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AU Celebrates First Cohort of District Scholars to Graduate

Ten inaugural recipients of AU’s signature scholarship for talented DC students are the first of 37 District Scholars to collect their diplomas.

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Malazia Cepero, one of 10 District Scholars set to graduate in May. Photo courtesy of Malazia Cepero.Four years ago, Malazia Cepero, CAS/BS ’24, (pictured above) received a double dose of good news—acceptance to American University and to the District Scholars program, which enabled her to attend college close to where she grew up in Columbia Heights on a full scholarship.

Eliminating the financial challenges of attending college enabled Cepero to make the most out of  her AU experience.

“One thing I really enjoyed about the District Scholars program is that it gave [students from DC] a chance to be on campus,” she said. “Having that campus life helped me interact with the community and get out of my shell.”

Cepero is among the inaugural cohort of 10 District Scholars who will graduate in May. Housed in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), AU’s signature, $3 million scholarship program was established in 2019 to offer full tuition and room and board for high-achieving students from DC’s public and public charter high schools with significant financial need.

District Scholars also receive professional mentorship, family engagement and support, and individualized advising across their AU journeys. To date, 37 DC residents have been named District Scholars, underscoring AU’s commitment to working with Washington, as detailed in our Changemakers for a Changing World strategic plan.

“Since its inception, we have tried to create a greater bandwidth of support,” said Quin Merriweather, CDI’s associate director for student equity, access, and retention. “It’s about more than money; these students have a place where they can go to ask questions, to get any kind of support they need.”

Throughout their AU journeys, CDI is a home base to help connect the scholars with campuswide resources. For example, many District Scholars participate in CDI’s Summer Transition Enrichment Program (STEP), an eight-week, invitation-only residential academy that provides incoming first-year students with the tools needed for academic success.

Cepero, a public health major, credits the District Scholars program with helping her make close friends among fellow scholars who come from a similar background. And in the classroom, Cepero learned key lessons that have prepared her to make a difference in the community she grew up in. After graduation, she plans to start a nonprofit to help youth in the District manage their mental health.  

“I want to see kids run around and joke and be kids,” said Cepero, who will start an online master’s in social work at Columbia University in the fall and plans to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology after that.

Keyri Reyes Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of Keyri Reyes Rodriguez.Another District Scholar, Keyri Reyes Rodriguez, SPA/BA ’24, (pictured above) said the scholarship confirmed college was possible and helped her discover her passion for immigration law.

“This scholarship has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” Reyes Rodriguez said. “It gave me the opportunity to obtain higher education and get started in my career path.”

Reyes Rodriguez, a first-generation college student, moved with her family from El Salvador to DC’s Mount Vernon Square at age 11—the culmination of a decade-long process to come to the United States. After graduation, she will study for the LSAT to prepare for law school and a career helping others navigate the same process.

“I know how overwhelming, stressful, and difficult it can be,” said Reyes Rodriguez, who is interning with the Washington College of Law, helping translate between law students and their Spanish-speaking clients. “I’d like to make it easier for people.”

AU has gleaned important lessons from its graduating class of District Scholars that will help improve the experience for other cohorts. “One of the things we have continued to talk about is in what ways we’re going to continue to strengthen the community connection and belonging,” said Robin Adams, CDI director.

This includes creating more celebrations of the cohorts throughout their AU experience and introducing new programming to help the students—many of whom are first-gen—navigate the transition into and out of college.

“They’re very unique being Washingtonians and are highly accomplished in their academics,” Adams said. “These are students who performed well at the high school level and who knock it out of the park academically and socially here at the university.”