Students get ‘American Idol’ experience to compete for scholarships


Deng Phua aims to “make his father happy” during his performance at the DC-CAP Stars Compeition at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

When 15-year old Deng Phua’s father passed away in 2009, quitting the violin was not an option. Nor could he give up his dream to become a successful businessman. He had gotten both from his dad.

The sophomore at Woodrow Wilson High School is already eyeing business schools at both Cornell and Brown universities. So when he heard about an opportunity to win a college scholarship at a talent show, he immediately signed up.

“I couldn’t imagine what my father would’ve said if I didn’t enter this competition,” Deng said, sitting next to his mother before a rehearsal.

Tuesday night Deng will aim to make his father proud in his biggest performance yet.

He and nine other high school students from around the District plan to compete in a talent contest at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to win a $10,000 college scholarship. The students’ performances will be critiqued by celebrity judges, including Grammy winner Patti LaBelle; past ‘American Idol’ winner Jordin Sparks; Amber Riley, actress and singer from hit TV series “Glee”; and opera singer Denyce Graves.

The students’ acts include vocals, dance and instrumental performances. Each finalist will bring home a scholarship between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on their placement.

For Deng, a scholarship would bring him one step closer to achieving a dream his father sowed throughout his childhood.

And it’s one reason why the District of Columbia College Access Program hosts this event each year. In its mission to ensure students graduate from high school and college by providing scholarships and mentoring, DC-CAP realized a high-profile event like this is the unspoken ingredient for a student’s success.

“Performing on the Kennedy stage is a dream that most artists never ever get. It was a competitive process with students from around the city,” said Argelia Rodriquez, president and chief executive of DC-CAP. “It raises their esteem and makes them aspire to higher levels.”

For most students, that means making school a priority and college a reality. In the District, only 58 percent of high school students graduated on time in 2011, according to city records.

DC-CAP was created to answer that problem in 1999 by a group of community and business leaders, including Donald Graham, chief executive and chairman of The Washington Post Co.

Today, the group boasts a 100 percent graduation rate for every finalist in the five years of its Stars Talent Competition.

That includes 20 year-old Shandale Whitby. She was a senior in high school when she competed in the show two years ago. She said she was ambivalent toward college, but when a DC-CAP adviser encouraged her to show off her drum skills at the competition, she decided to enter. Though she did not win, she said the experience convinced her to apply to colleges. She now attends Virginia State University, where she is in the marching band and majoring in music. Her goal is to become a music teacher in a D.C. public school.

The Stars Talent Competition is DC-CAP’s flagship event, and it depends on donations from businesses, foundations and individuals who attend the competition to fund the scholarship program.

Last year, the event raised $850,000, which was 12 percent of its annual budget, and 30 percent of its scholarship money.

But like most charities in the city, the recession hurt fundraising. In 2011, the organization was forced to dip into its endowment.

New sponsors include AeroTek, Chevron, General Dynamics, Strayer University and 400 Capital Management.

“The success of the event is critical to our ability to sustain the quality and reach of the counseling services we provide and our ability to award scholarships to the thousands of students that we serve,” Rodriguez said.

After securing new sponsors and celebrities and bolstering the marketing, this year the group is expecting nearly 1,000 people to attend, and it is hoping to bring in around $800,000.

In a classroom at Trinity University, Deng rehearses with the rest of the finalists — a dancer who has performed for first lady Michelle Obama, a saxophonist who toured in Hawaii and a singer who has performed live on cable.

“Get into it! Tell me your story! The audience needs to know what you’re about!” exhorted music director Rickey Payton from behind his piano.

For Deng, who still remembers his dad training him daily on the violin, he hopes the audience will discover just how much he wants to make his father proud.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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