in April with a celebration to mark their graduation into the ranks of Pitt alumni.
The program comes with one voluntary condition: that recipients will “pay it forward” as alumni to help future cohorts of Pitt students. Giving back goes beyond making financial contributions. Panthers Forward alumni also pay it forward by mentoring others.
Members of the new cohort were introduced to that growing network of mentors and friends in a recent virtual kickoff celebration that included informal chats and meet-and-greet sessions in small online groups.
In videotaped welcome remarks at the Oct. 22 kickoff event, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said that when Panthers Forward launched two years ago, there was no crystal ball to envision how 2020 would play out.
But, he said, “We knew that students, alumni, donors and others would come together, lift one another up and create a formidable network of support—and this community matters now more than ever.”
This year’s Panther’s Forward cohort is accomplished and diverse:
- 69% are from Pennsylvania; 31% are from out of state.
- The average GPA is 3.6.
- 91% have professional experience related to their field of study.
- 25% are male; 75% are female.
- 53% are from the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; 15% are from the College of Business Administration and 7% are from the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. The Swanson School of Engineering, School of Nursing and School of Computing and Information make up 5% each; with others representing the School of Education, College of General Studies, School of Pharmacy, School of Social Work and multiple majors.
- The cohort is 75% white; 11% Black or African American; 7% Asian, 3% Hispanic and 3% other ethnicity.
Three new Panthers Forward recipients shared their Pitt stories:
“Nothing more exciting than getting email saying you got free money, especially when it’s a good sum,” quipped Alex Davidson, who applied for the Panthers Forward program after learning about it through University emails. Davidson, a senior from Philadelphia who is majoring in information science, is working two jobs while finishing their senior year at Pitt.
In addition to working as a web developer and research assistant in pediatrics faculty member Ana Radovic’s group, Davidson has a software engineering internship with health services giant Cigna, a position that will become a full-time job in Philadelphia after graduation this spring.
Davidson chose Pitt after looking at schools all over the country. “Pitt offered a good option for my major, plus some perks like getting to go to class in the Cathedral of Learning,” Davidson said. “And it’s a beautiful city. I wanted a college with its own campus within a city.”
Davidson, who plays guitar and bass, has made connections on campus and in the Pittsburgh community during their time here. They’ve been active in radio station WPTS, with the student group BLAQ (Black, Loud and Queer) and in the Pittsburgh music scene. “Everyone is very friendly, and it feels like a small town. It’s been easy to make friends here,” they said.
Davidson already is expanding that circle through Panthers Forward. “Panthers Forward provides access to a broad network of Pitt alumni from all different fields and all different generations,” Davidson noted. “It’s great to be able to have access to that network and gain things from it. Later on, when I’m established in my career, I want to offer the same thing to undergraduates.”
Following the virtual kickoff event, Davidson said, “I like how informal the connections are–it’s not all suit-and-tie and making awkward small talk. The people involved in the program are there to help you.”
Steven Montalbano, a senior from suburban Pittsburgh, will graduate this spring with a degree in computer science.
He’s been active in the Kappa Theta Pi professional technology fraternity on campus, serving as president in his junior year and currently as vice president. The group hosts professional development events, and volunteers together as a team on community projects including Pitt Make a Difference Day.
Montalbano found the opportunity to reduce his student loan balances through Panthers Forward appealing. “I have plenty of loans, so it didn’t hurt to apply. For four years I’ve been building debt,” he said.
“Once I applied, I got a follow-up survey to take, with a lot of questions about mentorship and financial literacy, and I realized there was more to the program than just a grant.” He has just begun exploring the Panthers Forward Connect online resources for the Panthers Forward community.
“Once I learned that about the program, to me, it shows that you don’t leave the Pitt community when you graduate. It’s an opportunity to help out current students,” he said, looking ahead to the opportunity to help others with financial circumstances similar to his own.
Montalbano said his parents paid his tuition at St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, but the cost of college is largely his own responsibility.
In addition to his college internship work, he spent hours applying for scholarships–both prior to and after coming to Pitt. He received financial assistance from the Pittsburgh Italian Scholarship Fund and government grants and support from the University’s Pell Grant Match program. He still needed student loans.
The Panthers Forward program was appealing as a means to reduce those loan balances as he moves toward a future that’s hopeful but as yet uncertain. Montalbano already saw one internship opportunity canceled due to the pandemic. And while he’s optimistic that his current internship at the Software Engineering Institute at CMU could lead to a fulltime job, it’s not guaranteed.
“To be selected for Panthers Forward out of a huge pool was an honor. I did not expect it,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to help the transition into my post-graduation life.”
Khadajah Muhammad, a senior from Oklahoma, came to Pitt sight unseen–drawn by the University’s generous financial aid package. She is majoring in political science with a minor in administration of justice and aspires to a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. Muhammad is applying to graduate schools and awaiting decisions on several State Department fellowships she’s applied to through the University Honors College.
She grew up in a single-parent household, the middle of three siblings and is the first in her family to attend college. “I always enjoyed school,” she said, adding that she knew early on that she wanted to continue her education. Her decision to come to Pittsburgh has not disappointed. “Academically, Pitt has been amazing,” she said.
Muhammad also loves the city environment and Pennsylvania’s rich political history—perfect grounds for studying political science, she said.
She’s been active in giving back to the community throughout her time at Pitt, including volunteering through the Office of PittServes and serving on the Student Civic Engagement Council, as well as helping to form the Association of Black Political Science Students on campus, a student organization that received Student Organization Resource Center approval earlier this year.
Pitt was among her top schools when she was deciding on colleges, but she had both academics and the bottom line to consider as she made her final decision. “I didn’t want to be in debt forever,” she said.
Her interest in Panthers Forward isn’t solely about the financial assistance. She’s looking forward to the opportunity to build a network with alumni—and to maintaining those relationships. “Establishing those connections, you know you’ll want to give back,” she said.
She views the Panthers Forward program as evidence that Pitt continues to honor its commitment to help students. “I want to contribute to that,” she said, looking ahead to fulfilling her own commitment to paying it forward. “I want students who are in my position to be able to come here like I did.”
Read more about the start of the program and the inaugural Panthers Forward cohort.