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NASHVILLE — Her mother committed suicide. Her father lost his job. Cassie Wessely thought her days at Vanderbilt Universitywere over.

In desperation, the 19-year-old turned to strangers online — and within a week, she had nearly $50,000 in donations to help finish her biomedical engineering degree.

"I never expected so much support from people who had never met me before," said Wessely, who lives in Grayslake, Ill.

Wessely tapped into the power of crowdfunding, a trend that is growing rapidly because it reaches people who traditionally wouldn't have the chance to participate in this type of investment, said Craig Lewis, a Vanderbilt finance professor and former chief economist for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Through social media, small businesses and individuals can reach a wide audience, while donors can find compelling projects or people in need and then invest or donate as much or as little as they want — all from their computer.

Wessely said she considered every option before turning to crowdfunding, but even with savings, a scholarship and a student loan, she came up about $24,000 short for her sophomore year at Vanderbilt. The private university's cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, room, board, books and other expenses, tops $62,000 a year.

In what she called "a shot in the dark," she created a page on gofundme.com, one of a plethora of online sites where users can receive donations for projects.

Wessely asked for $25,000. She launched the page on July 5, a Saturday.

"I woke up Tuesday morning and it was at $6,500," she said. "I got off work and looked and it was up to 20-something thousand and just kept climbing."

More than 1,000 people donated, mostly small amounts of less than $100.

Vanderbilt officials said federal law prevents them from discussing a student's financial aid, but they have reached out to Wessely and are working with her.

Wessely said Vanderbilt informed her that she could appeal her financial aid package because her father lost his job, but she is not sure whether she will. She said she will likely leave the fundraiser up until school starts, and use the extra money toward her junior and senior years.

"It is overwhelming, but in a good way," she said. "It was just so touching, and I'm so grateful and I was so blown away by it all."

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