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Zaila Avant-garde is the first African American to win Scripps Spelling Bee

Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old basketball prodigy, has won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming the first African-American contestant to win in 93 editions of the prestigious competition.

Avant-garde correctly spelled “Murraya”- a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers to win the competition and $50,000 prize money on Thursday.

The 8th-grader also became the first Louisiana resident and the first African-American to win the title in the competition’s 93-year history. The first Black contestant to win was Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.

Zaila Avant-garde

Zaila said she knew she would be the first African American winner of the bee. She knew Black children around the country were watching the telecast, waiting to be inspired and hoping to follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them.

She thought of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first Black finalist at the bee but in those days was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers.

A basketball prodigy, Avant-garde holds three Guinness World Records for her ability to dribble multiple basketballs at a time.

She hopes to one day play in the Women’s National Basketball Association.

Tony O. Lawson


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Curtis Lawrence III Graduated High School Early, Was Accepted to 14 Colleges and Chose an HBCU

In 2014, Curtis Lawrence III began taking dual enrollment courses at School Without Walls High School and George Washington University.

This spring, he will earn his Associates Degree and head to FAMU where he will pursue a double major in computer science and biology as well as a minor in Mandarin.

Curtis Lawrence III

Lawrence has also been awarded over $1.65 Million in Merit Scholarships. He was also accepted to Howard University, North Carolina A&T University, Morehouse College, Hampton University, Morgan State University, Claflin University, Hutson-Tillotson University, George Washington University, West Virginia Wesleyan, UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Yale and Harvard.

Lawrence’s love for education started at a young age. His parents, both educators, instilled the importance of school into he and his younger brother Corey early on, constantly taking them on trips to different museums, colleges, states and countries to expose them to what the world has to offer.

The competition is stiff among universities to recruit top young scholars. Dedra O’Neal, director of the FAMU Scholarship Program, has conducted Zoom calls with alumni scholars and prospective students since last fall.

The recruitment effort deploys alumni based in places such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Zambia, the Caribbean, France, and across the U.S. to discuss the FAMU scholar experience with top prospective students.

FAMU President Dr. Larry Robinson lauded Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. William E. Hudson Jr. for his role in successfully recruiting Lawrence. Hudson visited Lawrence’s Washington, D.C., high school, School Without Walls at George Washington University, last fall.

Lawrence said FAMU felt like home and explained one of the reasons he wants to be a Rattler: “Especially as a young student having been able to meet other students who also started college early at FAMU, and so I was able to really know that FAMU will provide me with that academic and professional support on top of schooling.”

Curtis Lawrence III
Curtis and his family | Credit: TN Democrat

Florida A&M University is competing with the best schools in the country to get top of the line students, including sixteen year old Curtis Lawrence III.

The young scholar now with his sights set on his undergraduate degree in which he doesn’t have to pay a dime.

Lawrence III could’ve continued his education at almost any university in the country but for his undergrad degree, his parents pushed an HBCU.

“We felt that at their start, right, at those fundamental times when you figure it out yourself. Who am I? What am I going to do in life?,” explained Curtis’ father Curtis Lawrence Jr. “To be in an environment that we felt would be nurturing I’m very supportive of their development. So that was very very important for us to create that level of foundation.”

 

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Kelisha Williams, From Foster Care To Harvard on a Full Scholarship

When Kelisha Williams was younger, she told her teachers she wanted to be the president when she grew up. She is now one step closer to her dream as she prepares to head to Harvard University in the fall.

Kelisha Williams entered the foster care system at 16 years old, and she said it has been a tough few years in the system. She has moved five times in less than two years before ending up with SAFY foster mom Maria Finkenstead.

Williams was working at Walmart and preparing for college when Finkenstead asked her how college admissions were going.

“I said, ‘Hey did you take the ACT?'” Finkenstead said. “She said, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘Well, what did you get?’ And she’s like, a 32, and I was like, ‘You can go anywhere!'”

“When I applied to Harvard, I applied to Harvard as a joke,” Williams said. “I didn’t think I was going to get in.”

What started as a joke became more real as the days went on. As part of Harvard’s admissions interview, Williams spoke with Michelle Obama and Lin Manuel Miranda. During the interviews, Williams asked Obama how she kept going with so many people working against her.

Now, Williams is preparing to study political science and psychology on a full-ride scholarship to Harvard.

“She’s done all the work. All the determination has come from her,” Finkenstead said. “I take no credit in any of her accomplishments.”

“To any of the foster kids that are watching, everyone always says it’s going to get better. I never used to believe that when I was going through it and stuff like that,” Williams said. “Eventually it does.”

 

SOURCE: WCPO