MLK scholarship winners celebrated at annual dinner
Groton ― Words have power.
Nazariah Isaac, a New London High School student and one of this year’s 16 Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship recipients, said nothing while she waited for the full attention of the packed ballroom at the Mystic Marriott Thursday night.
She finally spoke.
“Toya’s stupid daughter.”
There were no more sounds of forks and knives against plates. There was no more conversation at any of the more than 50 tables spread out under dim lights.
“In my grandmother's eyes that’s who I was whenever I made mistakes,” she said. “Toya’s stupid daughter. Those words cut me so deep that my dreams of being a writer bled out through open wounds.”
Isaac, whose play “Open Wounds” made it to the Eugene O’Neill Young Playwrights Festival, thanked the theater teacher who helped her get there.
Then she asked her parents to stand up in the audience. She thanked Latoya Owens-Ogletree and Miguel Figueroa for showing her that being sensitive doesn’t make her weak.
“It makes me human,” she said.
Isaac was the first of 16 high school seniors of color to speak at the 41st Annual Scholarship Awards Dinner. She is one of 225 for whom the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund has helped ease the financial burden of attending college since King was assassinated in 1968.
Divine Adekoya spoke next. The Marine Science Magnet High School senior’s cadence was deliberate: “Words have power,” he said.
“The ability to speak, many people have. But the ability to speak properly, I had to learn,” he said. “I spent days talking to myself, learning articulation. Though hard, it taught me a valuable lesson: words, said correctly, have power.”
He thanked his parents, the Rev. Olufermi and Olufunmilayo Adekoya for their “powerful words of inspiration.”
He and his brother Fortune Adekoya plan to attend the University of Connecticut, Providence College or Connecticut College, with Divine pursuing a career in medicine and Fortune in aerospace engineering.
Robert E. Fitch High School student Aisha Hashimi said she knew at 12 years old she would become the next Maya Angelou. That’s when a friend told her something that struck and stuck with her.
“My father said your kind are terrorists,” she recalled the friend saying. “And you will bomb the school.”
Words have power.
“But I am not a terrorist,” she said, with the same strong, slow, intentionality that dominated the evening of celebration. In her native language and in English, she called herself a daughter, sister, student and an inspiration.
Hashimi made it to the Eugene O’Neill festival as a guest playwright with her play “Judged by the Look.”
She told the middle school students from twelve schools across New London County that they were inspirations, too.
During the dinner that preceded the speeches, Three Rivers Middle College Magnet High School senior Dehjah Drye remembered attending the scholarship ceremony two times as a middle school student.
It was inspiring, she said, to see “people who look like me” being celebrated.
Now, she hopes to pursue a career in genetic counseling at either Boston University, Washington University or Purdue University.
“Seeing it when I was younger, I wanted to be like them,” she said. “And here I am, one of the scholarship recipients. It’s unbelievable.”
Trust Fund President Birse Timmons in his introductory remarks welcomed the younger students.
“And I charge you middle school rising stars to work diligently so that you can be here receiving this scholarship in four to five years,” he said.
Chelsea Smith, a member of the scholarship class of 2006, has been coming back to the annual award ceremony as often as possible since then. She credited the scholarship with making it feasible for her to attend Columbia University, where she graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in women’s studies.
The $20,000 scholarship was “nothing to sneeze at,” she said. It helped make the difference between attending a more affordable state university and being able to go to her dream school. Next year, she said she’s bringing two gifted middle school students from Montville she knows will benefit from the celebration of people of color.
In a surprise move at the end of the night, Birse announced the 16 scholarship winners will receive $25,000 over four years instead of the $20,000 they thought they were getting.
“With inflation and college tuition at an all-time high, the board of trustees has agreed that increasing the scholarship is the right move to make this year,” he said. He asked for support from those in attendance to help sustain incremental increases over time.
The scholarship program started with a single, $100 award in 1968 following King’s assassination. New London High School’s Herbert Ross was selected by a popular vote to receive the gift from Dr. William Waller and Eunice Waller. It led to the creation of the trust fund that has since eased the financial burden of college for 225 students.
New London Science and Technology Magnet High School’s Meggan Coronel Marca is an award-winning artist planning to study illustration in college. She hopes to attend the University of Connecticut or Eastern Connecticut State University to study illustration.
Isaiah Anderson, Rhiana Boutot and Kyra Robinson were the other seniors from Fitch High School honored.
Anderson, an athlete and class president, hopes to attend Georgetown University, Columbia University, or Boston College to study law and eventually hold public office. Boutot, who aspires to become an astronautical engineer, holds leadership positions with the National Honor Society, Drama Club and Key Club. She plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, University of Connecticut or Wells College in New York. Robinson, co-president of the Black Student Union, will attend the University of Connecticut or Howard University to study health sciences.
Norwich Free Academy’s Leopoldine Bertrand holds leadership positions including president of the Spanish National Honor Society, vice president of the school’s NAACP Branch and secretary of education at Shekinah Church. An aspiring school principal and state senator, she plans to attend either Howard University, the University of California, Los Angeles or North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Camryn Hobbs, of Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, is the salutatorian of her class and captain of the softball team. She hopes to study engineering at the University of Connecticut, Brown University or the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
New London Science and Technology Magnet High School students Falens Joseph and Syeda Raza are both aspiring doctors. Joseph is an athlete and member of the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps looking to attend the University of Connecticut, New York University or Columbia University. Syeda, who speaks Urdu, Punjabi, and Arabic, has amassed a host of academic awards in the four years since she learned the English language. She plans to attend Yale University, the University of Connecticut or Connecticut College.
Diya Patel and Porter Rodriguez represented Stonington High School. Patel holds positions including class vice president, Student Government president and varsity basketball captain. She hopes to become a doctor by way of Yale University, Tufts University or Brown University. Rodriguez, a Girl Scout since 2010, is active in UNICEF and Girl Scout community service initiatives. She plans to study law at Boston University, Fordham University or American University.
Kmara Royster, of New London Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School, is president of her Class and a three-sport athlete who has been recognized as an Eastern Connecticut All-Star, Scholar-Athlete and champion in the 55-meter hurdles. She plans to study fine arts, with a concentration in fashion design, at Parsons School of Design or Pratt Institute of Art in New York, or at Rhode Island School of Design.
Scholarship sponsors were Pfizer, Comcast, Chelsea Groton Bank, General Dynamics, The Day Publishing Company, Rotary Club of Groton, CorePlus Credit Union, Yale New Haven Health, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Thames Valley Council for Community Action, Dr. Karen Walters, Niantic Community Church, Mystic Congregational Church, Dr. James and Marguerite Mitchell and Bart Sayet.