One by one, the teenagers introduced themselves in a crowded library at Eastern Senior High School on Wednesday morning. By all appearances, the student panel had assembled for a college-prep discussion, albeit one watched by a cluster of media.
Last in line was Adonte Yearwood. The 17-year-old, wearing a blazer and khakis, twisted a bit in his chair as he spoke. His dream school, Yearwood said, was George Washington University.
Suddenly, Eastern’s principal, Sah Brown, appeared in the room, along with Costas Solomou, GWU’s dean of admissions, and Steven Knapp, the university’s president.
GWU’s mascot was there, too, dressed in his finest Colonial wear.
Solomou said the group was at the school to award a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship, a full ride to the private university that is given annually to students in the city.
Knapp then said it was his privilege to announce the recipient at the school.
“Who is Adonte Yearwood,” he said.
In his seat, Yearwood held his hand to his mouth, covering a bright grin. In the crowd, there were cheers and applause. Yearwood shook Knapp’s hand. The mascot patted the teen on the shoulder, and Yearwood brought him in for a hug. He embraced his mother, Dorene Browne-Louis, who was beaming.
“He always says that ‘I’m going to make y’all proud,’ ” Browne-Louis said before the presentation. “This moment definitely exemplifies that.”
“I was lost,” Yearwood said afterward. “Honestly, I didn’t expect it today. It caught me by surprise. I didn’t know what to think. I was just shocked.”
GWU officials on Wednesday hand-delivered Trachtenberg scholarships and acceptance letters to nine students, prompting surprises at schools across Washington. Another recipient, who attends National Cathedral School, was notified by phone because she was on spring break.
“It’s always a thrill to do this,” said Knapp, who called it his “favorite day of the year.”
Soon after, a similar scene unfolded at Dunbar High School as students gathered for a meeting about graduation. When cheerleaders, drummers and the GWU crew filed into the room, a slide about caps and gowns was projected on a screen.
Michael Degaga, who was sitting in the front row, slowly stood up when he was named as the scholarship recipient, though he seemed a bit shy in the spotlight.
His classmates were somewhat less restrained as Degaga made his way to the stage. They whooped and cheered for the 19-year-old, who GWU said in a news release is expected to be his class valedictorian.
“I feel overwhelmed,” Degaga said later.
GWU, the largest university in the city with 26,000 students, has offered the D.C.-focused scholarship since 1989. The scholarships cover tuition, room and board, books and fees.
The value of that? Priceless, if we’re counting the relief families could feel without the tremendous financial strain of college bills. In terms of dollars, the estimated value of the award is more than $60,000 a year.
More than 160 Trachtenberg scholars have enrolled at GWU since the program started, and their graduation rate is about 92 percent.
Degaga said he had not yet decided where he will attend college. Yearwood, however, seems set working toward a career in criminal justice at the university.
“Definitely!” Yearwood said.
The past few years have not been particularly easy for Yearwood. Browne-Louis said that she and her son moved to the Washington area from the Virgin Islands, a change Yearwood was not exactly thrilled about. Last year, Browne-Louis’s husband, a firefighter who had not yet relocated with the family, was fatally shot in an unsolved homicide.
She called the scholarship a “blessing.”
“We were very concerned about what we would be able to afford,” Browne-Louis said. “And so an opportunity like this just speaks to his perseverance and his motivation to do well and to always strive for excellence.”
After Yearwood’s scholarship was awarded, Ellen Dodsworth, a school librarian, helped shuttle a horde of reporters out the door for interviews. She appeared emotional and acknowledged that the moment got to her.
“It’s funny because, even though that I’ve known for a week and a half that he was getting this, I still had him apply for scholarships,” Dodsworth said. “I had to keep telling him, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, it’s very competitive.”
As she spoke, Dodsworth began to tear up all over again.