Charting their own course: Scholarships bring out the Roger Williams in 5 students

PROVIDENCE — Growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, Kamar Gure had no hope of going to college. The sprawling refugee camp had a few high schools but no college. If you finished high school, that was the end.

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Farzaneh Jalali’s family was forced out of their home in Afghanistan by war. They moved to Providence as refugees.

Camarena was growing up in Rhode Island in chaos created by poor parental choices. Her grades were low because she didn’t have regular meals, a place to sleep or a table and quiet for doing homework.

Brett Rose was growing up in Atlanta. His family moved to Rhode Island, and he went out for freshman football at Woonsocket High School. He was hit hard in the head and began having seizures. When his head injury grew worse, so did his grades.

During all those years in Kenya, Gure’s mother applied for refugee status and a visa, their ticket out of Kenya. She had fled war in her home country, Somalia. She married a man in the refugee camp, and all six of their children were born in a place that was never intended to become a makeshift city.

“We were waiting for years, years,” said Gure, the second-youngest. If you are selected, “then you wait for another three to four years,” she said. “It was exhausting.” Gure buckled down when they were told they had been selected, and the distant dream of living in the United States became imaginable. She worked hard, motivated by the idea of a future with choices.

In all, 25 years passed before the family could move to the United States. They arrived in Providence when Gure was 16. Despite her good grades in the refugee school, she had to start over, she said. Arriving in March, she was placed in the Newcomer’s Academy, where she needed only three months to adapt to her new surroundings and finish her freshman year. She started at Central High School as a sophomore in the fall, almost daring to dream she could become a nurse.

, a refugee from Kenya, met Farzaneh, a refugee from Afghanistan, on roller skates, Gure said. It was a party designed to give new students a chance to make friends. Both students worked hard; Jalalibecame valedictorian of her class. Both young women had learned how to use money, appliances, and public transportation from the Refugee Dream Center, and soon they were both working there as volunteers.

In her junior year, she said, she had perfect grades, a volunteer job helping fellow refugees, and she could prove financial need. Her friends were getting acceptance letters from universities, but hers were all rejections. The culprit was her low SAT scores, she said. She hadn’t been in the culture long enough.

A friend urged her to apply for a Carter Roger Williams Scholarship, which selects from Rhode Island residents attending a local high school who have been accepted, by the time of the award, into an accredited college or university. Their applications had to include a transcript, record of volunteering, financial documents and a video, audio or written essay about what qualities they have in common with R.I. founder Roger Williams.

Scholarship founders John and Letitia Carter wanted to give deserving students a boost in the name of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. They put up the money for full scholarships of up to $20,000 a year for four years. They discussed with the Rhode Island Foundation how they wanted it set up. John Carter died in 2017.

Carter had admired Roger Williams, whose views about freedom of religion and respect for the people who lived here before Europeans arrived, got him banished by the Massachusetts Puritans.

Williams founded the Baptist Church, made high priorities of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. He wrote a dictionary of the Narragansett language to help the Puritans understand their neighbors.

As the son of a London tailor in the early 1600s, Roger Williams had no hope for a college education, either. It was only by chance that an influential thinker and human rights activist saw him taking notes in church at age 12 and hired him as a scribe, or so the legend goes, eventually sending him to prep school and then university.

John Carter died in 2017, the same year the first scholarships were awarded. Those recipients will graduate in May of 2021.

Gure and Farzaneh, both students at Central, both applied. Between the application and research on Roger Williams, Gure said, “I had to do a lot of work. I was very stressed.” She had only a short time to write the essay. “Is this going to be worth it?”she wondered. When she learned she had won a scholarship, she changed her inner dialogue to: “Oh my God, it was really worth it!”

She hopes to study nursing at Rhode Island College.

Farzaneh Jalali plans to study computer engineering at Roger Williams University. She related to the school’s namesake, she wrote in her application, “because we both had to start our life from zero, but we never gave up on anything. We both wanted freedom in our life and believed we could make it happen by working hard and doing what we thought was right. Nothing could stop us from achieving our goals.“

Juliana Camarena of Cumberland graduated from the R.I. Nurses Institute Middle College Charter High School in Providence. At first, she had wanted to be a nurse, but now she aspires to teach in an elementary school. She has chosen Curry College in Milford, Mass.

Her high school counselor, Jennifer Keating, told her about the scholarship and encouraged her to look at the application. Keating is also Juliana’s foster mother. “I saw that me and Roger Williams had a lot in common,” Camarena said. “And I wrote the essay and I won.”

She wants to catch children at a young age “and make sure they’re okay.” She wants to help them overcome barriers like ones she overcame with the help of her foster mother, who encouraged her every day. She hopes to teach them “to stand up for what they believe in, to stretch their imaginations and to create a better community. I want my classroom to be their refuge, their sanctuary, their Providence,” she wrote in her essay.

About a week after her virtual graduation, she said, “What I want people to know is just to never, ever give up, and just to keep pushing and pushing no matter how hard the situation may get.”

For Brett Rose, the obstacles were multiple concussions from playing freshman football at Woonsocket High School. He couldn’t see out of one eye, had debilitating headaches and missed a lot of school. By the time he graduated, he had caught up, and he founded the local junior chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

His mentor suggested he form a state chapter, and Rose is enthusiastic about that project.

“I know so many kids who are academically so brilliant, they just didn’t have the tools necessary to help themselves into the next stage,” he said. Some of those tools are the precision words used in science and technology. “I just want kids to have this skill, to propel them into the workforce,“ he said.

Roger Williams couldn’t have dreamed of space travel, but Rose considers him “a man beyond his time, where he valued freedom and the ability to express it. … He broke from convention so that he could live a life guided by his principles.” Rose called Williams a beacon for people today “not only for his political leadership, but also for his character as a human being.”

Daniel Salzillo Jr., who graduated from Classical High School in Providence, was captain of the debate team, a docent at the Stephen Hopkins House, winner of the Secretary of State’s Civic Leadership Award and the Thomas Jefferson Book Award.

He has chosen Providence College. He wrote this about Roger Williams: “He believed the greatest crime in the world is to not develop your potential.”

If Roger Williams had wasted his, he “most likely would never have realized what he ultimately accomplished in the name of liberty, democracy and the advancement of mankind,” Salzillo wrote.

Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg and the Carters discussed what they wanted their gift to do. Their intent, he said, was to “help R.I. students who appreciate and embody Roger Williams’ legacy, to inspire them and their families to think big about what’s possible for the future.”

Finalists for the scholarships are interviewed by a panel.

Steinberg was asked how he’d answer what traits he shared with Roger Williams. He said first would be “tolerance, respect for people’s differences and the love of learning.”

For an interactive timeline about Roger Williams and to see the scholarship requirements, visit http://www.findingrogerwilliams.com/timeline#

— dnaylor@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7411

On Twitter: @donita22

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