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AU Welcomes District Scholars New scholarship program offers high-achieving students from DC’s public and public charter high schools opportunities to learn and lead.

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students in a photo montage
Photo montage by Marcus Gore

Queenal Ayaba will never forget the moment she learned she was accepted to American University and selected as one of its first AU District Scholars. 

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading. In fact, I had a friend read my acceptance letter to me to let me know I wasn’t dreaming,” says Ayaba. 

The cohort of AU District Scholars for the 2020-2021 academic year are Keyri Reyes Rodriguez, Bamlak Bahiru, and Jeffrey Williams, Bell Multicultural High School; Keirah Daniels, Frank W. Ballou High School; Sosina Gebremichael, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School; Nicholas Adam, Calvin Coolidge High School; Queenal Ayaba, Capital City Public Charter School; Malazia Cepero, District of Columbia International School; Daniela Ladino, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School; Rediet Alemu, School Without Walls; and Leticia Banda, Roosevelt High School. 

Committed to enhancing access to high quality education and supporting the Washington, DC, community, AU announced in December its dedication of $3 million for the AU District Scholars Award—full scholarships awarded annually that cover AU tuition, room and board. The scholarships are given to high-achieving students with significant financial need who attend the city’s public and public charter high schools. 

“American University is addressing the changing world by creating opportunities for students to learn and lead in our dynamic community of scholars and researchers,” said AU President Sylvia M. Burwell in the announcement. “One of the imperatives in our Changemakers strategic plan is partnering with our Washington, DC, community, and these scholarships will help local students pursue their educational goals close to home and join fellow Eagles in shaping the future of their neighborhood and the world.” 

When Ayaba came to the US in 2016, she faced technological, academic, and cultural challenges in a school system that was vastly different from her native Cameroon. Having never used a telephone or laptop, she said she met these challenges with hard work and perseverance. Ayaba achieved a 4.08 GPA while mentoring fellow Cameroonian students at her public charter high school and excelling at myriad scholastic and extra-curricular activities. 

The big concern for Ayaba and her family was not knowing how they were going to pay for her college education.

“I feel so blessed to have received this award,” said Ayaba. “It’s such a relief to me now that my parents—who already work multiple jobs—won’t have to worry about my education.”

At AU, Ayaba plans to double-major in business administration and computer science, and, someday, she wants to help her native country advance in medicine and education. 

Two of the AU District Scholars—Keirah Daniels and Daniela Ladino—are participants in the School of Education’s (SOE) Dual Enrollment Program with DC Public Schools, an initiative of SOE’s Teacher Pipeline Project, created to change educational outcomes in the District by training its young citizens to be the city’s future educators. The program offers high school seniors the opportunity to take education and teacher preparation-focused college-level courses at the university. 

“The District Scholars Award will help to ensure that deserving local students in the Dual Enrollment program have the financial support to attend AU’s School of Education as part of the teacher pipeline project,” said SOE dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy. “The award not only will be impactful and life-changing to the lives of its recipients, but to the lives of District of Columbia Public School students whom they will one day teach and inspire.” 

Daniels, who was a member of her high school marching band, said participating in the Dual Enrollment Program helped her decide to attend AU as an elementary education major. “The program helped to push me outside of my comfort zone and exposed me to what it’s like to be a local public-school teacher. It made me realize that I want to come back after college and help educate children in the community that helped me get to where I am,” Daniels said. 

When Keyri Reyes Rodriguez, who intends to major in data sciences for justice, law, and criminology at AU, emigrated from El Salvador in 2013, the then-sixth grader did not know how to speak English. She attributes her academic success to an early understanding of the importance of hard work and dedication.

“I am fortunate to live in a place where anything is possible,” said the captain of her high school softball and bowling teams. “Thanks to the District Scholars Award and the opportunities that will be afforded to me by AU, I will be able to break barriers and be successful at accomplishing my many goals.” 

Ayaba, Daniels, and Reyes Rodriquez are in good company with the other eight AU District Scholars excelling throughout their secondary school careers: 

•  Adam was ranked first in his class, interned at Bank of America, and played soccer. He intends to double-major in psychology and computer science. 
•  Alemu interned for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and has lived in Ethiopia. She plans to double-major in political science and international studies.
•  Bahiru, a native of Ethiopia who is considering majoring in international studies, was a National Honor Society member who excelled in varsity soccer, football, and track and field 
•  Banda emigrated with her family from Malawi. She was ranked first in her class, maintaining high grades while caring for her younger siblings. She intends to double-major in public health and health promotion and wants to be a medical doctor.
•  Cepero is a Florida native who enjoys photography and plans to double-major in communication studies and business administration. 
•  Gebremichael is co-founder of coding and racial equity organizations and excels in debate. She plans to double-major in economics and international studies. 
•  Ladino was captain of her high school soccer and lacrosse teams. She plans to double-major in elementary education and language and area studies with a concentration in Spanish and Latin America.
•  Williams especially likes to code and plans to double-major in studio art and computer science