Six years after Sally Nuamah graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University, she now sits on its Board of Trustees.
An international advocate for women and girls, Dr. Nuamah has secured a tenure-track professorship at Duke University and is completing postdoctoral fellowships at Princeton University and the Harvard Kennedy School. But her academic journey did not always seem possible, Dr. Nuamah told attendees at GW’s Power & Promise dinner Thursday night.
Raised by a single mother, a Ghanaian immigrant who earned $2 an hour cleaning hotels in Chicago, Dr. Nuamah knew from an early age that she would need external aid to get the education she wanted. So she applied for more than 20 undergraduate scholarships and won eight by the time she had graduated high school. She chose GW, she said, because of its proximity and access to the policymakers who needed to hear her voice.
“I wanted [lawmakers] to understand that kids like me don’t choose to be born poor, but we still have the same college dreams that we want to turn into reality,” Dr. Nuamah said.
The annual Power & Promise dinner celebrates students like Dr. Nuamah and the donors who have supported their education, giving both sides of the philanthropic exchange a chance to share stories and make personal connections.
George Washington President Steven Knapp, who established the Power & Promise initiative to expand scholarships and fellowships in 2009, has consistently emphasized the centrality of educational access to GW’s mission.
Scholarship support is a key priority of Making History: The Campaign for GW, the university’s $1 billion philanthropic campaign. And Power & Promise helps lower the cost of a GW education and reduce loan burdens by providing scholarships to qualified students regardless of their financial resources.
“This is consistently one of the most inspiring evenings for me,” said Dr. Knapp, who will step down as president at the end of July. “It’s my last opportunity to be here in this role, but I’ll be watching the progress of the Power & Promise campaign over the years.”
Dr. Knapp thanked attendees not only for the differences they had made in the lives of others but also for the wider effect their support would have.
“Through those you are supporting, you are shaping the future of our nation and our world,” he said.
Dr. Nuamah led a champagne toast to Dr. Knapp, thanking him for “keeping students first, middle and last in everything you do.”
Current students Demetria Clark and Moshe Pasternak also shared their stories with the audience.
Ms. Clark, a special education teacher at a public school in Southeast Washington, D.C., will receive her master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development this year. She is the recipient of a scholarship established by the National Education Association and various donors in honor of Mary Hatwood Futrell, a former GSEHD dean and NEA president.
With Dr. Futrell in attendance, Ms. Clark had a chance to pass on thanks not only from her but also from her students. The day after she received her scholarship, she had taken the opportunity to teach them about generosity and gratitude by making thank-you cards.
“Keep in mind they’re 5 years old, so when I said we’re making a card, they wrote ‘Happy Birthday,’” she said, showing the construction-paper card to the audience. “But then I explained that it was for the person who gave Ms. Clark a scholarship, so [one of them] wrote, ‘Thank you for being nice.’
“I want my students to know that they can always pursue an education, and I also want them to know that there are kind, caring, generous people—like the one who established my scholarship and like you all here tonight—who encourage and reflect the principle of lifelong learning,” Ms. Clark said.
This was the first occasion on which Dr. Futrell and Ms. Clark had met, and Ms. Clark said she felt a little “star-struck.”
“All I could say was ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’” she said.
Dr. Futrell said this was her first opportunity to meet a recipient of the scholarship established in her name.
“I was very impressed with [Ms. Clark’s] eloquence, and I really appreciate her dedication to her students,” Dr. Futrell said. “And I can relate to her because if someone hadn’t given me a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school either.”
Mr. Pasternak, a senior at Columbian College of Arts and Sciences whose scholarship was established by anonymous donors, said it was “surreal” to possibly be in the same room with the people who made his time at GW possible.
“So much of my identity is based on the last four years and the doors that have been opened for me here,” he said. “I just feel overwhelming gratitude.”
A performance by GW dance crew Capital Funk capped the night.
For Dr. Nuamah, the evening was a “full-circle moment”: She first spoke at the inaugural Power & Promise dinner in 2009, when she was a GW sophomore.
“Back then I would have said that scholarships were most critical for relieving debt, and that’s true,” Dr. Nuamah said. “But [scholarships also] gave me the confidence to believe I deserved to be in college and at GW.
“In a society where your zip code determines your access, I may not have had the typical family structure or a strong financial foundation,” she continued. “But through scholarships I gained an alternative support system that played a similar role in building my confidence and self-esteem and launching my success.” — Ruth Steinhardt
This story was originally published in GW Today.