Ai Duong is quiet and a little shy. She came to America from Vietnam when she was 15, leaving her parents behind. When members of Lake Highlands Women’s League arrived on the Lake Highlands High School campus Thursday to announce 32 winners of college scholarships, she could hardly believe her luck. She’ll use her funds to enroll at Collin College in the fall.
“I am so grateful that they want to help students fulfill their dreams,” said Ai. “I cannot believe they have chosen to reward me. I’m so happy and appreciative.”
I asked Mercy Cer why she was clutching her cheeks.
“I’ve been smiling the whole day. My cheeks kinda hurt,” she joked.
Turning a little more serious, she told me, “I really need to pray about this. This is great. None of this would have been able to happen without a blessing. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason for this.”
Mercy came to Dallas at 6 years old and enrolled at Wallace Elementary, home of a large refugee population. She’ll go to UNT, “which is great because I can still go to my home church.”
Camila Melero admits she didn’t know what to expect when she was called out of class.
“When my name was called to come down to the office, I thought, ‘uh-oh. What if it’s something bad?’ But when I learned I won the scholarship, I was really excited. I can’t wait to text my mom. She’ll be so proud of me. Through her struggles with alcohol, I’ve learned how to deal with problems. From her life lessons, I’ve learned to do better.”
“I can’t wait to go home and surprise my mom,” echoed Karla Ruiz, who came to America from El Salvador. “Whenever I get something back for my effort, she feels so proud.”
Karla was quick to give credit to LHHS’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program.
“AVID helped me set up my goals, and it taught me that education is the only thing that will take me all the way.”
“In my AVID class, we teach them to organize who they are as a person,” said Matthew Morris, head of LHHS’ AVID program.” One of our themes now is ‘I am,’ so after we get our notes and our tutoring out of the way, we circle up and discuss ‘how do we build ourselves as a person, how do we build ourselves as a community, what does the world have against us?’ We have to be open and honest with the kids, because, most of the time, the AVID kids are the first in their family to go to college. They don’t have any support at home. They may be working. We tell them, ‘It’s okay for you to fail, but while you’re failing you’re pushing yourself to be successful. Our goal is that the kids know how to ask for help. We do a lot of team building and time management and how to deal with stress. They realize, ‘I’ve been dealt a bad hand and stress will never go away, but that’s okay because I can turn a negative into a positive.’”
Justin Yarbrough will use his scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri – and maybe get a spot on Shark Tank.
“I invented a food chopping device that dispenses toppings also,” he told me. “I have a patent, but I’ve got to find a way to manufacture it.”
Josh Garwood’s scholarship will send him to the University of Texas – and separate him from his triplet brothers. Luke and Mark, both headed to Texas A&M, also received funds from LHWL.
“It’s going to be interesting, we’re going to have a house divided,” said Josh. “They’re both in Espree and I’m in Wranglers, so we do our own thing, but it’s going to be beyond anything we’ve done before.”
“I feel extremely blessed,” continued Josh. “Everyone in this group is very deserving. They’re very passionate about what they do and about what they’ve put toward their education. I’m just honored to be a part of this group of kids.”
“This makes it all worthwhile,” said Robin Norcross, co-chair of the LHWL’s Holiday in the Highlands fundraiser, “all the fits and starts you have along the way trying to put on a home tour.”
The Women’s League will give $94,000 in scholarships to 32 recipients and even more to LH-area schools and non-profits from home tour proceeds, which totaled more than $213,000.
“It’s amazing to see all the kids’ happy faces today,” said Diana Milan, co-chair of the home tour, “and it makes all our effort for two years sooo worth it.”
“My husband said to my son when he went off to college, ‘They can measure you physically, they can measure you academically, but they can never measure your heart,’ said Penne Collett, chairman of the scholarship committee, to the assembled recipients. “Well, when we looked at your applications, we were measuring you academically, and when we met you, we learned all about your heart. You’ve worked hard in your academics and in your community, but it’s your heart that really got you here.”
Recipients of the 2016 Lake Highlands Women’s League scholarships are: Giselle Barbosa, Caitlyn Bosch, Melissa Campbell, Sui “Mercy” Cer, Biak Chin, Josue Corzo, Madeleine Dale, Ai Thanh Duong, Alli Garcia, Joshua Garwood, Luke Garwood, Mark Garwood, Brendyn Gettens, Berket Ghebermicael, Michaela Jordan, Rebuma Kedir, Rohda Kedir, Dominique McQueen, Camila Melero, Lilian Osa, Alexa Palmer, Karla Ruiz, Kayleigh Sather, Grace Anne Tipton, Ugochi Uche, Brandon von Sternberg, Mackenzi Ward, Gabriella Wasser, Travis West, Matthew Wieters, Rachel Willard and Justin Yarbrough.
Some of the recipients will be part of LH Advocate Magazine’s annual May cover issue, featuring students who have overcome great obstacles. Look for their full (and fascinating) stories then.