Eleven months ago, Margie Obeng was a wide-eyed 16-year-old battling dehydration and the July sun as she walked through Arlandria on one of her first days as a fledgling community activist.
She knew then that the work she and nine other teens were doing for the summer could pay off in the end with a crucial college scholarship, but it was about the furthest thing from her mind. I need water, she lamented before continuing on.
But, on Tuesday, those hours spent trekking the citys sidewalks, knocking on doors and listening to residents feeling marginalized became the golden ticket for Obeng and six other minority students. The Alexandria high school juniors signed contracts for a six-year scholarship-internship program that makes worrying about how to pay for college a thing of the past.
I didnt know that all of this would happen for me, that this would be the end result of all my hard work, Obeng said Tuesday. Its still hitting me. This is crazy.
The program provides the signees with a summer internship this year and throughout college, a one-year position when they graduate and any funds they need to make higher education a reality. That money will likely total more than $1 million, according to Lucero Beebe-Guidice, a spokeswoman for Tenants and Workers United, which helped implement the program.
Each of the students addressed the crowd of family, friends, Alexandria School Board members and school officials in English and their native tongue, either Spanish or Ghanaian, during the scholarship signing at TWU.
Their remarks of gratitude made clear the singular importance of the scholarships.
Today is a big day for all seven of us, said Ginno Huarocc. Five years ago I came to this country and I never saw myself going to college because I didnt know the language and the financial burden was too great.
Now there is nothing that can stop us from achieving our goal of higher education.
Between the shared responses of disbelief and thanks, the realization of many of their dreams also sparked genuine emotion.
When I found out I had won the scholarship, my happiness turned into tears and everybody was crying for me, said Dora Tweneboa, a recent immigrant from Ghana. When I came here I was not having any hope that anybody was going to support me to go to college.
Along with Obeng, Huarocc and Tweneboa, T.C. Williams juniors Carla Benitez, Jennifer Araujo, Luisa Burgos and Melvin Alvarez committed themselves to the program for the next six years. None of the students called the multi-year obligation anything other than a win-win situation.
The students had been field-tested since their internship last summer, working with TWU on a number of community projects.
Over that span, they gained leadership and communication skills and a bond with the community that many didnt have before, according to Burgos, who now plans to fight racism and discrimination.
TWU runs the initiative Community Organizing for Education and Democracy Scholars on the local level. Additional support comes from a handful of national youth and social justice organizations.
Having watched the students grow since last summer, Esteban Garces, the program coordinator at TWU, is upbeat about what they could achieve.
Every Friday they put up with me for three hours and, even though theyre pretty tired at the end of the week, they gained a lot from the workshops, he said. You build them up and work with them, but they kind of take it on their own and its really special.