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“African Booty Scratcher!!”
“Go back to the tree where you live with your Ebola!!”
I couldn’t bear it anymore. I felt humiliated and like an outcast. I kept to myself all day and tried to sit in my teacher’s classroom during lunch. I wanted to quit school. But, I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — because I am the daughter of Fata Favor Selma and persistence is in my blood.
Back in Liberia, my mother was a trained nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in the country. Although we lived a good life, my mother wanted to advance her education and in pursuit of her dream of opening a care center, she moved to the United States in 2012, leaving my sister and me with my uncle. When we spoke to my mom, she shared the highlights of America. She always conveyed positivity and resilience — never mentioning the struggle that we’d later learn was her reality.
Over two years, my mom worked multiple menial jobs, day and night, to save money and bring us to America, at the expense of her own comfort — she hadn’t even watched a movie in two years! After she was finally able to bring us over, my mom continued working and spent her nights and savings on studying to become a certified nurse. Life was filled with setbacks, from adjusting to new schools and unstable living conditions to my grandmother’s passing.
When we moved to the United States, I was assigned to repeat the 6th grade due to the differences in the schooling system, even though I had skipped 5th grade and just completed 6th grade in Liberia. Adding insult to injury, my classmates constantly bullied me and insulted my heritage. I felt embarrassed and began to regret our move to America. I’d had such high hopes, but all I could wish for at that point was to return to Liberia.
But, time and again, my mother’s living inspiration renewed my strength. “Don’t let anything limit or distract you from your dreams,” she told me. “Don’t let others’ perceptions define your reality.” At first, I would roll my eyes but, watching my mother’s resilience, working nights and weekends for our benefit, inspired me to follow in her footsteps. I wanted to be as resilient as she was.
I began staying after school daily, building relationships with my teachers. I even went to school on Saturdays. My teachers began noticing and so did my peers. I wanted to improve my “American” English and listened intently when others spoke. I noted their pronunciation especially. I learned how to “code switch” between Liberian English, American English, slang, and professional language. It took time, patience, and a lot of persistence through failure but soon I was no longer an “African Booty Scratcher.” I became Lisa David, a smart, determined African girl ready to take on the world with my dream: to become a fashion entrepreneur who brings Liberian styles to the world and provides economic opportunity back home in Monrovia, Liberia.
But then, there was a looming challenge and decision to be made. College.
My high school counselors were guiding me to local and trade schools like Georgia Perimeter College or another Associate’s program because my test scores weren’t great and my grades were only slightly above average. But I wanted more than that. I wanted to make a big mark on this world, and I knew that there are certain colleges in the U.S. that provide a better opportunity to do that. But, I could not find a path that would lead me there.
That’s when my guidance counselor recommended I apply to the “Lakhani Scholars” program for kids like me — with excellent grades and extracurricular activities, but who could use help from a professional coach to have a chance to land at a top college. I sent in an application to the scholarship and was completely shocked when I won.
At my first meeting, my coach Hafeez Lakhani helped me understand that getting into a top college is about more than grades and test scores. While they are an important part of the selection process, schools want to know they are bringing in students with a variety of backgrounds, personal experiences and strong character. He said that my character — my courage, perseverance and my story about coming from Liberia and overcoming so many obstacles — would be very attractive to any university.
After a year of hard work together, he suggested I apply to the prestigious George Washington University (GWU) in D.C. I was anxious about not being accepted but he convinced me that such an elite school was possible.
We worked together for almost two years. During that time, I managed to earn a place on my school’s Principal’s List, win the Professionalism Award, and make the Math and English Honor Roll, having increased my overall GPA from 3.0 to 3.4, and improved my SAT score by more than 300 points. I also earned college credits at Atlanta Technical College by taking classes on business relations and professionalism and secured a competitive internship at Atlanta’s Human and Civil Rights Museum. I joined Varsity Volleyball, volunteered at my church, and even worked part time at my aunt’s salon.
When I sat down to write my college essay, I was literally amazed at all I had accomplished in the previous two years. I was even more amazed a few short months later when, after applying to just one school, I was accepted “early decision” to GWU. And, they’re giving me a full scholarship!
I can’t wait to start in September (2020). But I’m not stopping there! After I graduate, I want to return to Liberia and establish a fashion and beauty business there — something I can do that will inspire and share my own culture with the world, as well support job creation and build up my community.
Finally, I want to encourage everyone reading this… if you apply yourself and cultivate your personal story of resilience, persistence and drive, you can see the same success I have. And if you need help, the Lakhani Scholarship program is taking applications through May 1, 2020. I encourage you to apply. You never know where it might lead you!
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