Rubén Rosario: So you say you want some inspiration … it’s gonna be all right

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They come from all over the Saintly City, unheralded diamonds in the rough, hardscrabble youths who embody the moxie and verve to persevere and overcome obstacles.

I’m talking here about this year’s 16 winners of the 2022 Optimist Club of St. Paul Youth Appreciation college scholarship awards. Each winner received $3,000. Most come from low-income or working-class families. They are still dealing with the aftershocks of a pandemic that affected academics as well as health and finances at home. Some are first-generation immigrants. Others come from single head of households, separated from parents in various ways, shunned by their own blood because of their sexual orientation, or bullied because they don’t speak the language. Bring it on. They continue to achieve, in spite of the challenges.

I’ve been writing about some of these kids every year since 2007 because they inspire me, as they might you.

The St. Paul chapter of the international club, whose stated mission in part “values all children and helps them develop to their full potential,” has awarded more than $500,000 in scholarships since 1997.

“The group of students this year were extremely strong, and this is really amazing in light of the struggles they have faced on top of having to deal with COVID issues,” said John Tillotson, a longtime club member and senior vice president at Stifel investment services.

“For many students being in school is the most stable environment they have,” Tillotson added. “With the pandemic taking school time away from them, they clearly paid a price. But with their grit, resilience and optimism they have worked through this in an effort to press on to greater heights. We are extremely proud and honored to support these young adults.”

Ariah Crosby, Kue Mu Say and Nadia Vazquez are three of the award winners and the first in their families to most likely attend a college or university, in spite of financial hurdles.

Ariah Crosby

Ariah Crosby Portrait
Ariah Crosby, 2022 Optimist Club scholarship award winner. (Courtesy of Ariah Crosby)

Ariah Crosby, 17, a senior at Johnson High School, grew up as a child of an incarcerated parent. Her father was sent to prison for non-violent offenses when she was 2 years old. She made weekend visits, along with her mother and siblings, to see him at the Lino Lakes minimum security facility until she was about 10, when he was released. Although he is no longer in her life, the visits had a profound effect on her mentally, emotionally and financially, as she notes in her nomination letter. But she found a way even at a young age to look at the bright side.

“I never got to talk about my dad with my friends because they all had theirs and I didn’t have mine,” she writes. “All I know is that through those hallways of what I thought was his home in Lino Lakes, was the best thing to me. That was my home as well …”

She contracted COVID twice along with family members, took on care-taking and other duties at home recently after her mother and a sister were involved in a serious car accident and yet, in spite of these struggles, Crosby “continues to thrive at school, works at her 3M internship and participates fully at school,” notes her school counselor, Samina Ali.

Besides the 3M chemist and IT internships, she’s also a member of Johnson’s Math and Women’s club and the Govies Leader group, which mentors incoming underclass students.

She has taken advanced placement psychology and accelerated chemistry courses and will take on pre calculus and statistics courses at St. Paul College during the spring semester. She currently ranks 62nd in her senior class with a 3.67 GPA.

The oldest of six siblings, she’s an avid reader and writer and hip-hop, classical and ’80s soft-pop music buff who plays the violin, piano and guitar. She has been accepted to St. Catherine University and Minnesota State Mankato and is waiting to hear back from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. Like all the award winners, she is dependent on scholarships and financial aid to afford college. She plans to double major in English and chemistry.

“I know that with a storm there’s always going to be brighter days to come,” she writes. “I’m living proof of that … even when we may not believe in ourselves or this world because of the horrendous things that are going on and that we face with, there’s always going to be that ‘brighter’ something.”

Kue Mu Say

Kue Mu Say Portrait
Kue Mu Say, winner of a 2022 Optimist Club of St. Paul Youth Appreciation college scholarship award. (Courtesy of Optimist Club of St. Paul)

Kue Mu Say, 18, a senior at Humboldt High School, spent his early years in a Thailand refugee camp. His parents and then three younger siblings were resettled in Minnesota when Say was 9. The oldest of now four siblings, like many first-generation older children of immigrants, Say is his family’s babysitter, bill payer and translator since his parents do not speak English well.

