Harvard-bound high school graduate turns down $40,000 and asks for it to be given to student going to community college

·4 min read
Verda Tetteh asked that her “General Excellence” award be given to student going to community college.  (Fitchburg Access Television)
Verda Tetteh asked that her “General Excellence” award be given to student going to community college. (Fitchburg Access Television)

A high school graduate about to go to Harvard turned down a $40,000 “General Excellence” award from her school and asked for it to be given to a student going to community college.

Verda Tetteh, 17, told more than 200 of her fellow seniors at Fitchburg High School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts during her graduation speech: “If we’re being honest with ourselves, some of us were born with the odds stacked against us.”

Most students at the school are considered to be “economically disadvantaged”.

With tears in her eyes, she said: “To every immigrant child, you can make it.” Ms Tetteh, whose family is from Ghana, earned a state scholarship and got into Harvard as she worked at a grocery store during the Covid-19 pandemic.

After her speech during her graduation ceremony last Friday, she was given the “General Excellence” award, her school’s highest honour.

Towards the end of the ceremony, after school leaders had spoken, Ms Tetteh walked up to the mic once again to deliver some unprepared remarks.

She noted that she had been listening to school leaders speak about “being selfless and being bold”. She said that she hoped the school administration would consider giving the $40,000 to someone going to community college, such as the school that had helped her mother.

“I am so very grateful for this, but I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” she said, receiving her second standing ovation from classmates.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” principal Jeremy Roche told The Washington Post.

“She represented the class and the school amazingly well, and I would even dare say, her generation,” he added.

Ms Tetteh, who was born in the UK before coming to the US as a child, had applied for the award but told CNN that she thought it would “automatically go to someone who needed it more, so I had ruled myself out”.

“Then I sat down, and it hit me. This is $40,000. That’s a lot of money. Obviously, I could use that,” she said. “But there’s definitely someone sitting in this crowd who needs it more.”

The family of Ms Tetteh have said that she has received significant scholarships and financial aid to assist her college ambitions.

But the school award of $10,000 for up to four years could have been used however she wanted, not just to pay for tuition or education-related expenses, according to Mr Roche. He added that the school is going to honour Ms Tetteh’s wish for the funds.

“I just knew she’s ready for me to let her be on her own,” Ms Tetteh’s mother, Rosemary Annan, told CNN. “I’m not afraid, and I’m not sad about it that someone’s going to get some good help. If I had gotten that help, I would have been thrilled.”

Ms Tetteh’s stepfather, Leslie Barnor, said that she often came home from her job after 9pm during the pandemic, instantly starting her schoolwork, and at times using her phone as a flashlight as her family tried to get her to go to bed, The Washington Post reported.

The family couldn’t initially hear that Ms Tetteh had given the money away, but they were then filled in by those sitting around them as people applauded. Ms Tetteh later said it was a split-second decision.

“We are a Christian family,” Mr Barnor told The Post. “We believe we don’t need to have so much before you give to others.”

While Ms Tetteh getting into Harvard was “like a dream come true”, Mr Barnor added that it was “not just a dream... It was hard work. She worked hard for these achievements”.

“When she started speaking on the microphone, I was overwhelmed. I think a lot of people in the stadium were, honestly,” Mr Roche told CNN. “I was so moved by her generosity.”

Ms Tetteh told The Boston Globe that she felt a sense of relief after choosing to give away her award money. She credited her faith and the example of her mother, who earned her bachelor’s degree at 47. She wanted other students to be able to carry on with their education without having to worry about money.

At Harvard, she plans to study chemistry on a pre-med track.

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