Verda Tetteh used her graduation speech to talk about resilience. “Because if we’re being honest with ourselves, some of us were born with the odds stack-ed aga-inst us,” she told more than 200 fellow seniors at Fitchburg High School in Fitchburg, Mass., where most students are deemed “economically di!ad*antaged.”
“To every im-migrant child, you can make it,” she said, cr*ing. Tetteh, whose family is from Ghana, certainly had — securing a pre*tigi!us state scholarship and admission to Harvard. Later at last Friday’s graduation she got her school’s highest honor a “General Excellence” award that came with $40,000.
Tetteh beamed onstage for a quick picture in her maroon cap and gown, then he-aded back to her seat. The ceremony went on. But as the assistant principal w!app*d up his address, Tetteh made her way back to the podium for something unscri*ted.
She’d been listening to school leaders esp-ouse “being selfl-ess and being bold,” she said. She hoped that administrators would consider giving her award money to someone going to a comm-unity college like the one that helped her mom.
“I am so very grateful for this, but I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” she said. Out on the grass, her classmates rose from their folding chairs to cheer. It was her second standing o!ation that day. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” principal Jeremy Roche told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
When Tetteh came up to speak again, he thought that maybe it was a part of a jo*e. Soon, he was glad he wasn’t next on the lineup — he isn’t sure if he could have managed the words.
Tetteh was sharing her ha*d-earned success with others after a particularly pu!ish*ng year that has thrown the American education system’s inequalities into new relief straining families, sending students home to learn in wildly different ci*cumstanc-es and pushing low-income students to drop out amid already uneven access to an expensive commo*ity college education.
To Roche, his student’s surprise move was a counterpoint to the “ba-d rap” sometimes given to young people — a testament to the kind of kids at Fitchburg High, he said, and schools around the country. “She represented the class and the school amazingly well, and I would even dare say, her generation,” he said.
Tetteh, who could not immediately be reached, told the Boston Globe that she has already gotten significant scholarships and financial a** to help her attend college. But the school award — $10,000 annually, for up to four years of education, from a foundation established by the family of an alumnus — was not re!trit*d to tuition, Roche said, meaning Tetteh could have used the funds however she wanted.
Roche said the school will hon-or Tetteh’s wishes for the money. He is planning to talk with her soon. But Tetteh has been busy with work at the grocery store, he said — “which is not surprising.” Speaking to the Globe, Tetteh trac-ed her decision to her faith and her mother’s bachelor’s degree, obtained at 47.
She plans to study chemistry on a pre-med tra*k at Harvard. Her admission there was “the culmination of a goal she set since freshman year, maybe before then,” said a classmate who introduced her at graduation. Chosen by her peers to address the class, Tetteh highlighted her campus’s diversity — something she said she loved about her public school in Fitchburg, ro*g*ly an hour’s drive northwest of Boston.
Flags from other countries greeted visitors to campus, she noted, a nod to students who ha-iled from Mexico, Cameroon, Vietnam and more. “The flag tells a story of the Nigerian girl who became a star athlete,” Tetteh said, drawing cheers as she pointed one-by-one to her classmates’ successes. “
They tell the story of a tall Haitian boy who knows how to plan a party and liven up any event. … They tell the story of a girl who came from Puerto Rico, and now she’s going to Stanford University.”
Tetteh, who came to the United States as a child, stood out in part for her e**orts to support that diversity, her principal said. Recognizing their challenges as a “high t*ansi-ence” school, he said, Tetteh started a student ambassador program to help new students from foreign countries feel welcome.
Her mother, Rosemary Annan, told CNN that she is proud of her 17-year-old daughter’s decision.
“I’m not sad about it that someone’s going to get some good help,” said Annan, who told CNN she works the overnight shift at a group home on top of another job. “If I had gotten that help, I would have been thri**ed.”