Here's a story...
When I was 11 years old, I told my mom I wanted to go to college. I remember her telling me, "that's great, but you'll have to figure out how to pay for it." My mom was always a huge source of encouragement for me, but when you're steadily working two jobs and know no one else in our immediate family had graduated from college, your hope is tinged with a heavy dose of reality. So that's where I started.
Thankfully, I had always loved school. I still have my kindergarten and 1st grade report cards with perfect marks (though I was often told by teachers that I spoke out of turn). From 6th grade through high school, I diligently followed a plan I'd set in motion in which I earned a near-perfect four-point-something GPA, finished in the top 5% of my high school class, played baritone in the concert band, ran track and cross country, and served as a school leader in multiple organizations (yep, you're looking at the former VP of the Math & Science Club at Killeen High School and the former President of the Future Business Leaders of America Chapter). I joined the oratory team and won my first competition reciting Langston Hughes' "Dream Deferred" and, most of all, I had helped the local March of Dimes chapter raise $120,000 at the annual walk my senior year.
I wanted to go to either the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill or the University of Texas at Austin. I considered UVa, Michigan and UC-Berkeley but felt they were too expensive, too far from home or too cold.
Then I totally bombed the SATs. I got waitlisted by UNC, but got accepted to UT due to their top 10% rule. Thank you, Texas. Then the hard part; paying for it.
I had a speech class during the second semester of my senior year. It was one of those easy classes seniors take to have an easy finish. I would help out the teacher for 30 minutes (there were a lot of underclassmen in the class) then she'd let me fill out scholarship applications the rest of the period before I left for track practice and then my evening job at Pizza Hut where I worked 30 hours a week.
Every single day, I'd go online and search for scholarships that I thought I was eligible for and fill out the lengthy applications and write personal essays. I was worried about my SAT scores, but felt that my body of work between school, clubs, sports and community service was enough to show how hard I worked and what I was capable of. This was the most important thing in my life and I'd done just about anything and everything to get over the hump.
I ended up applying to like 108 scholarships. I won around two dozen of them. One from the Kiwanis Club. One from Papa John's. One from the Killeen School District. One from Star of Texas Rodeo. And several others.
The most important one was the National March of Dimes Scholarship not only because it was $2,500 toward my tuition, but because it was based not on what I did for myself, but what I did for others. That set me on the course of going from trying to prevent infant mortality with March of Dimes in high school to helping to fund Dell Children's Medical Center in college as a co-chair of Dance Marathon to working to address teen pregnancy in D.C. with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and now to serving on the board of directors for AIDS Services of Austin.
The great thing about that March of Dimes Scholarship was that I didn't apply. The woman who led the Killeen Chapter for MoD applied on my behalf, and in recognizing how hard I'd worked not only for March of Dimes but to get myself to college, she felt I was deserving of the award.
Jay-Z has this lyric: "real recognize real, and you're lookin' familiar".
It's a phrase that means a lot to me because I've realized a lot of times in life I couldn't get where I wanted to go in life without the acknowledgement and support of others, sometimes without me even knowing who they were.
Sometimes I need a real one to look at me (and my body of work) and say, "I recognize that."
I'm eternally grateful for each of the scholarship committees for recognizing the realness in me, especially the folks at March of Dimes. I'll never forget how important all their support was in my journey, and I've tried to repay it by reaching my own potential and through continued service, community engagement and reaching back to help others. Real recognize real.