For Hassan Abdus-Sabur attending Howard University was a dream come true. But he never imagined that staying would prove to be so difficult or that he wouldn’t go on to graduate.
The Newark, New Jersey native says he spent two years at the well-known Washington D.C.-based HBCU studying elementary education before financial struggles forced him to leave the university and return home.
“That place [Howard University] molded and shaped me in a way that, you know, no other place could have…having to leave was like such a bitter pill, you know, it was hard,” he tells ESSENCE.
At the time, Abdus-Sabur was a 19-year-old first-generation college student. Now, he’s 48 and says not being able to finish his four years at Howard remains one of his life’s biggest regrets. But, he has since taken that personal experience and turned it into an opportunity to pay it forward in a major way.
Some 30 years after he had to leave school due to financial hardship, he now raises money to aid students who attend HBCUs so they can complete their education. He also works to raise awareness about HBCUs or historically Black colleges and universities, which produce almost 20 percent of all African-American graduates and 25 percent of America’s Black graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, mathematics and engineering, yet remain chronically underfunded.
“Whenever you hear somebody can’t pay something at Howard, especially for me knowing finances were the reason I left and didn’t finish…it was triggering for me. I knew I could do something to help. And better than me doing something, I knew we as a community could do something to help because it’s not just about me,” he says.
Since 2020, the former Howard student has helped raise more than $100,000 via GoFundMe with an annual bike ride and it all started with a simple request. One of his former college classmates told him his niece Marabella was a student at Howard but needed help covering her tuition. Abdus-Sabur says he donated $150 to the GoFundMe page but felt there was more he could do to help her make her $18,000 goal.
He came up with an idea to raise money by doing a bike ride from Newark to Howard University. Four friends agreed to join him on that inaugural journey of over 200 miles in 2020. Together they raised about $7,000 for Marabella. For Abdus-Sabur, who regularly rides his bike to work for the city of Newark, a bike ride was not only a way to raise money but to also build community around the cause.
“One of the dopest things about the ride is the people that we meet along the way,” he says, recounting the experience of receiving a $1,500 dollar donation on the spot during one of the rides. “So everybody sees these folks riding on these bikes and you’re going through these little places in Maryland and Philly and things like that folk see you, they know you’re not from there, but the love and support that we get along the way…That’s special.”
Now known as the annual HBCU Scholarship Ride, the initiative has since expanded and provides scholarships to students from Newark who attend not only Howard University but other HBCUs as well. In 2021, ten riders raised $38,000 for five students. This year, 15 riders helped raise over $65,000 for six Newark students attending schools, including Morgan State, North Carolina A&T and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“People really don’t understand when I walked on that campus…I knew I was part of something great. I want kids from Newark to be able to go to these places [HBCUs], share in those ideas and that greatness and experience that same vibe,” he says.
Staff members at GoFundMe took notice of Abdus-Sabur’s efforts. He was recently recognized as a GoFundMe Hero and is now working with the company on a project to provide $500 textbook grants to students at HBCUs. That effort is being done through the company’s GoFindYou initiative, which is described as “a place to celebrate stories of Black joy often overlooked.”
“He is setting up future generations for success and really wanting to give back directly to his community and help these young folks live out the dream that he really wanted for himself,” GoFundMe Communications Director Leigh Lehman tells ESSENCE.
“When you think about that, there’s just something so beautiful about that story,” she continues. “Certainly, that is work to be celebrated and acknowledged. But hopefully, it also provides some inspiration for other people that may have a similar idea.”
So far, the HBCU Textbook fund, launched at the start of homecoming season in October, has raised over $26,000 toward its $75,000 goal. Lehman shares that the company is working to spread the word about the new fund among students who can benefit as well as potential donors who can contribute. “This is an ongoing cause, so it is not one and done. The goal is certainly for it to live on and in perpetuity and almost become sort of its own endowment,” she says.
Abdus-Sabur, who has since started a nonprofit organization that distributes the funds raised, wants to see students graduate and give back to their communities. He also hopes to inspire more people to give. “My new motto is I’m gonna give away a million before I make it,” he said.
The first HBCU Scholarship Ride recipient has since graduated from the same university Abdus-Sabur once attended. Two others who received funds are set to graduate in 2024. That year will also mark Abdus-Sabur completion of his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University.
“I have to be an example to these students,” he says of himself after being inspired to return to school. “If it feels good to be recognized, but I don’t stay there in that good feeling because I know that feeling came about through my work. If I want it to continue, I have to continue to work hard,” he said.