JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Thousands of teens will leave the familiar life of high school and family next month to head off to college. But 18-year-old Seth Owen separated from his family months ago has been living on his own because he is gay and his religious beliefs didn't agree with his parents.
Owen said he too is college bound, and he's determined to become successful with or without anyone's acceptance of his lifestyle. Owen is optimistic about the future and ready for new experiences.
He said he has survived with the help of friends, his reality is far too common for LGBTQ teens.
His lesson in adversity began in his sophomore year of high school.
"I was writing a paper one night and my dad decided to check my phone," Owen said. "He was searching for quite a few hours and found a photo that clearly showed that I was gay and questioned me for quite a few hours that night."
Days later, Owen said his parents sent him to counseling.
"They made it clear the intention was to make me straight. (That) was their end goal."
That end goal failed and Owen lived in his truth, that he is gay.
Seth continued to live with his parents for a couple years, staying busy will three jobs, after school programs, dual enrollment classes and swimming.
"I guess you could say it was easier to try to avoid home. I felt like I was doing something good with the struggle instead of doing something damaging," Owen said.
But Owen and his parents would reach a breaking point.
The pastor at his parents' church had strong opinions about women's place in society and the LGBTQ community -- opinions that Owen couldn't abide. He asked his parents to send him to a different church, but they said no.
"Either go to church or you can move out," Owen quoted his parents telling him. "I called a mentor. I said, I can't do this. I went back in and asked, "Is there any way that we can compromise,' and my dad said no."
He moved out in February of this year -- two-thirds of the way through his senior year.
"I was really, really upset," Owen said. "It was extremely hurtful to know that I was walking out that door not knowing what lay ahead and feeling I don't know how to explain it it was devastating, absolutely devastating."
Owen was homeless, sleeping on friends' couches and find support through his mentors.
Despite the challenges, Owen maintained a 4.16 GPA and became co-valedictorian of his First Coast High School's class of 2018.
Seth story is not unique, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Bullying and assault are common for LGBTQ teens who come out. One study published on the CDC website shows 30 percent of LGBTQ teens consider suicide, compared to 6 percent for heterosexual teens.
Owen, by contrast, is looking forward to the future. He was accepted to Georgetown University, but that is its own challenge.
Owen says his tuition is about $77,000 annually. Owen was awarded about $50,000 in scholarships, but has no one to help make up the difference or sign a student loan.
One of Owen's former teachers created a GoFundMe account. Within five weeks, more than 300 people donated and the total has surpassed $25,000.
"I don't think thank you is good enough," Owen said. "Of course I am extremely grateful, but I think thank you doesn't say it. Now it's time to pay it forward."
He has already decided he will pay it forward by becoming a defense attorney for teen criminals. Owen says they too have been neglected and need more help. Owen leaves for Georgetown Aug. 22.
Georgetown University says it admits and enrolls students without regard to their financial circumstances and is committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of eligible students through a combination of aid programs that include grants, scholarships, employment and loans from federal, state, private, and University resources. While they cannot comment on any individual case, they work closely with students whose financial circumstances change after admission to modify financial aid assistance and ensure they can still enroll regardless of their ability to pay.