The Class of 2017

2017 Scholarship Plus Recipients

Photograph by SKYLER REID

The eighth Scholarship Plus class. Top row from left: Nogaye, Xabier, Absetou, Deloris and Bai Hao. Bottom row: Roselkis, Tasmia, Jennifer, Abdoulaye and Emely.

The 10 members of the 2017 Scholarship Plus class make it our largest group of scholars so far, and bring the total to 54.  The new scholars of our eighth class come from a variety of backgrounds, but all share records of outstanding academic achievement and community contributions while overcoming stark challenges that include poverty, homelessness, mastering a new language and culture, and health-related difficulties.

Their accomplishments have earned them admission to Boston University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Franklin & Marshall College, George Washington University, Lehigh University, N.Y.U., Northeastern, the School of Visual Arts and the State University of New York at Oneonta.

Here are their stories:

ROSELKIS has earned a number of distinctions since coming here in 2014 from a rough neighborhood in the Dominican Republic.  Among them: being on the winning team of the Science Genius Hip-Hop Competition at Columbia University two years ago. She wrote and performed a rap song about DNA.

Hip-Hop, of course, involves verbal gymnastics, making it more remarkable that Roselkis was able to achieve this in her first year of living in the United States. The same determination has put her first in her class of 75 at the Ellis Preparatory Academy in the Bronx.  ELLIS'S mission is reflected in the acronym of its name: English Language Learners and International Support. Roselkis' counselor describes her as "one of the most extraordinary young minds I have seen in my eight-plus years of teaching and counseling" since the school was founded.

Outside of her school, Roselkis has continued exploring. She learned programming at a local community center, and at a high school engineering program sponsored by Columbia she used advanced 3D modeling software to construct simulations of the uterus during potentially dangerous preterm births. Meanwhile, at a South Bronx performing arts program,  she explored her passion for acting and singing. Ideally, she would like to become an actress, but she plans to study computer science –  "to be employable." This fall, she will enroll in SUNY Oneonta.

TASMIA's alarm goes off at 5:40 A.M. at her family's apartment in the East New York section of Brooklyn. After helping her two younger sisters get ready for the day, she takes two subways, then a bus to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the Staten Island Technical High School.  Getting there takes an hour and a half.  Returning takes two and a half hours.

In Bangladesh, from which Tasmia's family emigrated 10 years ago, her father was a college assistant principal.  Here in New York, he worked at a friend's food cart – until one day an explosion left him with third-degree burns over his face and body and unable to do heavy work. The family lost its apartment, and moved into public housing.

Living there, though discouraging at first, led to a series of discoveries for Tasmia.  One was her love of gardening -- of getting her hands dirty producing perfect tomatoes.  She also loved the community she found in the garden. As she wrote in an essay, "There's a pre-existing mutual understanding. We have all been there," being economically disadvantaged "or being condemned simply due to our place of residence. "I am honored to be part of a community that shines of persistence, perseverance, and unity."In the fall Tasmia will continue gardening and commuting, but in a different direction. She will enroll at N.Y.U.'s Tandon School of Engineering in downtown Brooklyn and hopes to study at some of NYU's worldwide campuses.

ABSETOU is the fourth of 10 children in her family, nine of whom still live at home.   Her mother, a babysitter, and her father, a Uber Driver, immigrated from Mali, speak a local dialect, Soninke, at home and try to live traditional lives.

Absetou has struggled against some of these traditions and writes that she hopes to help break "the cycle of poorly educated women in my family." Two older sisters are helping pave her way- one at the University of Pennsylvania and another at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"Simply continuing to do my work and try my hardest is one way I have rebelled," she says.  She is graduating from the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, with a 4.0 average, several AP courses, and a rank of 93rd in a class of 416.  En route, she has helped students in her East Harlem neighborhood learn to read and write. She also participated in a seven-week internship to learn about relationship abuse prevention. She has worked after school and on weekends since the summer after her freshman year.

