It's telling, really, when young people who have struggled through poverty and hardship for most of their lives look to turn their lives over to helping others. For Shamaria Jordan and Christopher Oquist, two of six Beat the Odds scholarship winners honored Saturday by the Children's Defense Fund, growing up without stability, safety or even heat in the winter has inspired them to not only excel, but to assist.
"I want to be a social worker, and I just want to help kids in poverty and help them get out of that," Jordan, 18, said Saturday. "Just because of the way that I grew up, I just want to help kids who are having the same troubles and feel like they don't have a way out."
She plans to attend Coppin State University in Baltimore, Md., after graduating from Minneapolis Edison.
Oquist, who survived his parents' drug-dealing and years in foster care, is aiming for law school after Augsburg College so he can advocate for other young people who have been removed from their families.
"I just try to do what is best," the soon-to-be Minneapolis Roosevelt graduate said Saturday. "I make no claims on being the standard for how to overcome barriers, but maybe people can learn from the things I do."
That's the hope of the folks at the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, which for more than 20 years has recognized extraordinary young people who have overcome adversity to achieve academic excellence and aspire to attend college.
Oquist and Jordan will be joined by Domenic Johnson of Minneapolis North Community High School, Hennessey Carlbom of Takoda Prep in Minneapolis, Sebastien Lannelongue of Minneapolis Southwest High School and Mela Nguyen of Great River School in St. Paul in receiving $5,000 scholarships.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Children's Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman were scheduled to be on hand during Saturday night's ceremonies at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis, as were Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul City Council President Russ Stark.
Jordan, who has been a regular honor-roll presence, captain of the track team and a volunteer, acknowledged that her life could have taken a very different turn. She grew up in the shadow of family members' addiction. Her family often lived in homes with no heat and no water. She wants to make her mother proud and give hope to her younger siblings and other struggling children, she said.
"At the time when it's happening, you try not to think about stuff and how it's affecting you," she said. "But when I look back on it, I just feel amazed, like, 'Wow, I really went through all that.' "
Oquist, too, thought about becoming a social worker after a childhood that saw his parents taken away by police who crashed through the back door of their home. Child protection workers took Oquist and his two brothers, leading to years in foster care and, eventually, adoption.
His adoptive father, who is Anishinaabe, taught Oquist about his American Indian culture and community through Sun Dance and powwow ceremonies.
"My only option to succeed is through education," Oquist said. "I cannot and will not be like others before me who gave up on their dreams."
Those dreams now have turned him toward a career as a family law attorney after spending the past two summers working at local law firms. "I want to help young people build relationships with someone who knows what they are going through," he said.
James Walsh • 651-925-5041