Who Are Our Bernie Scholars?
In May 2018, The Bernie Scholarship Awards Program awarded a record-high 63 scholarships of $1,000 each to low-income residents of Montgomery County who reside in subsidized housing. Since its inception in 1995, $600,000 (524 scholarships) has been awarded to 474 scholars.
Those are the statistics of a successful and thriving program. However, it is the stories of The Bernie scholars themselves that are unique. Besides lacking the finances to further their education, many have challenging family situations that create a significant barrier requiring them to have a special determination, over and above the typical college student, to improve themselves.
Nancy Scull, who was recently elected Board Chair, has been connected for many years with the program both as a volunteer and through her work as Coordinator of the Family Self-Sufficiency Program at Montgomery County’s public housing agency, Housing Opportunities Commission. Having worked with the founder of the scholarship program, Bernie Tetreault, she is familiar with the history of the program and the students it assists.
“Many applicants to The Bernie Scholarships have not been strong students, often because they lack confidence in their ability to obtain a college degree and good employment, and they may not have thought much about their chances for college due to lack of funds and their everyday struggles to make ends meet,” says Scull.
“Some award recipients are the first in their family to complete a college degree,” she continues. “Many awardees have overcome unbelievable odds to achieve their goals. Their strength, determination, and resilience are remarkable, especially as they try hard not to give up on their goals. “
The overarching goal of The Bernie Scholarship program is to help break the cycle of poverty for its recipients and future generations. Obtaining a college education has been proven to be critical to raising people’s income. 98% of the program’s recipients complete their college degree.
“Learning is often very challenging and even frightening,” says Scull. “Our awardees often must make their way in life without support from family or friends. Many are single parents. They are committed to post-high school education but lack financial resources, and they struggle every day to make ends meet while balancing employment, studies, child care costs and schedules, and parenting their children.”
Scull says that the majority of scholarship recipients are employed during their academic years. Those seeking a career in a public service field are given priority for receiving a scholarship, as are adults over graduating high schoolers. Bernie Scholarship Board members mentor the awardees to help with problem-solving, encouragement and support, and to provide other resources that they need.
“Our awardees are very impressive, and we are proud of all of them. They model the importance of education for their children and make a difference for future generations.”
Here are profiles of some of our 2018 Bernie scholars. If you are inspired by these fine young people and would like to donate towards future scholarships, The Bernie Scholarship Awards Program is a component fund of the Greater Washington Community Foundation (GWCF), through the Community Foundation of Montgomery County, a subset of the 501(c)(3) GWCF. All donations payable to The Bernie Scholarship Awards Program are tax deductible.
The 2018 Scholars
Melvin Cooper III
Melvin says he’s always had a plan for what he wanted to do with his life. This fall, the Potomac native will enter his junior year at Broward College in Pompano Beach, Florida, working toward a Bachelor’s degree, and eventually a Master’s in Information Technology. He hopes to have the Master’s degree in three years. He earned his Associate’s degree this spring after achieving a 4.0 GPA for the semester, raising his overall GPA to 3.49.
His passion is Cyber Security. “The field allows me to make more money, and the job market is always increasing,” says Melvin. “I just wanted to do something that will always be there.” He is particularly proud of doing well in his coding class which he says was “so hard” that more than half the people dropped out before the end of the semester.
Nineteen-year-old Melvin has certainly beaten the odds. Brought up by a single mother, he is the third oldest of four children. His mother and father were divorced when Melvin was in elementary school. He says his father has not been present in his life. Not many in his family graduated from high school, so it was an achievement for him when he graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac in 2016. He says his mother has always allowed him to make his own choices, but she always emphasized school as being the most important thing.
“My 84-year-old grandfather is an inspiration to me,” he says. “He’s worked his entire life. He started at a golf course as a caddy and carried three golf bags at the same time. A job in Cyber Security, which is not manual labor, would be much easier than his job. He loved his wife and took care of his family. It was super hard. He did everything he should.”
Melvin’s faith also plays a big part in his motivation to do well. He says the “degree is just the first part” of making a positive impact. In Potomac, Melvin used to volunteer at a recreation center working with and organizing activities for children ages 5-13.
Melvin received $1,000 in The Bernie scholarship money this year. It is his third Bernie Scholarship award. He covers the rest of his education by working part-time at the university.
The scholarship has had a huge impact on him. It has allowed him to focus on his studies without the pressure of lacking money for books and tuition. He says earning the scholarships means “I was diligent enough to understand the value of excelling in my education. I’d like to someday be able to give back to the program and provide for students like me.”
If you ask H. Sluyter what she is most proud of, “keeping her sanity” comes to the front of her mind. The two-time Bernie Scholarship recipient is the single mother of a nine-year old girl and a six-month old baby boy, she works full-time for the federal government and goes to school part-time at the University of Baltimore. It is a heavy load, but she says she will not give up her schooling.
Raised in Baltimore, the 29-year-old Sluyter is the oldest of three children. Her mother was also a single mother. “Being a single parent, raising a family on one income, is difficult,” she says. “When I first had my son, I remember breastfeeding him and doing homework, studying, and just being being happy I didn’t have to go to work because I was on maternity leave at the time. Emotionally, I try not to dwell on my challenges. When I do get down, I keep reminding myself where I came from, where I’m at now, and where I’m trying to go.”
