GW Surprises D.C. Students with a Free College Education

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship Program covers tuition, room, board and books for 10 high-achieving students.

March 17, 2016

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Sakiya Walker will attend GW free of charge. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Ruth Steinhardt

For her 18th birthday, Sakiya Walker received the present of a lifetime: a full scholarship to the George Washington University.

On Thursday morning, Ms. Walker had already once been called to the front of a sunny first-floor room at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts’ temporary home at Meyer Elementary so her classmates could sing her a rafter-shaking “Happy Birthday.” But there were more surprises to come, as she learned when Desepe de Vargas, head of school at Duke Ellington, introduced some special guests to the classroom: Karen Stroud Felton, GW’s dean of undergraduate admissions, and George Washington President Steven Knapp.

“It is my extreme pleasure to be here today to award someone at your school a full scholarship to GW,” Ms. Felton said—and Ms. Walker gasped, dropping her head into her hands as her friends turned to her in surprise.

Ms. Walker knew she had been nominated for the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship, which covers tuition, room, board and books for four years at GW and relieves families of the many financial burdens related to education. She was about to find out for certain that she had won.

Excited whispers of “It’s Sakiya!” spread through the classroom as students realized that their friend and classmate was about to be given the opportunity for a college experience without financial stress. And when Dr. Knapp stepped forward, he prefaced the winner’s name with “It’s also her birthday today.”

The room exploded in screams and applause. “You worked so hard, Sakiya!” one of her classmates called. A roomful of voices rose in a spontaneous reprise of “Happy Birthday”—the syncopated, joyful Stevie Wonder version.

All day on Thursday, the GW scholarship team—comprising Dr. Knapp, Ms. Felton, George the mascot and admissions staff—covertly entered high school classrooms and auditoriums across the city to surprise students with full ride scholarships to GW. The “prize patrol” hand-delivered acceptances to 10 students at eight schools across Washington, D.C., bringing along the winners’ families and loved ones to capture the excitement of a dream come true.

“This is my favorite day every year,” Dr. Knapp said. “We just surprised 10 students in eight different schools with the news that the cost of their college education will be fully covered. And beyond what it does for these particular students, we hope it also sends the message to students all across this great capital city that college is a possibility for their future.

For Ms. Walker, the day was a culmination.  

“To know that all your hard work was all worth it is just amazing,” she said, wiping away tears after some of the excitement had died down. A celebrated dancer who also participates in her school’s debate program and government association, she intends to major in pre-med and has hopes of becoming an anesthesiologist.

Her father, Kenneth Walker, stood nearby, glowing with pride and already decked out in a GW hat. He and his family have endured a difficult period: Ms. Walker lost her mother just a year ago.

Despite her grief, he said, his daughter kept her grades high and her eyes on the future.

“I’m floored,” he said. “To see Sakiya recognized for her talent and her commitment is amazing, just amazing.”

The SJT Scholarship Program has awarded full scholarships to more than 160 students since it began in 1989. All D.C. residents graduating from an accredited high school in the District—public, charter or private—are eligible to receive the scholarship. Students are nominated by their high school counselors and then participate in an interview process. 

It 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. Still more include the university’s participation in D.C. College Application Week, its Early College Program at School Without Walls, the District Scholars Award and partnerships with the Posse Foundation and Say Yes to Education.

At Bell Multicultural High School, Dr. Knapp and his team presented SJT prizes to three students: Md Ahammed, Lisa Le and Carlos Lopez Sanchez.

Joseph Talarico has taught all three for a year, and to see his students given this opportunity left him—like so many witnesses during the day—visibly emotional.

“The number of obstacles that these three have faced is just incredible,” he said. “And all of them have refused to accept that their pasts have to determine what they become.”

Three years ago Mr. Lopez Sanchez trekked, alone, from his home country of Guatemala to the United States. After a harrowing journey and a period of detention, he was taken in by an American family. He now speaks three languages and is a member of his school’s debate and robotics clubs. At GW, he plans to major in engineering and hopes one day to own his own business.

“He has already brought so much to our family,” said Yolanda Alcorta, his guardian. “He’s faced incredible challenges…we’re just so excited that he’s going to have this opportunity.”

Mr. Ahammed also is an immigrant to the U.S., having grown up on a farm in Bangladesh. His parents have long instilled in him the importance of education: In Bangladesh, his father was a principal and his mother a teacher. An apprentice at the National Building Museum, he intends to pursue a degree in computer engineering.

“I’m especially proud because of my mother,” he said, glancing down as she—radiant in a translucent headscarf and patterned wrap—beamed up at him. “I didn’t always know if I would go to a good college, and she always told me to take risks and see if something good would happen.”

Ms. Le tutors middle school students in math and hopes to pursue a business degree, but doesn’t limit herself to numbers. She wrote movingly about her relationship with her mother, an immigrant from Vietnam, to place as a winner in the Library of Congress’ Letters About Literature contest.

“She has done everything humanly possible to get the best education she can,” Mr. Talarico said.

The day was almost as special for the presenters as for the winners. Ms. Felton said the SJT Scholarship Program represents a one-of-a-kind opportunity not only for its recipients but also for GW as an institution.

“I love that this day represents GW’s connection to the community and its ability to be an agent for change,” said Ms. Felton. “For these students who might not otherwise be able to come to GW, the opportunity changes their lives, and it changes ours, too.”

As she spoke, Ms. Felton’s eyes weren’t entirely dry either.


Other winners of the 2016 SJT Scholarship are:

  • Mikias Gebremeskel of Roosevelt High School (Ward 4), who will pursue a pre-med major because he wants to offer improved health care to underserved regions. He interned at the Children’s National Medical Center and is a peer leader for the Young Women’s Project.
  • Nathan Hanshew of Washington Latin Public Charter School (Ward 4) wants to pursue a career in medicine. He already has jump-started his career as a cadet member of the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad and is an emergency responder for the Montgomery County First Aid Unit. 
  • Adel Hassen of School Without Walls (Ward 2) helped coordinate the 2015 D.C. STEM Fair and is currently conducting research devoted to uncovering the Super Bowl’s true economic impact. He is interested in education and economics and intends to study mathematics.  
  • Asia Jones of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School (Ward 1) is a member of D.C.’s Youth Advisory Council who volunteers at the National Museum of Natural History. She has conducted research on bacteria’s growing immunity to antibiotics and plans to continue her interest in medicine as a pre-med student. 
  • Daniel Nguyen of Capital City Public Charter School (Ward 4) is the co-captain of the robotics team and senior class president. He was motivated to excel academically after serving as a translator for the family of a past SJT scholar at his school.
  • Jarid Shields of Eastern Senior High School (Ward 6) participated in an exchange program to Japan. In college she will pursue her interest in biology.