The two notices Ashley Whorf got from Simmons College each contained riveting news. One was thrilling. The other scared the living daylights out of her.
The first was carried to her by the mailman in the spring of 2009. Congratulations, it said. Welcome to our school, where we put students first and prepare women to be leaders.
The second was carried to her months ago by a Suffolk County deputy sheriff. We’re suing you, it said. You owe Simmons $24,000. See you in court.
“My knees are still shaking,’’ Whorf, 25, told me this week. “There were nights I was crying. I thought I was going to be poor the rest of my life.’’
Whorf’s journey in and out of Simmons is a cautionary tale about academic rigor, miscommunication, dashed expectations, dogged bill collectors, and bilious lawyers.
But the story of how she arrived at the college on the Fenway is remarkable — an against-all-odds account of a young woman, born to drug addicts, who bounced from group home to group home and was in and out of foster care.
Here’s how her college essay to Simmons began: “Considering the statistics, I’ve beaten the odds. My future as an independent woman began for me in the fall of seventh grade, after my mother threw me out of her house, and chose drugs and alcohol over me. It was a decision that I’ll never understand, but that’s what happened.’’
So Simmons knew it was taking a calculated risk in accepting Whorf. The school prides itself on decisions like that. Whorf got a scholarship and acknowledges that she struggled to adjust in and out of the classroom.
“It just kind of blew my mind,’’ she said. “There is this whole other world where people are supported by their families. I was still battling depression. I had been put on a lot of medication which altered my sleeping and eating habits. I felt like a walking zombie.’’
In short, she did not arrive at Simmons as a clean slate. She carried much with her. During winter break, she lived on campus and celebrated Christmas there. In November 2010, during her third and last semester, she had no place to go so Thanksgiving dinner was in the basement of her dorm.
She and the school agreed she was not making the grade. They parted company. She said she was unaware her academic struggles imperiled her financial aid package.
She and school officials disagree about efforts to mediate the dispute over what the school called her $24,000 outstanding debt. She said she repeatedly contacted Simmons but received little help and endured long silences. The school said it tried to work with her before it called out the bill collectors and filed its lawsuit. Both are rare, the college said.
“Very few of our students get to collections,’’ said Daniel Forster, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Simmons. “We have a number of things to keep that from happening.’’
But it happened to Ashley Whorf. Bill collectors hounded her at work. She said she attempted to explain that she had tried to clear things up with Forster. She said this was the response: “You’re a liar! You are lying to me! You never spoke to Dan.’’
Whorf’s case has been percolating for more than three years now. A couple of hours after I called the school on Friday, they notified their former student they were dismissing the lawsuit and calling off the bill collectors. Simmons told me my interest in Whorf’s case had nothing to do with that decision. Whorf doesn’t believe that. Neither do I.
Forster said the school will take steps so something like this doesn’t happen again. “I do find it regrettable,’’ he said.
Ashley Whorf is just happy to have Simmons off her back. She’s about to get her degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“I’m doing awesome,’’ she said.
She wants to be an advocate for those without the resources to help themselves. That sounds like the kind of leader that Simmons College says it treasures.