Where she is eventually headed is into the world of corporate law. Sluyter says she finds litigation interesting and challenging and would like to work for a large company. Because of her obligations, she also needs a lucrative career. Recently, she took a macro-economics course, so she’s started thinking about international business or working as a corporate attorney for a company with offices in other countries.
She hopes her education, combined with her business and administrative experience, can make that goal a reality. She already has an Associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies from Montgomery College. By the fall, she will have earned an Associate’s degree in Business as well. Technically, she will be a senior next year. In a year and a half, she will earn her Bachelor’s degree in Business and then go on to law school. Her goal is to complete law school in three years.
Sluyter starting work at the age of 15. She says she’s worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, Foot Locker, a call center, and a music store. The past two years she’s been working at the U. S. Department of Commerce. She was recently promoted to Division Office Manager. Due to her full-time employment, most of her classes are taken online and at night.
Her first Bernie Scholarship was awarded in 2017. While the Seneca Valley High School graduate has also received assistance through a federal Pell grant and other scholarships, Sluyter says she can only take as many classes “as her scholarships will allow.” That usually amounts to about three classes per semester. She says her income goes toward daycare ($430/week) and for living expenses such as her new home in Montgomery County.
“What motivates me is knowing that I can do better,” says Sluyter. “I want a better life for myself and my kids. When I start something, I have to finish it. I’ve established all these goals and when I knock them down, I set some more. I don’t have much of a support system. A lot of people depend on me.”
She says her mother focuses on her two younger siblings, and she’s happy that “she doesn’t have to worry about me.” “I keep reminding myself that it’s only me, and I have to play all these roles since I have two small children,” says Sluyter.
“I want to thank my friends,” she says. “They tell me they are proud of me and look up to me. Knowing that both my mother and father are college graduates has let me know that it is in me. They kind of set the standard.”
In Her Own Words (Excerpt from Sluyter’s speech given at the Awards Ceremony May 2018)
“So how do I do it? How do you make all this happen?
Strategic Time Management
Short-term sacrifices for my long-term dream
Internal will to succeed and not give up on my investment
Dedication- reminding myself that these hurdles will soon be over and my classes would still be there
Being extremely resourceful
I was also very strategic when I asked others for help. The help I had was very limited, so I had to use it wisely.
Learning from my failures.
I’m going to tell you the same thing I tell them, you can do it too. If you’re dedicated and really want something, no one or anything will get in your way. I hope I inspired you. Keep your head up and do not give up.”
Bitseat Getaneh had every reason to be dissuaded from pursuing her lofty dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. It was August 2016, her first day in the United States, and the then 16-year-old girl from Ethiopia was beginning a temporary stay in Maryland with her host couple. The plan was that she would soon leave Maryland and move to Oklahoma to attend boarding school.
But things didn’t go as planned. In the complex where she was staying, a natural gas explosion occurred killing her host couple, trapping her in the apartment. “As the flames expanded, I rushed to the exit door through the collapsing apartment, trying to save my life,” says Getaneh. “I ran from one corner to the other. I felt the flames burning my face, but I still couldn’t find the door. I started praying out loud, ‘Please, God, save me!’ After a few seconds, I found myself outside the apartment. I still don’t remember how I got there, and I did not yet know that both my hosts did not escape but passed away in the apartment that night.”
Her body was covered with third-degree burns. She was hospitalized and unable to attend high school for four months. She never made it to Oklahoma. Her mother left her husband and three other children to come to the United States to help nurse Bitseat back to health. Most of her family remains in Ethiopia.
Move forward almost two years after the tragedy. In June of this year, Bitseat graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School with a GPA of 3.86. This fall she will begin her freshman year at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania pursuing her dream to become a neurosurgeon.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little girl. I want to learn more about the features of the brain. My uncle had a stroke and he was badly injured. He fell at work, but he survived it. That experience has pushed me toward this field.”
Bitseat says that in Ethiopia she did not have the freedom to choose her profession. “The government would have administered a test and told me I had to study the occupation they preferred. If they’d decided I needed to become an engineer, I wouldn’t have been happy. In order to become a neurosurgeon, I had to come to the United States.”
Not only has she been awarded her first Bernie Scholarship, but she was also awarded a Posse Foundation Leadership Scholarship. Out of 1500 applicants, Bitseat says she was one of only 50 to receive this prestigious scholarship, which pays for her full tuition.
When she graduated from high school last month, Bitseat says her mother was very proud of her. Her mother does not speak English, so Bitseat has had to do the grocery shopping, make sure rent is paid on time, and translate for her. “There are a lot of Ethiopian people in Silver Spring so she won’t be alone. It’s going to be hard to be apart from her.”
She thanks her mom for the sacrifice she made leaving Ethiopia and the rest of her family. “I’ve been through a lot,” she says. “I have to pursue this education and make them proud. My host family passed away because of the fire, so I have to make them proud too. I have to make something of myself.” After she gains experience in the United States, she hopes to eventually return to Ethiopia where there is a dearth of neurosurgeons.
