Scholarship Honors Hard-Luck Learners

D.C. senior Ivana Farrar is among 108 winners of a Horatio Alger award, given to students who excel in school despite difficulties.
D.C. senior Ivana Farrar is among 108 winners of a Horatio Alger award, given to students who excel in school despite difficulties.
  Enlarge Photo    
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

More than 100 years after Horatio Alger's heyday as an author of rags-to-riches stories, something about his tales remains the essence of American idealism: the idea that with a lot of pluck and a little luck, even the poorest can attain middle-class security and happiness.

Alger's novels are not as popular as they were in the 19th century, but real-life stories of the same kind are honored in his name by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which gives one of the most unusual scholarships in the United States. The private award of $20,000 for students toward college is an unusually large amount, and it differs from most scholarships because it is based largely on financial need.

Many of this year's 108 winners, who include Ivana Farrar of the District and Marquita Carter of Prince George's County, come from poor families, broken families or families with drug, abuse or alcohol problems. Many winners have lived in foster care or worked jobs to support their families and, in some cases, their own children. Despite the burden, they want to attend college, and since 1984 the Horatio Alger Association in Alexandria has provided a helping hand.

The main criterion "is the financial need," said Julie Reames, director of program services and development for the association. She said the association looked for students in families with annual incomes less than $50,000, and factored in the size of their family. "We have many, many students that are in foster care."

In Carter's case, her grandmother and the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, have picked up the parenting slack. Carter, 17, said her mother had problems with drugs, and she has had a difficult relationship with her father, who she said has been unemployed for the past three years.

With the encouragement of her grandmother -- "She always told me to think big, think outside the box, never settle for less," Carter said -- and JROTC instructors, who gave her food on days when she had nothing to eat, she has persevered, earning a 3.48 grade-point average in Flowers's challenging science and technology program.

She has been admitted to Virginia Tech, where she said she hopes to major in computer science; she also wants to become an Air Force officer to repay what JROTC has done for her. She said she would have had no way to pay for the education without having won the Alger award: "I couldn't have even gotten a loan, with my parents' credit," she said.

When she won the award, Carter said, "I cried. I just prayed. I was so elated."

Farrar, an 18-year-old senior at the Capitol Hill campus of the C¿sar Ch¿vez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, said her mother pushed her toward success. Her mother was inspired to send her daughter to C¿sar Ch¿vez after seeing it recommended on Oprah Winfrey's television show. She also tolerates Farrar's pets: Butter the cat, Pisces the hamster and 8-Ball the snake.

An aspiring veterinarian, Farrar loves animals, but it was a human problem that nearly derailed her plan for college. Toward the end of 2006, Farrar became pregnant.

"My mom was really, really upset," she said. "I had to make some very difficult decisions. I didn't want an abortion. But I knew that would get in the way of my future."

Farrar said she was a week away from having an abortion when she had a miscarriage.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company