Absetou will begin her studies at Cornell University in the fall, with a goal of working in human rights, especially with women who entered child marriages.

ABDOULAYE gets his three younger siblings up, dressed and fed breakfast before he heads to school, which starts at 8:00 A.M.  That school is the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy II, and Abdoulaye is a member of its first graduating class, where he is on the Dean's List, President of Student Government and works in the school office. One of the special things about Promise Academy II is its relationship to Bard College, whose professors teach college-level courses there.  One of those professors, who has taught in colleges for 20 years, wrote, "Abdoulaye is one of the most humble, deeply thoughtful, and analytical students I have had the pleasure of knowing." "He has no bed or room of his own," she continues,  "he sleeps on the couch, often with his laptop on top of him; he wakes early to do more homework."

At school, there are various kinds of pressures, one of them being from peers who demand, "Why are you always raising your hand?" Outside of school there are other pressures, including, Abdoulaye says, being stopped and frisked by the police about five times a year.

Through it all, Abdoulaye has devised strategies to keep his eye on the ball – literally, since he plays basketball every day, and figuratively, by sitting in the front row of big classes, so he "won't be distracted."  His next classrooms will be George Washington University in Washington D.C.

NOGAYE remembers her fears, and those of her family, when she was five years old and unable to speak with those not in her immediate family.  "I was able to verbalize my thoughts to my parents and siblings, easily," she recalled.  "The problem was that when an unfamiliar voice walked in my vicinity, my voice was taken away. It was as if I was mute." A specialized education program worked, though, and a year later, "I was chattering like any other 6 year old."

Years later, on a visit to her family in Senegal, she fell silent again, though the conversations around her were in Wolof or French, languages she had heard at home all of her life. Finally, though, she overcame her fear "I calculated what I was going to say and went for it," she said. "Through this experience, I gained self-confidence, and found my voice."

Nogaye has clearly found her voice at Forest Hills High School, where she is in the demanding Carl Sagan Math and Science Honors program, and has earned a 99.16 average.  She is an officer in two clubs, as well as a participant in a Pulmonary-Cardio program at Mount Sinai Hospital aimed at students with an interest in medicine. She has worked at the Department of Mental Health and as a volunteer at the Dry Harbor Nursing Home. Thus began a resolve to seek a biomedical or biomedical engineering major in college. She will attend Boston University's College of Arts and Sciences.

EMELY  has always loved to draw, and is determined to make a career as an artist. "But," she wrote in one of our essays, "by far, choosing to pursue art has been the toughest choice I've had to make.  I always believed the phrase 'Follow your dreams' came from a place of privilege. My family went from one homeless shelter to another constantly." She refers to this period as "a monotonous journey of adversity and solitude."

Emely's participation in a group called Summer Search helped her find her way. She attended a program at the Putney School in Vermont, where she recalls sitting around a campfire with other artists and learning that art "was more than a childish hobby, it was a haven.  You did not need money to create it, nor to appreciate it. I met people whose art helped them overcome things like depression or made autism less confining. Like me, art made life for hundreds of people not only bearable, but beautiful."

In a recommendation letter, one of Emely's teachers took note of her academic achievements – she will graduate second in a class of 120 at University Heights High School in the Bronx – and of her family's  devotion to education. "She has been raised," the teacher wrote, " by a single mom who knows very little English but wants the best for her two daughters."  Emely's teacher also notes that  she is "a strong writer, likes to play piano and a gifted artist with strong time-management and critical-thinking skills."

Emely describes her college choice as "the closest to perfect that I found." She will attend the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.  

In summing up XABIER's recommendation, one of his teachers at Manhattan Village Academy was definite.  "Overall, Xabier is a wonder," the paragraph began. The paragraph ended: "He is a rock star."

Manhattan Village Academy turned out to be an excellent school for Xabier, small but demanding. His AP-laden transcript places him 6th in a class of 91. "I didn't get to cheer for a football team," says Xabier, "we had a table tennis team."  He is a winning debater, and co-founder of the school's newspaper, a challenge he undertook "to unify people."

