MISHAWAKA—Every year, 30 students attending private colleges and universities in Indiana receive the “Realizing the Dream” scholarship. The recipients are all first-generation college students selected by the Independent Colleges of Indiana (ICI), and funds are provided by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.
This year, one of the recipients is Samarah Williams, a Bethel sophomore majoring in elementary education. She received an email last semester asking about whether her parents had gone to college. When she responded that they had not, she was invited to a meeting where her major, grades and family background were discussed. About two weeks later, she received another email letting her know she was selected to receive the scholarship.
“It makes me feel very proud of myself and excited,” Williams said. “I know it’s kind of hard to not have parents who went to college, because it’s kind of like I’m on this journey by myself, so it’s a little different, and I felt like my hard work was paying off.”
Williams said that while the experience of being a first-generation college student is an exciting one, it can also be a bit overwhelming at times, but she is grateful for the individuals who have come alongside to help.
“It’s exciting to be the first one, but it’s also been kind of difficult, because my mom doesn’t know anything about financial forms or FAFSA...so I’ve been doing that on my own with a little bit of help from my counselors from high school,” Williams said.
In addition to the $3,000 scholarship each student receives, the recipients can choose an influential educator who made a difference in their lives to receive a $1,000 professional development grant. For Williams, that educator was one of her third-grade teachers, Camellia Dabagia.
“A month or two into the school year, I transferred into [Dabagia’s] classroom, and she was still super sweet,” Williams said. “She was very inspiring for me, and I was actually able to go observe her classroom last semester . . . and I can just see her love for students.”
Dabagia teaches at Knapp Elementary School in Michigan City, Ind., where she has taught for 14 years. She has many pleasant memories of the time Williams spent in her classroom.
“Samarah joined my third-grade classroom at Knapp a couple of months after the school year started,” Dabagia said. “She was such a friendly student to all of her classmates . . . I remember her sitting in the front row on my carpet, and her having the sweetest smile on her face while I would read stories.”
Many of the stories Dabagia selected to share with her students tied in with her classroom theme, “the future belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”
“As a teacher, I never know what life lessons students are going to carry with them throughout their education,” Dabagia said. “It is my hope that they at least carry some of the life skills necessary for achievement to help them overcome challenges they may face, so I am particularly delighted that Samarah took to heart that lesson of following her dreams to achieve success.”
One attribute Dabagia noted in Williams was her steadfast perseverance through various difficulties.
“What really stood out to me the most about Samarah is that no matter what obstacles or circumstances she faced as a small child, she persevered through all of her obstacles,” Dabagia said. “I’m glad I was able to be . . . an adult in her life that was able to encourage her to never give up.”
Dabagia is currently looking into the ways that she will use the grant to provide enriching activities and materials for her students.
“As a teacher, this is the greatest reward and honor that any educator can receive,” Dabagia said. “I want students to succeed, not just in the classroom, but throughout the course of their lives, so it’s such an honor.”
Williams hopes to someday become a teacher herself. She would love to teach science and reading in elementary education, but her long-term goal is to operate a preschool.
“My dream is to be a teacher,” Williams said. “I would like to open my own preschool after a couple of years of teaching.”
Normally, a ceremony would be held to honor the scholarship recipients and their chosen influential educators; however, that event has been canceled this year due to COVID-19. Instead, the scholarship recipients all created brief videos sharing about their experiences and what the scholarships mean to them. These videos can be viewed at iciindiana.org/rtd. Williams’ video can be viewed individually on YouTube under the title, “Realizing the Dream: Samarah Wiliams.”