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Twelve students honored with MLK Scholarships at 50th anniversary dinner

Groton — Sitting in AP Government, AP English, IB Spanish, honors world history and other advanced classes at Fitch High School, Britney Toussaint is the only black woman.

"I sit at my desk alone, wondering if I am smart enough, questioning if I belong," she said. "But this should not be. Where are the students who look like me?"

Her dream — echoing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — is to see young black men and women alongside young white men and women in all higher-level classes.

Toussaint is one of 12 recipients this year — up from nine last year — of the $20,000 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the scholarship trust fund, and an at-capacity crowd of 700 gathered in the Mystic Marriott ballroom to celebrate the achievements and perseverance of the recipients.

The presentation of each scholarship involved a video showing the student receiving the good news, an introduction by a member of the sponsoring organization and a brief speech by the student.

Each speech ended with the recipient asking his or her family to stand and thank them; the tears often present in their eyes were coupled with many tears in the audience.

Shaneva Edwards — who has been involved in the National Honor Society, More Than Words, the multicultural club, the art club and debate at New London High School — recognized her mother for singlehandedly taking care of the family with no handouts and embodying what a powerful black woman is.

A theme among the speeches was experiencing discrimination or witnessing it directed toward a parent.

Yalissa Rodriguez, a Marine Science Magnet High School student, was 7 when she saw a man at a restaurant spit at her mother that they don't accept food stamps there, and the words stayed with her "like scars."

"I know now that when I look in the mirror, my skin says love, perseverance, opportunity," she said.

Fitch High School senior Lizzette Perez watched a man call her mother a tax burden, alien and freeloader in the checkout line of a local ShopRite. But she encouraged the eighth-graders invited to the dinner to "never give someone the power to define you, because what they see is not what they get."

Menelik Nesmith, who attends New London Science and Technology Magnet High School, delivered his speech in rhyming verse. He recited, "Searched at a store off the hood in a bad mood. Who knew that the tone of my skin was so rude?"

His classmate Shane Brooks also spoke of being searched, saying that in eighth grade, two police officers patted him down while he was waiting for his younger brother after school. He heard his mother's words in his head: "Be calm. Keep quiet. Stay alive."

His twin brother, Shawn Brooks, is also a recipient of the scholarship. Both sit on the NAACP Youth Council of New London, are involved in Hearing Youth Voices and work at ShopRite.

The fourth scholarship recipient from New London Science and Technology Magnet High School is K.D. Spencer Roman, who received the Smith College Book Award, is the student representative to the Board of Education, served as junior class president and volunteers with toddlers at the North Stonington Bible Church.

Fitch High School senior Jaiden Lehman is on the fencing team, is active in the national organization Student to Student, and volunteers at the Groton Public Library and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

Safa Danesh, who attends Waterford High School, was named the Rotary Student of the Year last year, completed a summer internship at Electric Boat, and is on the swim and track teams.

East Lyme High School senior Nahisha Jackson is a National Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, organized her school's involvement in the National School Walkout and participates in TED Talks.

Liliana Edilee Lorenzo Concepcion, a Norwich Free Academy senior, assists in blood drives and in Heritage Month, is part of the Junior Volunteer Program at Backus Hospital, and worked with police officers in "Norwich Knows" to "help youth correctly respond to authority."

The sponsors of the 12 scholarships are Pfizer, the Kitchings Family Foundation, the Emeritus MLK Trustees, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Alumni Scholars, the Grube Family, Mark and Heather Somers, and the ForGood Fund.


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