Islaea Anderson sat in the Johnson High School auditorium and smiled. She had come for what she'd been told was a St. Paul Public Schools video highlighting the spirit of her senior class.
"I'm most proud of everything I have done because I know I've put my all into it," Anderson said for the camera. "I worked hard for it. And I let nothing stop me."
"We're actually here to give you this," said video interviewer Juan Carlos Diaz, handing her a green envelope. "You're a Wallin scholar."
Anderson had just won a $16,000 scholarship for college. She smiled into the camera and let out a shriek: "Thank you!"
Officials with Wallin Education Partners — a St. Paul-based nonprofit founded in 1992 by a former Medtronic CEO to reduce barriers to higher education — said this year's scholarship class of 361 recipients is the largest in its history. About 88% of recipients are students of color, and 74% are first-generation college students.
"Each student motivates and inspires us. Our scholars are creating a more equitable Minnesota, one that we desire and that they deserve," said Wallin President and CEO Susan Basil King, in a statement.
Students from 68 partner high schools around Minnesota, who demonstrated financial need, applied for the award. Anderson was one of 10 Johnson students who received it this year.
Last year, Wallin produced a video of the moment when students realized they had won the scholarship. Wallin officials this year surprised students at Blaine, Owatonna and Richfield high schools, as well as Johnson High. The video is both a stunt tailor-made for social media and a moment of genuine joy for the students who see their path to college suddenly getting easier.
Wallin scholarship winners also are assigned an adviser. Johnson student Rose Yang, who plans to pursue dentistry at the University of Minnesota, was worried about the support she would get at such a large school. "That's why I'm glad I got the Wallin," she said. "I've got some support from somewhere."
For many of the students opening green envelopes, the scholarship represents more than financial aid. It gives them more college choices and provides something less tangible: self-confidence.
This year's seniors finished their freshman year in their kitchens and living rooms, after COVID-19 closures sent them into distance learning. They didn't return to the classroom until spring 2021, and some stayed online until that fall.
Anderson said she started losing interest in her classes as distance learning dragged on. But her older brother, who attends college in Milwaukee, told her not to let her grade-point average slip. "Once he told me that, something just activated and I got back on it," she said.
Anderson has committed to Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU — historically Black college or university — in Charlotte, N.C. She had received two full-tuition scholarships for schools closer to home, she said, but Smith is smaller and she figures she'll get more attention there.
Anderson hopes to study criminal justice and become a lawyer. She'll see the campus for the first time when she leaves for school in August.
"I'm feeling very excited," she said. "I am ready to see what life has in store for me."
Many of the Wallin scholarship recipients overcame more than the pandemic. "I want you to guess why we're making this video," Diaz said to Damian Xiong, who was taking his turn under the lights. "I've been through a lot?" Xiong said.
Xiong entered foster care during his junior year, he said. His father had died, and "my mother couldn't handle it."
"It was difficult going through that and participating in high school," he said. But things have gotten better, he said. And now he's been named a Wallin scholar.
"I think that's going to help me a lot," he said.
Xiong plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This year he's been taking classes at St. Paul College through Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, a program that allows high school students to earn college credits.
"I'm excited and happy for myself," he said. "And that's kind of a new feeling for me — being proud of myself. I'm just excited for the future."
Troy Cleaton arrived a little late for the video shoot. At 18, he lives on his own and had to wait for an Uber to get to school that day.
"What are you most proud of achieving in the last four years?" Diaz asked him.
"I am most proud of achieving independence," Cleaton said.
As Diaz explained that he had won a Wallin scholarship, a smile spread over Cleaton's face. He's the first in his family to graduate from high school and will be the first to go to college.
"I've kind of had to be an adult and a student throughout my whole time in high school," he said.
Cleaton, who received acceptance letters from 11 HBCUs, decided on Xavier University in New Orleans, which offered him a generous financial aid package. The Wallin scholarship will help cover most of the remaining balance, he said.
He hopes to study entrepreneurship and keep pursuing other passions, including dancing — somewhere between hip-hop and R&B, he said.
"Honestly, I'm very excited," he said. "I just feel like it's going to be a good experience for me."