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Words from the young, gifted & black: winners of the B.E.-New York Life Insurance Scholarship Contest write about the importance of education to African-Americans.

IT IS EASY TO FOCUS ON THE many problems associated with young African-Americans. So easy, in fact, that the concerns of urban violence, drugs and teen pregnancy often obscure the efforts of the vast majority of black youth who are striving for a better life while making major contributions to their communities. Too often, young African-Americans striving for academic excellence are ignored by their elders and ostracized by their peers. The result: Education is devalued in the eyes of our youth, while athletics, and yes, crime are glorified as easy-money alternatives commanding higher esteem in popular culture--despite lip service about the importance of a good education. No plan to improve the economic health of this nation can be successful as long as this remains the case.

Last year, in an effort to recognize and reward academic excellence, BLACK ENTERPISE and the New York Life Insurance Co. sponsored the 1993 Outstanding African-American Student Scholarship Contest. The contest awarded $10,000 in scholarships toward the college education of deserving high school seniors.

Announced in the June 1993 issue of BE, the contest was open to AfricanAmerican high school seniors graduating in 1993 from schools in the United States. To be eligible, students had to have a 3.0 grade point average or better, demonstrate leadership abilities and participate in extracurricular and community service activities. Honors and awards and outside employment were also considered favorably by the judges. Finally, applicants were required to submit an essay of 500 words or less on "The Value of Education for the African-American Community."

The response to the announcement was impressive. More than 300 students applied for the scholarships. These applications, which included two letters of recommendation and official transcripts, were pored over by a screening panel, which came up with 12 finalists. These finalists were then evaluated by a judging committee, which came up with four truly outstanding young AfricanAmerican scholars.

"The judging was unbelievably difficult," says BE Editor-in-Chief Sheryl Hilliard Tucker, a member of the judging committee. "All twelve of the finalists were inspiring examples of the type of young African-American who deserves more attention and support for his or her efforts.

With that sentiment in mind, BE presents excerpts of the essays of the four scholarship winners, who are now freshmen at prestigious institutions of higher learning. The editors of BE suggest you read these excerpts closely. Chances are, this won,t be the last time you hear great things from these authors.


Originally from Jamaica, I'Kyori Swaby was an honors student at Oyster Bay High School in Oyster Bay, N.Y., where he became co-founder of the science club. Particularly gifted in science, he assisted experiments at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and entertained inner-city kids with his performance in the "Chemical Magic Show. " Envisioning a career in science, the independent-minded I'Kyori is an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia University in New York.

Stop thief! A people's hopes, optimistic vision and their possibilities are being stolen! What better way to shackle a people than to steal their opportunities and shackle their thoughts? Indeed, today, in such a condition is the African-American community-at-large. The legacy of slavery and racism grips America in its hold of ignorance. Due to racism and its results, the story of African-American education has either been one of cruel denial or one of inferior and valueless learning. During slavery, attempts at literacy were met by the lacerating whip. Next, a segregation de jure of unequal schools was superseded by a segregation de facto of unequal learning. The African-American community possesses a culture oppositional to the white cultural norm that is acting as an anti-intellectual element in African-American performance. The AfricanAmerican community-at-large has higher poverty rates, more single-parent families, higher under/unemployment rates, higher crime and infant mortalit,v rates, lower life expectancy and a host of other deficiencies in comparison to the white American community. Education as an ideal is the panacea. Education is an attained intimacy with the truths and facts of life, which, when manipulated, is the manifestation of power. An exhibition of economic power to build the communit,v, of political power to represent the community and of social power to uplift the community. The value of education in the African-American community can be seen by its crisis-solving abilities.

The prevailing living standards and the ability to attain full civil rights show the value of, and share a direct relationship with, the level of education among community members. And an AfricanAmerican community with greater living standards or economic power will be in a better position to appropriate rights from an entrenched power structure. With greater economic power, crime and welfare would be unnecessary, and affirmative action, an archaic compensatory equalizer. Economic worth in the American capitalist society is the measure of power on all fronts.


The son of immigrants from Ghana, Kof Kankam, 19, excelled in a wide variety of interests at Orange High School in Pepper Pike, Ohio. From calculus to soccer, from poetry to the piano, he also worked as an intern in a NASA microphysics laboratory and tutored dyslexic students in French. Planning a career in medicine, the personable Kofi is a freshman at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

While other people of varying national heritage cling to idealistic images of their heroes as statesmen, scholars, artisans and philosophers, too often black icons exist as sports figures. Frequently, athletic idols such as Michael Jordan are grasped as role models, beings to which our children are driven to emulate, while "superstars" of a different realm such as Dr. Benjamin Carson, the world-renowned neurosurgeon, live unheralded for their awe-inspiring feats. Ironically, it is these unnoticed mental pioneers that must be the object of our aspiration, for they, unlike the sports heroes, possess the true solution to the African-American's myriad problems.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of education is its provision of future security in an environment where lives can be dramatically altered within seconds, as in athletics. Knowledge is never fleeting. Its importance is relegated to the fact that it exists as a lifetime investment; all other talents and careers terminate before the loss of knowledge commences. While the entertainment industry does produce stars whose acquisition of money is unparalleled, the job security of another day in the limelight is never present. As quickly as one attains stardom, one can be knocked from the pedestal of adulation. Moreover, within the realm of education, one can always be his or her own boss in terms of one's ability to make decisions as to the future course of one's life. However, the same principle does not stand in other environments, as evidenced by the music industry, where artists are often pawns to the commands of higher management; and athletics, where careers can be finalized on the whim of a coach or team owner.

