In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduation ceremonies have been canceled, and members of the class of 2020 can't even hug their relatives or host a party to celebrate.
For new graduates like me, leaving college amid a crippling economic downturn comes with a long list of worries: Where am I going to find a job? Will I have to live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future? What comes next?
One thing I haven't gotten around to considering: Who will inherit my worldly belongings in the event of my unexpected death?
Until Monday, anyway. That's when I checked my inbox to find an email from the FIU Foundation, the fundraising arm of my soon-to-be alma mater Florida International University, reassuring me that if I should die from COVID-19, my money will be safe with them.
The email, which went out to current students and alumni, reminds recipients of the school's partnership with FreeWill, an estate-planning website that gives users the option to leave part or all of their assets to charity when they're gone.
"With the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can feel scary thinking about getting sick or not being able to make decisions for yourself, but an estate plan might ease your concerns," the email reads. "So now, more than ever, we want to highlight FreeWill as a valuable resource available to you. With FreeWill, you can write a legally binding will online completely free of charge."
Having established the appropriate deathbed-side manner, the letter eases into that tried-and-true technique, the We're Not Trying To Sell You Anything sales pitch:
"In full transparency, as you are creating your will you will be prompted with the option to leave a gift to FIU in your plans. But know that under no circumstances we are [sic] sharing this tool with the goal to solicit for a gift. Truly, we at FIU want to serve as a resource center to you. You will have the option to skip that step if you'd like," the email says.
But it's hard to believe the school isn't fishing for donors: The email comes as the foundation is in the midst of a $750 million campaign that happens to coincide with a worldwide pandemic that has killed 324 people in Miami-Dade County to date.
FIU Barstool, a meme page for students, posted about the email on Instagram, remarking: "FIU is always trying to secure the bag."
Jenny Xia Spradling, co-CEO of FreeWill, tells New Times the company does not handle messaging for its partner organizations, but it does advise nonprofits to be careful how they email potential donors on such a sensitive topic.
"Right now during coronavirus, people are stressed. You want to make sure when you're sending messages, it's not a sort of scary email. People might be at a heightened emotional state," Spradling says.
George Corton, chief development officer for the FIU Foundation, says he and his team foresaw that some people might take the email the wrong way, but they thought it was worth sharing a free service that the university community might need at this time.
Corton says the emails about FreeWill and estate planning are usually sent out to alumni who are nearing retirement age, but amid the pandemic, the folks at the foundation thought it would be a good time to remind everyone about the service.
"We came from a very good place. We wanted to make it clear that FIU didn't want anything," Corton says. "Many people don't have a will or power of attorney. We thought, 'Why not give this to every alum of this institution?'"
But instead of giving recipients some peace of mind, to a new graduate like me, it came across as just another way for the university to reach into our pockets and take advantage of a frightening time.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
FIU estimates that the cost of attendance for an in-state resident living on campus is $23,866 for the fall and spring semesters. The majority of students don't live in dorms, so most pay about $17,486 a year, according to FIU. That's right around $70,000 in tuition and fees for four years spent living at home and going to college.
Even with financial aid, most of my friends and classmates worked two jobs during their college years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the median total federal loan debt for an FIU student after graduation is between $10,600 and $25,099, depending on the degree. That's excluding private loans.
Now that 1.8 million Floridians have filed for unemployment through the state's shoddy website, it's doubtful that many of my contemporaries are wondering how to leave money to a university they're still paying. Even if they're lucky enough to be employed, they're almost certainly thinking about hunkering down and making every dollar count until the pandemic passes.
But hey, if they happen to lose their mask and run out of hand sanitizer, thanks to FIU, they're 100 percent prepared to get their affairs in order. The foundation only needs to raise $175 million more!