Scholarship winners to aspiring college-goers: Take chances and stay alert

Two high school graduates share their experiences navigating scholarships and colleges.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Murrell Dobbins High School graduate Monique Miles got a pleasant surprise last week – an email congratulating her for receiving the 2018 Philadelphia City Scholarship.

“I thought I wasn’t going to receive it because I haven’t heard back from them, so once I got the email saying that I was a recipient, I was very excited,” she said.

Miles is one of 53 outstanding high school graduates who were awarded the City Scholarship this year. She will attend Cabrini College in Radnor, and hopes to get a master’s degree for a future career in social work.

The scholarship awards $1,000 annually for a four-year program at an accredited college in the five-county area – Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, or Montgomery Counties. The amount is meant to supplement recipients’ financial aid packages and is given out based on financial need, among other considerations.

Although the Free Library of Philadelphia previously administered the scholarship, the Mayor’s Office of Education took over two years ago. More than 2,600 students have benefited since the scholarship’s beginning in 1959.

“The City Scholarship supports Philadelphia students who choose to continue their education in the area. By doing this, we are supporting students to pursue higher education – and investing in our city’s future talent and leadership,” wrote Sarah Peterson, communications director at the Mayor’s Office of Education, in an email.

Miles discovered the scholarship through an email that her college adviser sent her.

“My family cannot afford for me to go to college, so I went around looking for scholarships. When [my college adviser] sent me the email, I just decided to give it a try,” she said.

As a first-generation college student, Miles thought the college application process was “very challenging.”

“I didn’t know exactly where to start, so my college adviser actually helped me out throughout the process with financial aid, scholarships, and trying to find a college that’s right for me,” she said.

For the chance to further her studies, Miles is grateful “to the mayor and his staff. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be able to extend my education.”

Financial considerations also motivated Toan Vong of South Philadelphia High School to apply for the scholarship. He wanted to alleviate his parents’ financial burden for his college education.

The scholarship is “really important to me,” Vong said, because he is “gathering all the resources that I can and being able to use them to assist my parents and myself.”

After receiving the city’s congratulatory email, Vong eagerly called his parents to relay the good news. “They were pretty happy for me when they heard that I got [the scholarship], knowing that this little weight has been lifted off their back,” he said.

Vong will attend La Salle University this fall, hoping to major in finance but also “explore other activities and lots of other subjects.” Outside of the classroom, he is an active member of the Vietnamese grassroots organization Viet Lead.

The scholarship selection process is competitive – each year, around 50 recipients are chosen from more than 300 applicants. A scholarship review committee of 20 city employees selects the recipients using extensive criteria, including academic achievement, extracurricular activities, leadership potential, and financial need.

Jonathan Todd, director of talent development in the Office of Workforce Development, has served on the committee for three years. He said that the best applicants, besides being well-rounded, told a “cohesive story of where things started, how they evolved, and how they got to where they are today.”

Committee members are appointed on a volunteer basis and they work at in various city departments, from the Philadelphia International Airport to the Office of Youth Engagement.

“It’s a diverse array of city employees representing a lot of different sectors, levels, and education attainments,” Peterson said. “In that way, this is a unique scholarship that brings a lot of perspective to the selection process.”

Todd believes that serving on the committee is a good way for him to support young people in Philadelphia.

“Having the opportunity to identify some rising stars in the Philadelphia school system, that through their essays have presented themselves as viable candidates to be future leaders – locally and nationally – it felt like a great opportunity for me to help select and identify some of those folks,” he said.

To many high school students, especially those facing financial constraints, college and scholarship applications can seem daunting. Todd encourages aspiring scholarship applicants to “leave no stone unturned when it comes to identifying your strengths and activities that could contribute to making you a well-rounded individual.

“Sometimes it can be a little bit difficult to sing your own praises, but no one will be able to sing your praises as well as you can, because you have the most intimate knowledge of what you’ve done.”

Monique Miles advises her fellow students to “take advantage of opportunities, because you really never know what can benefit and help you.”

“Before, I used to say no to every opportunity,” she said. “But once I started saying yes, the more I started seeing more people trying to help me out and more people trying to see me succeed in my goals.”

Like Miles, Toan Vong highlighted the importance of staying vigilant while searching for college or scholarship opportunities.

“You always have to stay on top of your game,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that you have to put in for college applications, and throughout the whole process, you have to stay sharp.”