Counting pennies; counting blessings

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- 24-year-old Ana Veal is asking people to send her a penny to help pay for her college education. The Benjamin Frankiln HS graduate, in September, was accepted into the Domas Academy in Milan, Italy.
Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- 24-year-old Ana Veal is asking people to send her a penny to help pay for her college education. The Benjamin Frankiln HS graduate, in September, was accepted into the Domas Academy in Milan, Italy.

Grad student has hopes to get to Italy, one cent at a time

Ana Veal is hoping the pennies she’s been getting in the mail will get her into the graduate degree program she’s been eyeing.

The 24-year-old from Jefferson Parish set her heart on a business design degree. And she found the perfect program at Domus Academy. The research- and innovation-driven school accepted Veal in September.

The only problem is that it’s in Milan, Italy, and she doesn’t have the 20,000 euros — roughly $27,000 — needed for tuition.

So the graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School got a little creative. She turned to social media, asking strangers to send her a penny each, hoping to raise enough money to get her overseas for the yearlong program when it starts next spring. She got the idea from an old urban legend floating around the Internet.

About 400,000 pennies will help her make the Nov. 14 deadline to pay the roughly $4,000 deposit the school requires. Three million pennies will get her through the entirety of the program. In her first two weeks, she’s gotten about 100 donations from people sending her one, two or three pennies, and in one case, $1. The $3 she’s raised is a meager amount, but Veal said she’s fortunate to have gotten anything.

After graduating from Xavier University in 2011 with a psychology degree, Veal said, she’s been working and saving money while trying to find the right graduate program to inspire her.

Eventually, she wants to teach organizational behavior.

“This program in Italy is something I’ve waited a long time to find,” she said. “I live at home. I live modestly. I know it would be easier to go to a local school, but the programs aren’t the same. I’ve waited a long time to find such a program.”

Domus Academy bills itself as catering to young professionals who wish to learn how to combine creativity with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Veal explains the business design program as a workshop-based experience where students study the history of innovation and development through small experiments.

“It’s not a traditional classroom lecture structure where you study accounting,” she said. “You partner with different businesses throughout the program. It’s like a long-term internship.

“It’s a new angle to the field,” she added. “It would offer me a lot of variety and freedom. I think it would be a great approach to any discipline.”

After learning she was accepted, she began teaching herself Italian. When she later realized that the available scholarships wouldn’t cover her costs, she went through a pessimistic phase, Veal said.

It lasted until she went to a PostSecret event at Tulane University in early September.

PostSecret is a web-based community art project where anonymous people send curator Frank Warren a postcard with a secret on it they’ve never previously revealed. Warren says the postcards he posts online are inspirational, empowering and create an anonymous community of acceptance.

Veal said she was moved by Warren’s talk on the power of sharing a secret.

A short time later, she said, she was on Snopes.com, a website that determines the accuracy of stories with questionable origins, when she saw the story of Mike Hayes — an Illinois man who was able to pay for his college education in the 1980s through anonymous donations.

“I thought this could be my secret,” Veal said.

As the story goes, Hayes, who was having trouble covering his expenses at the University of Illinois, figured anyone could spare a penny when he wrote to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, asking him to request each of his readers to donate a penny for his education.

In about a month, readers had sent more than two million pennies, helping Hayes cover the $28,000 he’d set out to raise.

After getting the idea, Veal said, the biggest hurdle for her was working up the nerve to rent a post office box.

“I was thinking: ‘Am I really going to do this?’ Once I had the P.O. box it became real,” she said.

After renting the box, Veal created a blog and then mailed PostSecret her secret request. Donations starting showing up in early October, shortly after the website tweeted her story.

She only recently revealed her secret to friends and family as she realized time was running short.

These days, she’s prone to walking around with her clear plastic bag jammed with the letters she’s received. On a recent trip to Baton Rouge to talk about her efforts, she showed off a message from a fortune cookie that she found on the floor of the Algiers Regional Library. It says: “Don’t stop now.”

The letters she carries are from Ohio; West Chester, Pa.; and Stevens, Pa.

“People in Pennsylvania are very generous,” Veal said. “I’ve been wondering why people have been so willing to help me when I know some of them are struggling too.”

As she sorts through her letters, there is one that simply says: “You go girl!” Another is from a photographer in Anaheim who taped three pennies to the inside flap of the envelope.

A woman going by “Katie from Knoxville” included a postcard with a purple dinosaur piggybank on the front. A note with her donation says: “From my piggybank to yours.”

Visit: http://penniesforschool.wordpress.com/ for more information.