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Sixteen honored with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships

The awarding of scholarships from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund typically involves hundreds gathered in the Mystic Marriott ballroom, many without dry eyes, but the 39th annual ceremony on Thursday was a virtual one, celebrating accomplished high school students of color who have overcome so much even before a pandemic.

Through the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholarship trustees contacted people for contributions, and the community responded: This year, the trust fund awarded $20,000 scholarships to 16 students, more than last year.

Board President James Mitchell said the recipients, who spoke in brief videos in the virtual ceremony, were chosen based on academic performance, citizenship, community service and financial need.

Scholarship recipient Lizbeth Polanco, a senior at Science and Technology Magnet High School in New London, said attending the scholarship dinner as an eighth-grader changed her life, that her belief in herself grew.

The other scholars from STMHS are Essoha Kadambaya and Courtney Hamilton.

Kadambaya, whose parents came from Togo and Rwanda, has been involved with the math team, More Than Words, NAACP Youth Council and Black Pilots of America.

Hamilton said in his video, "I am not supposed to succeed. I am from New London, the ghetto, a city where too many people see kids like me as dangerous or worthless" but added, "I am not a worthless child. I am bound to succeed."

From Fitch High School, scholarships went to Deja Driscoll-Smith, Xavion Quito, Tristin Cleetus, Fatimah Mansour and Zoe Costello.

Driscoll-Smith — captain of the track team, member of the Tri-M Music Honor Society and Sunday school volunteer — wants to become a lawyer, "to reform a system that has failed so many children," she said.

Quito said his friends told him he was not Black or Hispanic enough, but he was inspired by a 7th grade teacher who saw greatness in him. Costello, who wants to go into interior design, has a white mother and Black father, and she spoke of the disapproval from family before she was even born.

Cleetus, a second-generation Indian immigrant whose goal is to be a dermatologist, began her speech with the kinds of questions she got growing up: "Do you eat bugs? Do you sleep on nails? Will you get married when you're 12?"

Mansour recalled a middle-school social studies teacher telling students if they saw someone with a hijab to call the police, that they might be a terrorist. Mansour, an aspiring physician, said the next day, she wore her hijab, walked out of class and reported the teacher.

Saint Bernard School senior Kayla Mateo recalled a classmate thinking it was OK to use the n-word, not understanding the pain of her Dominican ancestors at being identified by such a term. Mateo volunteers with Fresh New London, New London Youth Affairs and the Dominican Association of New London.

Norwich Free Academy senior Makayla Kelly recalled being told as a kid, "You cannot play with us because you are not like us." She has been involved in the track team, Hispanic Alliance and NAACP Youth Council.

Fellow NFA student Ann'Darhaly Barbot, a dancer going into psychology, recalls a teacher denying her a higher-level class because she was previously an English Language Learner.

"We immigrants embody strength, diligence and kindness," said NFA senior Valeria Yraita-Zevallos, a proud Peruvian immigrant who wants to be an immigration lawyer.

"I will show the world courage, compassion and intelligence," said Vanessa Benjamin, a Stonington High School senior who has volunteered at Backus Hospital, Stonington Community Center and Stonington Free Library. "Dr. King fought for those who are marginalized. Our generation must carry on his legacy."

Stonington senior Taylor Donovan, who wants to study English on a pre-medicine track, spoke about visiting her Italian grandparents for dinner on Fridays and her Puerto Rican grandparents on Saturdays.

Stephen Trask, a composer who grew up in New London and now lives in Kentucky, sponsored scholarships for Ledyard High School seniors Mason Bickham and Sarah Morales. The scholarships are respectively in honor of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain.

Bickham, a leader of the track team and four choirs, said he wants to become a therapist to help people "find the light that shines within all of us." Morales said she was inspired by her grandfather, who had to drop out of school in the fourth grade, and wants to become a teacher.

e.moser@theday.com

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