Groton - Fitch High School senior Melanie House said the news that she was the recipient of a $20,000 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship made her legs shake.
For her, the scholarship represents the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others in the spirit of what King has done.
House, the second in her family to receive a scholarship, has her sights set on a career in teaching.
"I've been inspired by all the good experiences with teachers I've had. I hope to be a good influence on kids' lives," House said. "I want my students to receive the same respect … no matter their race or socioeconomic background. This is my way of demonstrating Dr. King's vision."
House was one of nine students honored Thursday in an inspiring and sometimes emotional ceremony at the 31st annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Awards Dinner, held at the Mystic Marriott.
Board of Trustees President Ulysses B. Hammond called it "a night to celebrate, congratulate and encourage."
"These students are just unbelievable - what they have already accomplished and the promise and the hope for America that they represent," said Hammond, who is vice president of administration at Connecticut College. "They are scholars who are also providing outstanding service in their community … phenomenal students who just need an opportunity to go forward."
Hammond, who earlier in the night had announced eight recipients, was honored with a surprise ninth award winner in his honor. He is stepping down after 10 years as the board's president and was by many accounts one of the keys to the scholarship's success.
Day Publisher Gary Farrugia said it was Hammond who brought him to tears when he announced the fund would match The Day's $10,000 contribution this year in recognition of the years of support The Day had shown. The Day funded a scholarship in honor of former employee Mary-Jane McLaughlin, who urged the company to contribute in a year when it seemed as though the budget would not allow it, he said.
Watching from a packed ballroom at Thursday's event were more than 60 middle school students - perhaps future scholarship recipients.
"It's a way for them to see that yes, it's OK and cool to pursue excellence in education," Hammond said.
Kayla Fowler, a senior Ledyard High School who received a scholarship, said she was once among those middle schoolers.
At one awards dinner, she said, her father had predicted that he would one day see her at the podium.
"He said, 'That will be you up there someday,'" Fowler said with a grin. "I just laughed it off. I guess he was right. It feels great."
Stonington High School student Jouval Mejias-Maceno said he was the first of three in his family with plans to attend college. He credited his mother, Myrna Williams, with inspiring him.
"My mom is so happy. She pushed me very hard. There have been times when I doubted myself. She was there to tell me, 'You just don't know your potential.'"
Thursday's event also featured a special tribute to Eunice McLean Waller, a former New London mayor, teacher and prominent black leader who died earlier this year.
Following King's death in 1968, Waller and her husband, William DeHomer Waller, donated the $100 to establish the scholarship to award a student who best represented King's ideals. The scholarship evolved and expanded ever since.
Karin Edwards, secretary of the trustees board, said Waller was "forthright, feisty and fundamental.
"If she had something to say, she said it," Edwards said. "She never stopped advocating and inspiring."
Edwards announced that starting Thursday, a Eunice McLean Waller Scholar would be named each year in her honor.