D.C. High School Students Surprised with Free College Education

Ten outstanding students learned Tuesday that they received full-ride, four-year Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarships.

March 20, 2019

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Classmates cheer Kidan Tesfamichael (center, in black) as she receives news of her full-ride scholarship to GW. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Ruth Steinhardt

For Kidan Tesfamichael, Tuesday was supposed to be a school day like any other. In fact, the senior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School was a little stressed: She’d been hoping an acceptance letter from the George Washington University would arrive in the mail the weekend before.

But when GW President Thomas LeBlanc and GW’s sizeable mascot, George, entered Ms. Tesfamichael’s morning English class—followed by her parents—the day took a turn for the unexpected.

To cheers from her classmates, Dr. LeBlanc and GW Dean of Admissions Costas Solomou announced that Ms. Tesfamichael would receive a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship. Not only had she been admitted to GW, but the scholarship would also cover the full cost of her college education—four years of tuition, room, board, books and fees.

“We brought this to you because it wouldn’t fit in your mailbox,” Dr. LeBlanc joked as he handed Ms. Tesfamichael her oversized acceptance letter.

“I did not expect this at all,” Ms. Tesfamichael said afterward. “I’m excited, I’m emotional—I’ve always wanted to go to GW.”

And she worked hard for it, said family friend Taferre Abay.

“She’s the type of student who stays up until two or three in the morning, studying,” he said. “I was always asking her, ‘You know, you are not in college—why are you staying up that long?’ She said, ‘I have to earn it now.’”

Ms. Tesfamichael was the first of 10 students to be surprised Tuesday by Dr. LeBlanc, Dr. Solomou and the GW awards team, who spent the day traveling to eight schools in Washington, D.C. There, they hand-delivered acceptance letters and the news that students and their families no longer had to worry about how to pay for college.

Since 1989, the SJT scholarship program has enrolled 184 District of Columbia students with full-ride scholarships covering all four years of their undergraduate education. GW selects students based on high school academic performance, strength of curriculum, recommendations, leadership qualities, community service, extracurricular activities and achievements and standardized test scores, should they choose to submit them.

At Frank W. Ballou High School, Syamyia Beach began her day with a senior class assembly featuring DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee. Then Dr. Ferebee, an alumnus of GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, called her up for special recognition. Ms. Beach’s confusion grew visibly as Ballou’s marching band entered the atrium, drums rattling. Then George appeared, towering over the crowd, and Ms. Beach broke into a glowing smile. Finally, Dr. LeBlanc and Dr. Solomou joined her and Dr. Ferebee at the podium to deliver the good news.

“I firmly believe higher education is a ticket to a bright future, so one of the best things about my job as president is coming here to award this scholarship to someone who’s earned it the old-fashioned way—through hard work and academics,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

Ms. Beach said she was “flabbergasted” by her win.

“This was my number one school ever since sixth grade,” she said. “When I toured the campus, I said ‘This is the school for me.’ I love GW, I love the support system, I love the community.”

Ms. Beach attributed much of her success to her mother, Toni Davis, a single parent. “I am becoming more like her, an independent woman, and I strive for that.”

“It means the world to me to hear her say that,” said her mother, visibly emotional. “It’s a blessing—to not have to worry about paying for your child’s tuition, not have to worry about whether they’ll be able to succeed.”

The SJT scholarship program is one of many GW initiatives aimed at improving access to a college education for high-achieving students of all backgrounds. GW’s July 2015 announcement that it will no longer require most undergraduate applicants to submit SAT or ACT test scores was another. Others include the university’s Early College Program at School Without Walls, the District Scholars program and partnerships with the Posse Foundation and Say Yes to Education.

“It’s their commitment to their community, it’s their passion, it’s their leadership—they’re going to go on to do great things, though they might not know what those things are right now,” Dr. Solomou said. “This is our backyard. Washington, D.C., is our home. We want to make sure that we highlight our students and take care of our own.”

This year’s Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship recipients are:

  • Syamyia Beach, Frank W. Ballou High School (Ward 8)
  • Diana Contreras-Castellon, Cardozo Education Campus (Ward 1)
  • Akil Gayles, McKinley Technical High School (Ward 5)
  • Gerardo Hernandez, Columbia Heights Education Campus (Ward 1)
  • Dakharai Murray, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School (Ward 1)
  • Erica Serrano, Woodrow Wilson High School (Ward 3)
  • Christian Alvarez-Silva, Woodrow Wilson High School (Ward 3)
  • Mia Strickland, Capital City Charter School (Ward 4)
  • Kidan Tesfamichael, Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School (Ward 2)
  • Ramani Wilson, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School (Ward 1)