In a bright Washington Latin Public Charter School classroom, where colorful college banners hung from the ceiling, they cheered with elation.
“Coumba! Coumba! Coumba! It’s you,” Coumba Gueye’s classmates chanted Wednesday afternoon.
Ms. Gueye’s head collapsed into her lap. She sat paralyzed in joy—and relief. And then the tears followed.
Seconds earlier, George Washington President Steven Knapp had announced that the D.C. high school senior was the recipient of a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship. The SJT scholarship covers tuition, room, board, books and fees for four years at GW, which means Ms. Gueye and her parents will not have to pay a cent for the high-achieving student to attend the school of her dreams.
She, like the eight other D.C. students who received STJ scholarships this year, had no idea that Wednesday would be life changing when they walked into school that morning.
“I can’t stop shaking. I just feel really relieved,” said Ms. Gueye, who is an instrumentalist in a West African drum ensemble and captain of her school’s cross-country team. “Just having that financial burden lifted off my shoulders and knowing I’ll just have to focus on school means so much.”
Since the SJT program began in 1989, 155 students have received the honor. 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.
Several GW students who received SJT scholarships in past years returned to their high schools Wednesday to congratulate the next round of recipients. They reconnected with past counselors and teachers, and they gave testimony about the impact the program has had on their lives.
“When I first received the scholarship, it was a miracle. It completely changed my life and put me on a path I would not have known otherwise. Now, it’s a mission to do better and be better,” Timothy Hursen, a sophomore in the Elliott School of International Affairs and a 2013 SJT scholar, said to students at Washington Latin.
After the announcement, Ms. Gueye’s mother, Randee Grant, emerged from behind a mass of teachers, students and George the GW mascot to hug her daughter. Ms. Grant knew that her $22,000 salary as an arts education specialist would not be enough to pay for tuition at the types of universities that Ms. Gueye was capable of getting into.
“I knew it would not be possible for her to even consider somewhere like George Washington. So, when I tell you that I am extremely, extremely happy and relieved, I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” Ms. Grant said. “We’ve been through a lot. Coumba works hard under some very harrowing obstacles, and I’m so proud.”
Emotions ran high throughout the day as Dr. Knapp, Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton and George—the GW “prize patrol”—visited high schools across the city, first greeting each student’s family and then surprising the scholarship winners in their classrooms, auditoriums and gymnasiums.
At Parkside High School, a Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Northeast D.C., Principal Dwan Jordon summoned some of the senior class to the gymnasium.
When Ms. Felton told the students she was there to “make a very special announcement,” Lashae Hunter’s heart began to race.
“Since I will be the first person in my family to go to college, this is huge for us,” said Ms. Hunter, who plans to study biology and eventually become an OB/GYN. “I was shocked, thinking, ‘Did they just call my name?’”
For Dr. Knapp, who has hand delivered SJT scholarships for the past seven years, the tradition remains his “favorite day of the year.”
“You can’t get over the emotional reaction of the students who receive the award and their parents, of course,” Dr. Knapp said. “But on top of that, it’s the way the fellow students just burst into applause and have this enthusiasm and genuine respect for their friend who has been honored this way.”
The program, he added, shows that access to higher education is out there for those who seek it and is part of the university’s wider efforts to expand educational opportunities for low-income students. Other initiatives GW participates in include D.C. College Application Week, an Early College Program at School Without Walls and matriculation agreements with local community colleges.
“I think the day tells other students that they all have these opportunities in their future if they work for them,” Dr. Knapp said. “We’re hoping it will get a lot of families to think about financial aid, which is available to them in many forms. This is only one example.”
Matt Jenkins and Bruce Beuzard IV received a double dose of good news when the two friends found out they would both be attending GW as SJT scholars in the fall.
Mr. Jenkins has memorized the names of every U.S. president along with their successes and failures, and dreams of becoming an architect. Mr. Beuzard is both an all-star football player and a member of his school’s robotics team.
“I was so excited. I cried,” Mr. Jenkins admitted. “Especially knowing I’m going with Bruce. Now I have somebody who’s going to be my roommate, hopefully.”
“Hopefully,” Mr. Beuzard said with a laugh.
At the end of the day, the GW prize patrol returned to the Foggy Bottom Campus for a final stop at the School Without Walls. There, they awarded a scholarship to Carlos Palencia.
Mr. Palencia moved to the United States when he was 6 years old from El Salvador and will be the first in his family to attend college.
“Back in my country, my father actually took me out of school because over there, unless you have a lot of money, you really can’t get a good education, ” he said. “This is very symbolic. In El Salvador, there are no opportunities like these.”
Hugging his mom, Mr. Palencia said he couldn’t wait to start his undergraduate career. But first, the avid chess player and instructor had an important question.
“Does GW have a chess club?”
Yep, he’s in luck.
This year’s other scholars are:
·Byron Fullerton, McKinley Technology High School, will be the first SJT scholar to attend the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. He is currently taking a ceramics course offered by the Corcoran School.
·Elissa Hipolito-Magsalin, St. John’s College High School, is captain and company commander of the JROTC unit at her school. She has worked as a receptionist at a car dealership for two years and plans to become a doctor.
·Faith Hudson, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, is captain of a community step team and her high school’s cheerleading team. She already has taken classes at GW, including Introduction to British Literature and Introduction to American Politics.
·Mario Velasquez, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, plans to study civil engineering at GW and use his degree to improve living conditions in El Salvador, his home country.
“Our SJT scholarship recipients reflect a fantastic combination of determination, discipline and commitment to the community,” said Ms. Felton. “We are proud to welcome these students to the class of 2019. They will become strong representatives of GW both on campus and throughout their careers.”