I Can No Longer Support Pursuit

What does it mean to “Pay It Forward”?

September 18, 2019
Person with folded hands at laptop.
Photo by NorWood Themes on Unsplash

I first learned about Pursuit from the New York Public Library (NYPL). I had finished the NYPL’s coding program and at graduation I received information about a few coding bootcamps and their fellowship opportunities. One of them was Pursuit, which was called Coalition for Queens (C4Q) at the time. When I visited their website, I was amazed to see they offered a part-time learning track. I thought it was perfect. I could keep my job and learn to code at night and on the weekends. I would only give a percentage of my income to the school if I accepted a job in tech with a minimum salary of $60,000. I thought Pursuit was a safe choice because I found them through the NYPL. It appeared to be a low-risk option for a better future.

I attended the 4.0 cohort from 2017–2018. At the time, their bootcamp was called Access Code and all participants attended under the Access Code Fellowship. Pursuit said the fellowship was made possible due to the generosity of philanthropic partners, community members and companies who believed in their mission. Participants were called Fellows. While Fellows did not pay an upfront cost or tuition to attend the program, we were required to participate in a Pay It Forward (PIF) commitment.

Pursuit said Pay It Forward was inspired by a former Fellow who had donated his first paycheck because he was so grateful for the program. They explained Pay It Forward as a way of giving back to the community. Fellow payments allowed them to support and provide resources for current and future Fellows. Fellow payments helped ensure the continuance of the program. Under Pay It Forward, Fellows would start giving 12% of their gross income to the non-profit once they found a tech job with a salary that met a minimum threshold. (“Giving” is the term that appears in Pursuit’s Terms and Conditions.)

In March of this year, I received memos from Pursuit regarding Pay It Forward. They explained the term “Pay It Forward” suggested Fellow payments were charitable contributions and were only paying for future participants. In reality, Fellow payments were payments in exchange for a service and repaid Pursuit’s investors, who paid for the Fellow’s training. Investors were receiving back the amount they invested plus a return. Their funding model would now be called Pursuit Bond.

I was deeply upset. I did not understand why Pursuit was sending this information now. I had no idea Pursuit had sought investor funding to operate the coding program. I felt disgusted knowing that the investors were making a profit from my labor. I felt Pursuit had misused the term fellowship, which is usually financial aid that you do not have to pay back. I felt Pursuit had misled me about Pay It Forward. Pay It Forward was not about paying it forward. It was a loan.

I realized Pursuit was not the perfect opportunity. I was obligated to pay back a loan that had unfair terms. I felt the loan was unfair because all Fellows will end up paying different amounts. I was a part-time student who received just a little over half the class time that the full-time Fellows had scheduled during the 9-month program. I felt it was unfair for me to pay the same percentage of my income for a lesser amount of education. Since there was no payment cap, it was possible I would pay just as much or even more than if I had opted to attend a for-profit institution.

I worried about what would happen if I had a financial emergency while employed in tech. According to the memos, Pursuit could only offer three months of payment assistance. After that, they could not offer more help due to the agreement they had with their investors. The memo also stated this hardship policy was a new policy. This frightened me. This suggested that if I had needed financial help prior to this policy, Pursuit would have likely cited their investors as the reason why they could not work out a solution with me.

I was angry. I did not understand how Pursuit thought their Fellows could be better off financially by attending their bootcamp. I was a Fellow who came to their program with some student loan debt. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I am not better off if I have to pay back student loans as well as this loan with Pursuit. I am not better off if I have to hold off on joining my employer’s 401K program and saving for retirement because I have to put this debt with Pursuit first.

Pursuit’s choice to call their funding model Pay It Forward was unethical. They were suggesting they were abiding by the principles of paying it forward. No aspect of their funding model can be classified under that concept. I thought I was participating in a program that would make my life better. There was no way for me to know I was making a decision that would financially harm me for years to come.

My decision to attend Pursuit’s bootcamp is one I now regret. Pursuit is a non-profit organization and I had believed non-profits acted in the best interest of its audience. Pursuit’s target audience is mostly women, minorities, and people without college degrees, which are the most vulnerable groups. I put my trust in the wrong people. I did not understand that I would be saddled with a most unforgiving loan. I feel Pursuit’s choice to name their funding model “Pay It Forward,” to call their bootcamp a fellowship, and to use the word “giving” to describe Fellow payments was unconscionable and unforgivable.

Pursuit has acknowledged they did not do enough to communicate how the Bond works. They said they want to bring the community back together. It is too late to make amends. I can no longer support Pursuit.

* * *

I did not speak out earlier because I was afraid of being depicted as the bad guy who is attacking an organization that had good intentions. I am still afraid, which is why I have chosen to write under a pen name. I have decided to no longer stay silent about my experience because I do not want to be complicit in Pursuit’s actions.

This essay was originally published on Medium.