Verda Tetteh used her graduation speech to talk about resilience. “Because if we’re being honest with ourselves, some of us were born with the odds stacked against us,” she told more than 200 fellow seniors at Fitchburg High School in Fitchburg, Mass., where most students are deemed “economically disadvantaged.”

“To every immigrant child, you can make it,” she said, crying. Tetteh, whose family is from Ghana, certainly had — securing a prestigious state scholarship and admission to Harvard while juggling work at the grocery store during a pandemic. Later at last Friday’s graduation she got her school’s highest honor: a “General Excellence” award that came with $40,000.

Tetteh beamed onstage for a quick picture in her maroon cap and gown, then headed back to her seat. The ceremony went on. But as the assistant principal wrapped up his address, Tetteh made her way back to the podium for something unscripted.

She’d been listening to school leaders espouse “being selfless and being bold,” she said. She hoped that administrators would consider giving her award money to someone going to a community college like the one that helped her mom.

“I am so very grateful for this, but I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” she said.

Out on the grass, her classmates rose from their folding chairs to cheer. It was her second standing ovation that day.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” principal Jeremy Roche told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

When Tetteh came up to speak again, he thought that maybe it was a part of a joke. Soon, he was glad he wasn’t next on the lineup — he isn’t sure if he could have managed the words.

Tetteh was sharing her hard-earned success with others after a particularly punishing year that has thrown the American education system’s inequalities into new relief: straining families, sending students home to learn in wildly different circumstances and pushing low-income students to drop out amid already uneven access to an expensive commodity: college education. To Roche, his student’s surprise move was a counterpoint to the “bad rap” sometimes given to young people — a testament to the kind of kids at Fitchburg High, he said, and schools around the country.

“She represented the class and the school amazingly well, and I would even dare say, her generation,” he said.

Tetteh, who could not immediately be reached, has already gotten significant scholarships and financial aid to help her attend college, according to her family. But the school award — $10,000 annually, for up to four years of education, from a foundation established by the family of an alumnus — was not restricted to tuition, Roche said, meaning Tetteh could have used the funds however she wanted.

Roche said the school will honor Tetteh’s wishes for the money. He is planning to talk with her soon. But Tetteh has been busy with work, he said — “which is not surprising.”

Leslie Barnor, Tetteh’s stepfather, said Tetteh has kept her grocery job throughout the pandemic, coming home after 9 p.m. only to dive into schoolwork into the early hours of the morning. She used her phone as a flashlight sometimes, over her family’s insistence she go to bed. Her parents were also used to putting in long hours at a group home for people with disabilities, and kept working despite the threat of covid-19 — which Tetteh’s mother developed and recovered from early this year, Barnor said.

Barnor, 66, said the family didn’t realize at first that Tetteh had given her scholarship away. They were out in the bleachers and struggled to hear. They just saw the overwhelming applause.

Eventually, other onlookers filled them in, Barnor said. Tetteh explained later that it was a split-second decision. And her parents understood.

“We are a Christian family,” Barnor said. "We believe we don’t need to have so much before you give to others.”

He recalled a family visit to Harvard four years ago. Tetteh hugged a statue on campus, he remembered, hoping to bring good luck as she sought a coveted spot. “And lo and behold! it has happened,” Barnor said. “It was like a dream come true.”

“But not just a dream,” he added after a pause. “It was hard work. She worked hard for these achievements.”

Speaking to the Boston Globe, Tetteh traced her decision to her faith and her mother’s bachelor’s degree, obtained at 47. She plans to study chemistry on a pre-med track at Harvard. Her admission there was “the culmination of a goal she set since freshman year, maybe before then,” said a classmate who introduced her at graduation.

Chosen by her peers to address the class, Tetteh highlighted her campus’s diversity — something she said she loved about her public school in Fitchburg, roughly an hour’s drive northwest of Boston. Flags from other countries greeted visitors to campus, she noted, a nod to students who hailed from Mexico, Cameroon, Vietnam and more.

“The flag tells a story of the Nigerian girl who became a star athlete,” Tetteh said, drawing cheers as she pointed one-by-one to her classmates’ successes. “ … They tell the story of a tall Haitian boy who knows how to plan a party and liven up any event. … They tell the story of a girl who came from Puerto Rico, and now she’s going to Stanford University.”

Tetteh, who came to the United States as a child, stood out in part for her efforts to support that diversity, her principal said. Recognizing their challenges as a “high transience” school, he said, Tetteh started a student ambassador program to help new students from foreign countries feel welcome.

Her mother, Rosemary Annan, told CNN that she is proud of her 17-year-old daughter’s decision.

“I’m not sad about it that someone’s going to get some good help,” said Annan, who works the overnight shift at the group home on top of another job. “If I had gotten that help, I would have been thrilled.”

Congratulations, to Verda Tetteh, who recently became a Senior at my alma mater Fitchburg High in Fitchburg,...

Posted by Senator Dean A. Tran on Wednesday, July 8, 2020

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