About four years ago, Asha-Le Davis sat in the Anthony J. Drexel Picture Gallery, the Drexel family’s portraits looking on. She was waiting to interview for an opportunity that would change her life.
On Friday, she was back in the picture gallery. But she was standing, speaking to a room full of jubilant students, families and Drexel officials. Surrounded by Drexel history on the walls, she remembered the moment that came after her interview four years back: when the envelope came in the mail telling her she’d be part of Drexel’s first class of Liberty Scholars.
“I cried,” Davis said, “because that dream that just a few months ago I didn’t think would be a reality was now coming to fruition.”
In 2010, Drexel announced a new scholarship program: the Drexel Liberty Scholars. The University began awarding 50 full-ride scholarships each year to academically talented Philadelphia high school students from low-income families. In June, 16 students will become the first Liberty Scholars to graduate from Drexel. At a special dinner event Friday, the University celebrated their achievements and the success of a program that’s as strongly connected to Drexel’s founder as are the portraits hanging on the walls of the picture gallery.
“The Liberty Scholars program really, in the end, represents the essence of why Drexel was founded in 1891,” President John Fry told a smiling crowd of Liberty Scholars, their families, their mentors and other Drexel officials. A.J. Drexel founded his University, Fry explained, so that hard-working bright Philadelphians could have access to a great education, regardless of their financial resources. On Friday, he and the others in the room were celebrating the fulfillment of that promise, as well as the impressive accomplishments of the Liberty Scholars and their families.
“There’s not enough thanks,” said Milane Shoukri, the mother of two of the scholars being honored Friday. She raised her twin daughters, Guovanna and Sylvia Shoukri, as a single mother in South Philadelphia, and she feared she wouldn’t be able to afford to send them to college.
But then, near the end of her senior year of high school, Guovanna found out she would be a Liberty Scholar. And a few days later, Sylvia learned she would be one, too.
“When it seemed impossible, this made it possible,” Guovanna said.
The sisters both studied biology, and now they both have the same post-graduation plan: to earn doctorates and become nurse practitioners. Without the Liberty Scholars program, they said, things would have been different.
“We wouldn’t have gotten the experiences that we’ve gotten, and wouldn’t have been able to make the connections with professionals that we’ve made,” Sylvia said.
Not only that, but they also took a burden off their mother’s shoulders. Guovanna remembered watching her mother cry as a television station interviewed her and her sister about the scholarship four years ago. “I would pay a million dollars to see that over again,” she said.
Other Liberty Scholars also remembered the moment they learned of their scholarship with crystal clarity.
“It was a blur, I have to say,” said Liberty Scholar Katie Zavyazkina. “I was just bouncing off the walls.”
The program gave Zavyazkina a chance to live on campus, engage in the University community and benefit from Honors College programs such as a travel-integrated course that will take her to Berlin this term. It also gave her a group of students from similar backgrounds who entered college alongside her, and she was assigned a mentor, as all Liberty Scholars are, to help her navigate her way through a big University. A biology major, she’s now planning to apply for medical school.
Kevin Lenaghan, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, thought he’d be playing football to help pay his way through college until the Liberty Scholars program came along.
“I didn’t really think that I had that great of a chance,” Leneghan said, “but I guess that I impressed them.”
So instead of spending his time on the football field (something he didn’t really want to do, his mother, Maureen, said) he spent his time networking with area companies as an entrepreneurship major in the LeBow College of Business. He even completed a co-op with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he’ll work after graduation while planning to eventually start his own business.
“It was a perfect fit for him,” Maureen Leneghan said.
Jian Xu, a psychology major, said she likely would have worked two or three jobs to make it through college if it weren’t for the Liberty Scholars program. Now she plans to enter graduate school and become an occupational therapist.
“I just feel really grateful,” Xu said. “If I didn’t have this chance, I probably would have been struggling.”
Davis, speaking to the room, said the program opened a door to her future she would never have found. After studying abroad in France during her sophomore year and studying culinary arts at Drexel, she’ll be attending pastry school in France after graduation. After that, she wants to open her own bakery. She’d long considered Drexel her “destiny,” she said. And thanks to her determination and the Liberty Scholars, it became reality.
Fry, in his talk, noted that one other group deserved major thanks and applause: the Liberty Scholars’ families, who helped them become who they are. And the families returned thanks, applauding, smiling and hugging. The Scholars dabbed at their eyes as they gathered for a group photo at the end of the evening.
About 200 more Liberty Scholars walk Drexel’s campus today, including those from the first class who entered five-year programs. It’s a group that will continue to do Drexel proud, Fry told the crowd on Friday — and a group that will help Drexel continue to give back to its city, four years and counting since Mayor Michael Nutter challenged Philadelphia’s universities to help double the city’s percentage of college-educated residents.
“We are Philadelphia’s university,” Fry said. “That’s one of the things we’re so proud of. And this is one of the ways that we pay that back to Philadelphia.”