- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2016

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - Hard work, honesty and determination can overcome all obstacles, or so says the American Dream.

But for many students in Lynchburg and around the country who face financial and social obstacles, it won’t come true, however hard they work.

Mckayla Warwick, 18, a senior at E.C. Glass High School, could have been one such student, if she had been unwilling to share her story. But the courage to tell it helped her win two national scholarships for students who have overcome economic disadvantage and other challenges.

“The expectation for kids that come from my background isn’t for them to go on and succeed,” she said.

Between them, the awards will give her a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania, rewarding what those who know her said has been an exemplary school career that has already inspired other students.

Being a lower-income student in advanced classes made her different from most of her classmates, both those in her track, who tended to come from more privileged backgrounds, and those who came from similar situations but didn’t go the same academic route. And, as she was also often one of just a few black students in those advanced classes, Mckayla has felt at times that she didn’t quite fit in.

“It can feel isolating until you get comfortable enough with who you are to know that even though these people don’t look like me, and they can’t relate to me, to know that . you’re there for yourself,” Mckayla said.

The city schools have been driving in recent years to correct disproportionately low representation of black students in advanced classes, trying to find out what might be wrong with their selection process - as well as what else might be preventing black students from taking the initiative to sign up.

“In some ways I’ve been kind of the in-between kid, where you don’t fit in here, and you don’t fit in there,” she said. “But you just have to be comfortable enough with yourself to where you’ll find people that look beyond what divides us.”

Mckayla’s story isn’t wildly dramatic, and she doesn’t present it that way. It’s the ordinary, invisible struggle that students all over the country face every day - especially in Lynchburg, where 60 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

What makes her inspiring, her teachers and counselors said, is her drive to overcome it, her compassion for others, and her eloquence when she chooses to speak up.

“She’s probably the most compassionate kid I have ever had on my team,” said Aaron Reid, who coaches the E.C. Glass forensics speech team for which Mckayla is now captain, two years after taking first place in the state in her event - as a sophomore.

“She cares so much about how all the other team members are feeling, whether or not they’re ready for competition, if they’re nervous,” he said. “I don’t think I knew the extent that maybe some of (her background) affected her until some of the essays that she wrote for me in class last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of her peers didn’t have any idea of the very different world that she lived in.”

Neither of Mckayla’s parents went to college. Her mother has gotten to show her artistic side in several of the jobs she’s held, including working as a cosmetologist, a floral arranger, and in a bridal shop, but mostly she and her mother just get by, Mckayla said.

Her father was a car salesman, but after split discs in his back left him unable to work when she was just five years old, conflict followed, and by the time she was in middle school, her parents were divorced.

Middle school was hard on Mckayla, but she said she was driven by a love of learning, something she said her parents - and even her kindergarten teacher - always supported.

“My mom would be like, ‘Wow, I like that you are in there reading, I respect that.’ And having someone to just tell you that makes all the difference,” she said. “If . you don’t know anyone that’s experienced success.you don’t know anyone to model yourself after.”

School counselor Felicia Calloway thinks that Mckayla, a leader and organizer in half a dozen clubs and service organizations, is that person for other students.

“From what I see . it’s just wanting to be better,” Calloway said. “It’s thinking outside the box, just wanting more.

“I think Mckayla has been a role model for a lot of our minority students because they see what is possible,” she continued. “Sometimes . an adult constantly (says) ‘You can do better.’ But coming from a peer and actually seeing what could be accomplished, I think that has helped enormously.”

Both scholarships, Questbridge and the Horatio Alger award, require financial documentation demonstrating students come from lower-income families, as well as a reference from someone who can attest to related or other challenges students might write about in their applications. Questbridge recipients have a median annual family income of $33,000, while Horatio Alger income eligibility tops out at $55,000.

Pride can get in the way of some students reaching for those opportunities, Mckayla acknowledged. She wouldn’t have gotten this chance without a willingness to write about personal, tough situations, things she says she’s talked to friends about sharing.

“You have to get your story out there,” Mckayla said. “I know it can be scary exposing yourself, especially when you spend so long building up a wall of protection around what you’ve gone through, but really . It’s not worth hiding yourself. And I’m not going to say, ‘Go and throw your parents under the bus,’ that’s not my advice at all.

“But tell your story,” she said. “And tell it beautifully, as only you can.”


Information from: The News & Advance, https://www.newsadvance.com/



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