When Rochester high schooler Azhyia Clemons applied for college scholarships, she was fueled by resolve rooted in a simple but strong desire: to help her mother.
“It was great, because I knew what I was doing was going to help my mother,” says Clemons, who is now a first-year student at North Carolina Central University. “She was really tense trying to figure out, ‘How can I pay for school?’ She had been saving up money for years, so I wanted to do everything I could to make it easier on her, because she made it easy on me.”
The high school track-and-field state champion is at her dream college thanks in large part to the $10,000 from Sallie Mae’s Bridging the Dream Scholarship for High School Seniors.
“My mom already has such big burdens in her life, so this really helped her relax more,” Clemons says. “It really was the best day ever when we found out.”
From more than 1,100 applicants nationwide, Clemons was one of 27 recipients selected based on both academic performance and moral character. Those qualities, demonstrated by her dedication to helping her family, were clearly evident during the selection process, says Caron Jackson, corporate communications manager at Sallie Mae.
“As you can see, Azhyia does an exemplary job of that,” Jackson says. “We’re just really excited to support her and the other 26 recipients on their journey because we know they’re going to do amazing things.”
Clemons, who grew up in the city of Rochester, attended both the World of Inquiry School and the Aquinas Institute. For high school, however, she studied in the Penfield school district through the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program. While she says that experience helped her develop and grow, it also solidified her desire to attend a historically Black college or university.
“I knew that I wanted an HBCU experience to get back in tune with who I am,” Clemons says. “I feel like you can’t move forward in life if you don’t know your real self. You can’t really decide what you want to do in life or who you want to be if you don’t know yourself.”
Clemons is interested in the law, specifically serving as a district attorney. But she also says college has already exposed her to other intriguing paths she could take such as the FBI or politics.
From 2016 to 2022, the Bridging the Dream scholarship program has awarded $1.1 million to high school seniors. The program was expanded in 2021 in a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to further promote diversity in higher education among under-resourced and underrepresented students and from other historically underserved communities.
Jackson says Sallie Mae’s own research found that families from those groups often were unaware of what scholarships or aid was available for college students.
For example, only 35 percent of first-generation college families were “very” or “somewhat” confident in paying for college, versus 53 percent for second-generation families. Families with less income were also less likely to have knowledge about the federal student aid process or confidence in completing it.
“Personally, I think education is such a powerful, equalizing force,” says Jackson, who brings up her own experience as a Black woman in higher education. “And the great thing about Sallie Mae is that they’re committed to opening the doors for even more students from all backgrounds.
“With the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, we want to provide the tools, resources and access to those who may not have the ability to continue on that path of higher education,” she adds, referencing Sallie Mae’s Scholly app.
Like any college freshman during their first months, Clemons is currently feeling a combination of many different emotions. There is a curiosity at the sheer number of career possibilities, an excitement for her first homecoming week, and a bittersweet twinge of homesickness every so often, she says.
But, amid all those emotions, at Clemons’ core there still remains a gratefulness wrapped up with determination and drive.
“Whoever made this happen, thank you. I just want them to know I appreciate this in a way that a lot of people might not understand,” she says. “My mother appreciates it, my dad appreciates it; everyone in my family, all of my supporters appreciate it.
“And I know you will be seeing my name again because this is just the start,” Clemons adds.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].