Xabier's work to overcome difficulties began early.  His single mother is raising him and a brother and sister with the help of food stamps.  A speech impediment when he was 7 years old, left him, mostly pointing. Speech therapy changed things: "I worked week after week with the therapist," he remembers, "slowly adding new sounds.  After a year, I was no longer 'mute.' "

Next, though, came difficulty communicating in Spanish, a challenge that has continued.  He wrote in his application: "I know that throughout life, I will face barriers, whether they be as small as a syllable or as big as the ability to connect to people in my community."  But, he says, "I've also learned that there is no obstacle that I cannot transcend.''In the fall, Xabier will begin classes at Columbia University.

JENNIFER has excelled at an unusual school, both in and out of the classroom.  Cristo Rey New York School in East Harlem requires students to work a day a week at corporate offices, with the pay going directly to the school.  Her teachers praise her academic abilities – she will graduate fifth in a class of 90 – as well as what one calls her "charismatic" leadership abilities.

Those abilities were displayed when Jennifer – or JQ as she is known – was appointed captain of the soccer team in her junior year, inspiring what her coach recalled as a "mutiny" among the seniors.  But she managed to right the ship and her team went on to have its best season in years. "JQ," her coach says, is "a young woman who does not know and will not accept failure."

That strength of character is a reflection of her family's response to great challenges.  Her father has been unable to work since 2001, rising at 4 o'clock three mornings a week to go for kidney dialysis.  Jennifer's mother is a home care aide, and the family supplements this income by selling homemade Mexican food to neighbors. Despite these challenges, Jennifer's older sister is attending Bronx Community College.

Scholarships allowed Jennifer to study advanced math and science for the last three summers in Colorado, where she also discovered the pleasures of rock climbing and whitewater rafting. Her adventures will continue at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Her aim is to become a high school math teacher.  

DELORIS ranks fifth in her class of 88 at Brooklyn's John Jay School for Law.  She has won summer scholarships to study in Japan and compete in an international moot court competition in the Netherlands.  After her freshman year she had an internship at the Council on Foreign Relations – the other interns were mostly high school seniors.

She is one of two students on the board of Global Kids, and organization determined to develop what it calls Youth Leaders for the Global Stage. The other board members are lawyers, bankers and diplomats.

Deloris lives in a homeless shelter, her fifth since family troubles came to a boil in 2009.  Her teacher, who is also the school's acting principal, says:  "In my eight years as an educator, I have never met a student who is able to overcome obstacles and be successful like Deloris." Deloris works 28 hours a week at Chipotle and is active in Mock Trial, and interned at the Paul Hastings law firm through the Vera Institute.

Her long-term goal is to be "the person who speaks up for other people when they can't," and to change things that are wrong. The next steps in that future will be at Northeastern University in Boston.

BAI HAO arrived in New York via China twelve years ago. Shortly after arriving, Bai Hao was found to have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Treatment,  which eventually lasted four years, required him to drop out of school for a time. Bai Hao says that this experience "altered my life because it taught me persistence,"  "the value of time, and "began my career as an autodidact."

One of his teachers at the New York City Lab School for Cooperative Studies in Manhattan called Bai Hao "one of the most persistent and relentless students I have ever encountered."  "Everyone," the teacher wrote,  "can learn from the fascinating questions he asks in class."

Bai Hao points out that there was a time in his life when he awaited surgery as a turning point in his life. "I realized then," he wrote, "that there are things that cannot wait until later. Now I try to make every second of my life count."

Outside the classroom, Bai Hao learned to sail Manhattan's waters -- despite initial seasickness -- as a member of Hudson River Community Sailing, whose nine boats sail from the pier at West 26th Street.

Bai Hao's next port of call will be Lehigh University, in  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where he will enroll in a program that combines engineering and business studies.  His goal is to join what he describes as a "mission-driven" company – one that contributes to community projects.