Attained knowledge serves as the single element of hope to our people's troubling situation. Our children must deny society's pressures that propel them into lifestyles where only the few prosper while the multitude fails and, along with them, the hopes of the African-American people. Instead, young black children should relish the world of academe, the only safe haven where their tremendous efforts will most likely translate into success.


A straight-A student at Eastern High School in Washington, D.C., Petrolina Okoro 's ongoing quest for excellence included playing the saxophone in the school band and championship running on the track team. Quietly impressing everyone with her poise, diligence and vibrant mind, Petrolina participated in two internship programs, one at the Washington Post and the other as a biomedical researcher at Georgetown University. Her march toward a medical career proceeds as the 18-year-old completes her freshman year at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Education has always been a vital tool for survival, a tool used to maneuver through the web of life, and also a tool used for adjustment. As society and technology evolve and advance, we must be prepared to advance with the world--to change ourselves, for the sake of mankind and for the sake of our future generations. In order to do these things, we, as a nation and as a race, must seize those opportuni ties which will provide us with incentives to scale new heights, including the solving of problems and the healing of the earth's many ailments. We, as AfricanAmericans, must work together, study together and get educated together. We are people of compassion in a world of pain; nothing will happen unless we make a change.

More and more young men and women are being killed daily, by the hundreds. Why? Lack of a sound education. Young black males, who have become the targets of these treacherous acts, have not adequately used their educational resources to accomplish their goals and dreams. At times, young people are sidetracked by other peers who wish to obtain superficial and material items, thinking that these things will make them successful and happy. But what of the long-term effects? How can drugs, crime and violence help anyone in the long run? Education of any kind should replace these negative obstacles.

Education fills the void, giving valuable insight into one's life and its numerous questions. Education helps us understand each other's differences--and makes it easier for us to accept them. So many people do not understand that education is priceless. It is constantly taken for granted, and lost because of negligence. It is up to us to SEEK EDUCATION! Once we find it, we must SHARE it. Once we share it, we must UNDERSTAND it. Once we understand it, we must DIGEST it. And once we digest it, we must SHARE IT AGAIN!


As articulate as Kishka Ford was known to be at the Lawrenceville School in Princeton, N.J., her actions speak even more eloquently. Involved in many minorityyouth and community-outreach programs, she also found a way to compete in athletics, play the piano, perform at the Westport Theater and excel in a demanding academ ic curriculum. As her senior English elective. she chose a college-level course on black writers. Now the bright Kishka, 18, is an enthusiastic freshman at Harvard University.

At the moment that I am writing this essay, I am a disappointed, guilty, frustrated person. I am disappointed with the educational system in our country, as I have been for years. I feel guilty because I have received one of the best educations that this country offers and that makes me a minority within a minority. I am frustrated because the inaccessibility of education seems to be a legacy for AfricanAmericans.

We have all heard the maxim: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." We have all seen the lamentable actors--disadvantaged minority students--in the commercials which tout that slogan. But they could never portray the pitiful scenes I saw when I visited my mother's hometown of Fitzugh, Ark., last summer. In Fitzugh, I felt the thirst for knowledge and the yearning for an escape from the deprivation of the rural South. I began to understand the despair felt by poor AfricanAmerican children who can find no viable alternative to the cycle of poverty in the rural South or in the urban ghetto.

Most of my relatives, who are tenant farmers, never obtained a formal education because as children they were only permitted to attend school when the weather was too inclement to work the field. Still standing down the road from their shanties are the remnants of the "Colored" schoolhouse where they eagerly learned grammatically incorrect sentences such as "Chuck that ball" and "It are raining.

Maybe one can dismiss the substandard education my relatives in Arkansas received before the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision and the victories of the Civil Rights movement, but there is no excuse for the poor education many African-American children receive today. Whether in the rural South or in the urban ghetto, there is no excuse for African-American children all over the country to be crowded 40 in a room with outdated, dogeared books and only one teacher.

Because of poverty and crime, many children either don,t go to school at all or carry guns and knives to school, not because they are delinquents, but because they fear for their lives. Good teachers are hard to find, not because there is a lack of intelligent and dedicated people eager to teach, but because they can make more money collecting garbage or counting change in highway tollbooths.

Education is the ticket out of the ominous pit of despair and inferiority that has trapped African-Americans from the very moment that we set shackled foot on this continent. Ruby Dee once said, "I like the idea of young people striving to be better and to make the world better.... That's what being young is all about. You have the courage and the daring to think that you can make a difference." She speaks truthfully.

With an education, it is possible for us to start making a difference at a young age. Educated youth will provide the African-American community the weapon we need to stop being a "minority." We are not minor, insignificant, second-rate or subordinate people. However, only with an education are we able to eloquently, scientifically and logically demonstrate that we are and always have been first-class citizens.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Black Enterprise magazine; Outstanding African-American Student Scholarship Contest
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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