Two Queens HS students beat odds, win scholarship

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Relentless perseverance in overcoming staggering obstacles has earned financial awards for 15 young adults, including two Queens students, from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children and youth.

Bonda Lee-Cunningham, director of member services at the federation and one of the two presenters at the recent awards ceremony, said “these are young people who have overcome rather substantial hurtles to completing high school. They are extremely deserving because it wasn’t an easy task for them.”

Catherine Downing, 18, was one of the Queens recipients. The senior at The High School of Art and Design in downtown Manhattan who spent much of her life in South Ozone Park said she was surprised to win the $2,000 award.

“I applied for a couple of scholarships,” she said. “I didn’t expect to win, but it would have been nice.”

She will attend Colby College in Maine and the grant will go toward her room and board, she said.

Downing’s accomplishments despite her difficult home life merited her the award, said David Traunfeld, her college guidance counselor. “She’s a fantastic student who’s overcome a lot of obstacles,” he said.

Downing was born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn until she was 10. Then her mother married her stepfather and they moved to South Ozone Park. She lived there for eight years, until she was 18, and said problems with her stepfather caused her to move out of her home two months ago.

“It just got really bad,” she said. “We were ignoring one another. We just didn’t get along.”

She now lives with her grandfather in Brooklyn. “It’s more home than ever. I’m really happy to be here,” said Downing, who pointed out that even her relationship with her mother has improved.

Victoria Fashoto, 18, a senior at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside, was the other scholarship winner. A Jamaica resident, she received a $2,000 grant intended to offset her first-year tuition costs at the City of New York Technical College, which she will attend in the fall.

Downing and Fashoto were two of 15 scholarship winners who benefited from a fund of $32,000 contributed by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, Linklaters & Alliance, a private law firm, and Brick Presbyterian Church on the Upper East Side.

The New York Times donated $15,500, Linklaters & Alliance contributed $12,500 and Brick Presbyterian Church allotted $2,000 to the scholarship program.

Recipients of the award like Fashoto and Downing prove the scholarships are a great opportunity for youth who may not be able to get traditional scholarships otherwise, said Areta Lloyd, spokeswoman for the federation. “The program is targeted to kids who are on the margins, who have a difficult time getting aid anywhere else and have overcome adversity in life.”

Lloyd said many of the winners are immigrants who have a particularly difficult time participating in other scholarship programs.

“Some of the kids especially are Haitian immigrants and in the stages of getting citizenship,” she said. “Since they are not U.S. citizens, kids are not eligible for college grants and financial aid.”

The federation began granting the awards 11 years ago. Students had to submit a personal essay through a nominating agency describing their aspirations, the personal challenges they faced, their involvement in the community and how a secondary education will help them attain their goals. The federation’s 240 member agencies run 1,500 outreach branches throughout the five boroughs.

Updated 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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