Acclimating to a new country and culture and environment proved challenging.

“He recalled living in apartments with bed bugs, roaches and mice and his skin itching all night,” school counselor Jennifer Farrell writes in her nomination letter. “School was full of misery for him … he remembers feeling lonely and seeing no point in life.

“But,” she adds, “he went from viewing life as a curse to a blessing. He realized that if you want to make your life have meaning, you have to write your own story.”

A member of the wrestling team, Say is a first sergeant and drill team leader with the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. Say also made the National Honor Society this year. He has volunteered at Feed My Starving Children as well as his church, Hosanna Karen Baptist Church, on weekends. A singer, he and his church youth music group earned fourth-place honors in a recent northwest regional competition held in South Dakota.

He is taking advanced college placement courses at St. Paul College and currently ranks 41st out of 163 seniors with a 3.79 GPA. A promising artist who makes side money drawing portraits, Say also takes part in an after-school Junior Achievement entrepreneurial program that helps students start their own business.

“I want to make the world a better place,” he tells me.

He has applied to the three schools he would most like to attend – St. Olaf and Carleton colleges and Bethel University.

Nadia Vazquez

Nadia Vasquez Portrait
Nadia Vasquez, 2022 Optimist Club scholarship award winner. (Courtesy of Nadia Vasquez)

Nadia Vazquez,17, a St. Paul native and a senior at Harding High School, and her mother moved to Mexico in May 2019 to join her father after her paternal grandmother died. The parents made the difficult decision to remain in Mexico to look after other relatives and have Vazquez resume school here while living with an older sister. The separation was an emotional shock to a young girl who had never left her parents’ side since birth.

“It was pretty hard on me,” she said. “It was something that I had never experienced before.”

Then came news that her paternal grandfather died in February 2020.

“It was another thing that hit me, and he is also the reason why sometimes I don’t give up because he told me that he believed in me and wanted me to succeed in life and go to college.”

To help make ends meet at home, in addition to juggling school, Vazquez works 25 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant in her St. Paul East Side neighborhood. She also squirrels away a portion of her earnings to send back to her parents, who are raising four other siblings.

“Since 9th grade, Nadia has been working to support herself while living as an unaccompanied minor,” writes school counselor Mana Vue. She is a member of her school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, takes part in food drives at her church and plans to play on her school’s badminton team in the spring. She will also take International Baccalaureate classes in history and a juvenile justice course at St. Paul College, also in the spring.

Due to the pandemic, she was unable to visit her parents and see them face to face until this summer.

She has applied to Minnesota State Mankato and the University of Minnesota and is busily scoping for scholarships wherever she can find them. Her goal is to finish her bachelor’s degree without any loan debt.

She wants to be a police officer.

“I got into the mindset because of some of the stories I heard from people in my community,” she said. “I want to improve the relations between the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community and the police in my neighborhood.”

Axel Henry, you reading this?

Other winners

Optimist Club Award Winners Holding Plaques
Optimist Club award winners for 2022, from left: Evelin Henriquez Mancia, Chialia Vang, Jacq Schuett, Nadia Vazquez, Ariah Crosby, Megan Hummel, Troy Cleaton, Thomas Kase, Kue Mu Say, Kong Zong Yang and Villiney Chang. (Courtesy of Optimist Club of St. Paul)

Other Optimist Club of St. Paul Youth Appreciation college scholarship award winners include:

Thomas Kase, Central High School

Kibret Tesfatsion, Gateway to College

Joseph Ballard, Gordon Parks High School

Tsiorhaja Adriamananjara, Jacq Schuett and Roan Yang, Great River School

Villiney Chang, Harding Senior High School

Amaris Caballero, Highland Park Senior High School

Kong M Zong Yang, Humboldt High School

Troy Cleaton, Megan Hummel and Chialia Vang, Johnson Senior High School

Evelin Henriquez Mancia, LEAP High School

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