In Her Own Words (Excerpt from speech given at the Award Ceremony May 2018)
“I read a quote by Charles R. Swindoll that says, ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.’ That’s when I started to understand that everything happens for a reason. God was trying to show me that death is imminent and that I should embrace life like there is no tomorrow. People should always look forward to the future and not dwell on the pain they faced.
Every individual has a story to tell, and I hope my story motivates you to think that life is a valuable thing to hold on to and that every day counts. Even though I had a rough start, that will not decide where my future takes me. I will be attending Bucknell University in the fall of 2018 with a full tuition scholarship. I will use this (Bernie) scholarship money to pay for my room and board. This second chance I’ve been given by God, I want to use it to make Him happy and be His channel to help people. I want to conclude by saying that wherever life takes you, you must have the courage to stay stronger than your struggles. Don’t let it drown you.”
Sometimes in life, one has no choice but to rise to the challenge. Two-time Bernie scholarship recipient Tayla Brawner has done just that. This fall, she will enter her junior year at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. By the end of 2020, she will have earned her Associate’s degree in Occupational Therapy and a Bachelor’s degree in Child Psychology. She will then work toward earning her Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy.
When she walked across the graduation stage at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, she was three months pregnant. With many incomplete tasks and personal challenges, she came to a concrete decision on exactly how she would overcome her fear of failure. A couple of months later she was attending Trinity Washington College. At the end of her first semester at Trinity, she gave birth to Madison, who is now seventeen months old.
“Having a child was more of a motivation than a barrier as many thought,” says Tayla. “God has placed Madison in my life as a wonderful blessing. She makes me very happy! As she grows, I want to be able to supply all her needs. That’s why I’m beyond dedicated to working my hardest at anything in order to succeed past my goals in life just so I know I’ve done my part for her as a mother.”
Tayla is a hard worker and has become independent over the last two years with great confidence. She has worked since she was in 9th grade. Last year, she worked two jobs and is currently working part-time at Shopper’s Food Warehouse. She is hoping to find work in an office, preferably as a receptionist or in data entry, while she’s in school full-time this year. At school, she has made the Dean’s List for two semesters. She also had a 3.5 GPA in high school, was a cheerleader for four years and participated in gymnastics as well as track and field.
As a little girl growing up, Tayla watched registered nurses come to her grandmother’s house and help her with her daily tasks such as taking her medications, exercising, eating healthy food, and even working on fine motor skills in her hands. “Seeing constantly how these individuals made a huge impact on my grandmother motivated me to want to do something that will help individuals maintain a happy, peaceful, and independent lifestyle with no limitations or restrictions when it comes to their physical, mental, and emotional state,“ says Tayla, who hopes to run her own practice some day.
“In junior high school, my counselor introduced me to many different jobs that were structured around helping people,” she continued. “Jumping from becoming a pediatrician to a registered nurse, I came across occupational therapy. After researching and watching countless videos of what it means to be an Occupational Therapy Assistant, right then and there I knew this would be a career that I’d be passionate about. Occupational Therapy is more than just a career but a great opportunity to make a memorable impact, whether big or small, on the lives of many individuals and their families.”
Tayla says she has never had a mentor, although she gives thanks to many who have pushed and helped her along the way, both prior to and after her pregnancy. She has not known anyone in her family to go to college other than her mother, though she is pushing her brother, Tyler, to expand his education. Tayla has been able to afford college through The Bernie Scholarships and a scholarship from Trinity College, which she keeps by maintaining her G.P.A. above 3.3 and going to school full-time.
She is proud of earning her Bernie Scholarship. “Thanks to Bernie (Tetreault),” she says. “He wanted to help those who are trying to make a way for themselves in the wake of many obstacles. It’s not only a good opportunity for me, but for others in the community because he wasn’t only helping the wealthy. They weren’t giving that scholarship to anyone. They gave it to those who are hard-working and focused.”
“I’m very outgoing and dedicated to my work,” she adds. “I do have a child, and she’s growing with me. I am truly blessed.”
In Her Own Words (Excerpt from speech given at the Award Ceremony May 2018)
“First off, I would like to thank God who has stood beside me through many trials and tribulations and has never failed me. I remember just like it was yesterday …. walking across the stage graduating from high school three months pregnant with my beautiful daughter, Madison. So many emotions were coming and going that day … from deciding whether or not I was ever going to go to college, to being a great mother, to thinking about pickles and cold cut sandwiches.
Fast forward to now, two years later … a current junior student at Trinity Washington University with less than two years to go before I earn my Associate’s degree in Occupational Therapy and a Bachelor’s degree. No, it wasn’t easy, but it was definitely possible and worth it. I have been through so much and I’m pretty sure you all have been through tough times as well, but it does get better.
Galatians 6 verse 9 says, ‘Let us not become weary in doing good for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ With persistence, drive, courage, and resiliency you’ll go so many places you’ve never dreamed of.
To Madison, I am so thankful to be your mother because you have pushed me to higher means, to want more out of life, and not to settle for anything less than what I deserve. ‘Mommy is doing it all for you. I love you.’”