When Verda Tetteh moved from Ghana to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, at age 8, she learned to take nothing for granted.
The graduation speaker excelled in high school and got into Harvard University, so no one was surprised at commencement when she was awarded a $40,000 general excellence scholarship.
But 10 minutes later, she approached the podium again, excused herself for interrupting and announced that she would prefer that a student in greater need receive the prize.
“I am so very grateful for this. But I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” she said. “And knowing my mom went to community college and how much that was helpful, I would be so very grateful if the administration would consider giving the general excellence scholarship to someone who is going into community college.”
During that 10 minutes, Tetteh says she thought about how her mother instilled the value of education within her. At age 39, her mother, Rosemary Annan, started pursuing a degree at a local community college while working two jobs and taking care of the family.
“As I was sitting down in the audience, I just kept thinking that there may be someone in this audience who is going to go through that journey. And financial support … would alleviate so much stress,” she says. “And I had that opportunity to be that change so I did what I thought was right.”
Fitchburg High School lists 60% of students as economically disadvantaged. But Tetteh says her “resilient,” “hard-working” classmates excel in school every day despite the challenges they face outside of the classroom.
The school hasn’t awarded the scholarship to other students yet, but Tetteh says two students will get $5,000 for the next four years.
Tetteh’s financial aid package from Harvard covers tuition as well as room and board. She plans to study chemistry.
Even so, some parents would beg their kids to accept the $40,000 that Tetteh turned down. But after her announcement, Annan led a standing ovation for her daughter.
“I don't think that even if [Annan] knew she would have stopped me. She's always encouraged me to help other people whenever I can,” Tetteh says. “Regardless of where I am in life, how much I have, there's always room to help other people.”
And Annan recalls standing up and loudly shouting to support her daughter.
“I was so happy with her decision,” Annan said.
The rest of the family supports Tetteh’s decision, which started a conversation around how to help more people. She’s now working with organizations to get more people opportunities like scholarships — which can make a huge difference, she says.
Despite all the attention she’s getting, Tetteh isn’t worried about the spotlight.
“I think that the want to be a beacon of hope to people kind of comes more from within than outside,” she says. “And I think that it kind of goes with the question of do you feel pressured to be great in life? No, I don't really feel much pressure from people around me because I kind of have those high expectations within myself to be a good person, to be a role model to my siblings and my peers in my community.”
This segment aired on June 15, 2021.