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Debutantes are ready to take on the world

Mystic — Historically, a debutante ball would be held to welcome teenage girls groomed for the high society life of courtship and social engagements.

More than 300 people attended the Shiloh Baptist Church's ninth biennial Shiloh Women of Excellence Debutante Cotillion Saturday at the Mystic Marriott Ballroom. While the 10 girls celebrated during the gala black tie/evening gown affair have proven themselves ready to enter adult society, their purpose is much deeper than to gain favor — and perhaps a husband — among the elite.

Shiloh Debutante Scholarship Program founder Cynthia Watts said that since the program was launched in 1998, about 120 high school girls aged 16 to 18 have participated. The program is geared toward preparing them for the competitive college application process and career choices.

This year's participants spent the past 10 months attending etiquette classes, doing community service, writing college applications, learning how to present themselves for jobs and working together on everything from fundraising to fashion shows.

Along the way, the 18 volunteer committee members who oversee the program kept score in a point system that culminated in final awards presented Saturday night. The top three point recipients received scholarships totaling $9,000, Watts said. She estimated that over the years, the program has awarded between $200,000 and $250,000 in scholarships to recipients.

The debutantes expressed a mixture of excitement and nerves as they prepared to take center stage. The group’s official debut, everyone wearing plain white gowns, came in the form of a choreographed dance skit to a medley of songs, with no introductions and little fanfare. They raced out of the ballroom to dress for their grand entrance, while the 300 attendees enjoyed dinner and music.

The ballroom cheered and clapped politely as emcees Courtney and LaShanda Williams introduced each debutante — now wearing a sparkly white gown and dress gloves — as she entered the room.

Recorded welcome and thank you messages played, and each debutante saluted her parents with a full curtsy, before floating up the center aisle through an archway of swords held by six U.S. Coast Guard cadets in dress uniform.

Debutante Daniela Guillen-Veras, 18, a senior at the New London Science and Technology Magnet High School, called the debutante program “fun and stressful.” She said the hardest part was the rehearsal for the grand ball.

“In the end, it was all worth it,” she said.

Guillen-Veras said her cousin, fellow debutante Ana Sanchez, got her to apply for the program. She said she wants to attend Quinnipiac University to study nursing and hopes to become a midwife.

Debutante Alversia Wade, 17, of Waterford said it never felt like a competition. She said all the girls quickly became friends and “sisters,” helping one another and encouraging one another when things got tough. It was easy to forget that they were being scored quietly along the way.

“Then someone would say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a competition,’” she said.

Wade “grew up in the program,” she said, watching her older sister, Nyasa, go through it four years ago.

“It really changed her,” Wade said.

Other debutantes agreed.

Ana Sanchez, 17, of New London said a teacher at New London High School told her about the program and encouraged her to apply.

“It was more than I expected,” Sanchez said. She volunteered at Greentree Manor as a nursing assistant and worked at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center for her required 30 hours of community service. Sanchez plans to go to Southern Connecticut State University to study law.

“I am very grateful for this program,” she said. “I hope it continues for a long time.”

Shineika Fareus, 16, of New London, a sophomore at the New London Science and Technology Magnet High School, is this year’s youngest debutante. She said she never felt out of place as older colleagues talked about graduating high school or college plans. Fareus said she plans to become a family psychologist and then go to law school.

“I highly recommend it to others,” she said of the debutante program. “It gets you out of your comfort zone and gets you to be with other people.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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