When Abdurahman Donka was in second grade, he came home from the library and announced, “I want to go to college.” That was six years ago. “His father and I weren’t exactly sure what that was,” said his mother.
Abdu had been studying the histories of famous people “and many of them had attended prominent universities,” he said. “I wanted to go.” He wanted to attend one of them also. That aspiration was reinforced when he read about Barack Obama. “He came from humble beginnings, too,” said Abdu, “and look at all he accomplished.”
Now in grade 9, Abdu is attending Andover Phillips Academy, a prestigious secondary boarding school, as a Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar and it would surprise no one who knows the young man if he follows the footsteps of the President. At some point their paths will diverge, if for no other reason than Abdu doesn’t want to occupy the White House. Abdu wants to be a neurosurgeon.
The Donka’s immigrated from Ethiopia 12 years ago. Abdu was two years old when his family was granted political asylum.
The Donka’s moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. Income was tight and expenses were daunting.
Abdu signed up for Center for Talent Development’s assessment program, Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search (NUMATS), and did well for his grade level. He discovered information on the Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars program listed on the CTD website when he was in grade 7 and decided he wanted to apply.
As with many applicants, the Donka’s found the application formidable, but they were determined. “If Abdu didn’t apply, there was no way he would be selected,” said his mom. “We wanted to help every way we could.” Abdu was methodical in his approach, asking his teachers for recommendations early in the process and writing and editing his essays over and over again. “He would do his homework first and then work on the application every night,” said his mom.
“Abdu and his parents were very systematic about completing the application,” said Yolanda Toni, responsible for the gifted program, called SPINOUT, at Fairview Elementary School, where Abdu was a student. The Donka family also turned to the outreach manager, Tammie Stewart at CTD to answer questions they had about the application process and the program in general.
Abdu tried not to get too excited. But the stakes were high. They got higher when he was notified he had made the initial cut. “I kept asking my mom and dad, ‘Do you think I’ll be selected?’”
“I was jumping up and down. Up and down. I was so excited! We called my dad. He kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’”? The package was right there. No matter how many times Abdu and his mom looked away and looked back, it was still there. Abdu was a Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar. That night Abdu e-mailed every person at Fairview who had helped him. “After that, I calmed down. Well, a little.”
They celebrated at home. They celebrated at school. The SPINOUT program event had a small celebration. The school paper ran an article about Abdu’s selection. “It’s important that Abdu was chosen,” said Toni. “The scholarship opens so many more doors for him. But it’s also important for others to see that programs like this exist and if you have the perseverance to complete the application process, you can put yourself in the position to be selected.”
They celebrated at CTD, too. “I get a list of those chosen and I always look through to see which of ‘my’ students have been selected,” said Tammie Stewart, JKC’s representative for the Midwest. “Since I had worked with Abdu’s mom and was familiar with the family, well their name jumped out at me. I e-mailed them my congratulations right away.”
Gianina Lockley from Jack Kent Cook e-mailed Abdu about various schooling options and talked to him on the phone. Later she visited. “At first I didn’t want to go to boarding school,” said Abdu. “I thought it was too expensive, too hard to get into.” But the JKC Educational Advisor sent him research sheets with what the average SAT® applicants had scored, application due dates, etc. She also explained the financial aid programs that would make the dream a possibility.
“We are so grateful to all the people who have helped us,” says Abdu’s mother. “When we left Ethiopia, we wanted to find a place that was safe to raise our children and a place where they could be educated. We have found both.”
If you know a motivated student like Abdu, please help spread the word about the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship opportunity. Awardees receive funding for four years of educational programs (either high school or college depending on the scholarship for which they apply). Applications for the Young Scholar program, for students in grade 7, opens in mid-January and closes mid-March.