“There were times when I used to struggle and used to cry,” said Aaliyah Whitfield, a senior at Madison La Follette High School who was being honored as the senior class of Mann Scholars at the annual Mann Scholar Celebration June 1. “I’m happy that I’m here today standing before you with a 4.0 GPA and three scholarships. But I remember wanting to give up my freshman year because I wasn’t ‘smart enough’ and I just thank [Mann Program Coordinator] Amy [Wallace] and the Mann Scholars program for trying to find me tutors. I thank my mom for never giving up on me.”
Whitfield paused for a moment, tearing up. “And I’m happy for all of the advice my dad has given me,” she added.
“Don’t make me cry, too!” dad shouted from crowd.
[Dad was ultimately unsuccessful in not crying.]
“My dad told me, ‘The past is in the past. You can’t live your life in the past. Continue to grow. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes,’” Whitfield told the crowd. “I’m so happy that I had two wonderful parents who didn’t judge the mistakes I made and who never gave up on me. I’m standing here as a young, black and educated young woman and I’m proud of my parents for their support of me.
“Thank you, Mann Family for nominating me and giving me a scholarship,” she added. “I will carry your name with me for my whole life.”
The Annual Mann Scholar Celebration took place at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery on the UW-Madison campus on June 1. The usually emotional event was especially so this year as all four 2018 Mann Graduating Scholars (and many audience members) teared up as they gave their speeches. Mann Scholars often fight through incredible adversity in their young lives – poverty, homelessness, death of family members – yet always manage to keep their eyes on the prize: graduation and continuation on to higher education. With support of the Mann Family over the last 21 years, Mann Scholars have graduated from high school at a rate of 98 percent and have gone on to do amazing things.
The Mann Scholars program provide mentoring support and educational tools primarily, but not exclusively, to students of color in the Madison Metropolitan School District who show potential for academic achievement, but face significant economic and personal challenges in reaching their full potential.
2018 Mann Scholar graduate Flodejhia Burnett had baby boy in October of her senior year at East High School. She knows what the statistics say for students who have children during high school. But no matter how difficult and trying it got, she was not going to become one of them.
“It’s been very hard and I overcame so many obstacles and I will have to overcome a lot more. Only 40 percent of teenage moms graduate high school,” Burnett says. “I’m one of those 40 percent who will be graduating from high school.”
Burnett will be attending Madison College to pursue a career in nursing where she wants to become a registered nurse or a certified midwife.
“I want to thank everybody that has stood by me,” Burnett said. “I don’t know how I got through this; I was just strong through everything.”
Taleah Carter of La Follette High School will be attending Madison College where she will be majoring in architectural technology. “After I receive my associate’s degree there, I will transfer to UW-Milwaukee. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my mom’s support and Amy [Wallace] and Pahoua [Thao] and the Mann Family,” Carter said, pausing. “I appreciate everything that they have done for me. They have seen me grow into the person I am today. The Mann Scholarship has helped me a lot throughout the years and this has been a great opportunity for me.”
Janecia Pettaway of West High School lost her father and grandmother in quick succession and it hit her very hard. “Without the Mann Scholar program, I wouldn’t be standing here right now and graduating next week,” she said. “I was really not prepared for their losses … and I had moments of weakness where I felt like giving up. Without the support and the love that I received, I don’t think I could have made it all the way to the end of my high school journey. I will forever be grateful to the Mann Family.”
Pettaway will be attending Troy University to study nursing and her goal is to be a neonatal nurse and a nurse practitioner later on.
Cynthia Green, executive director of Pathways and Secondary Programs for the Madison Metropolitan School District, said that she was happy to be at the annual Mann Scholar Celebration on behalf of the Board of Education and Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham.
“I want to thank the Mann Family for their commitment to our students and Amy and Pahoua who are amazing rock stars,” Green said. “Every time I meet with them, they inspire me. Every time I meet with them, I say, ‘Can we clone you?’ They are just phenomenal.
“I want to thank the families here tonight for their commitment,” she added. “Most importantly, I want to thank the class of 2018 Mann Scholars. You are all amazing. You are going to do wonderful things. I wish you all the best of luck.”
Wallace has been with the program for 18 years.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to recognize every year to come up and recognize the graduates,” Wallace said. “I really want to thank my co-worker Pahoua, a former Mann Scholar, who keeps me on track and reminds me of the things I forgot. I’m very fortunate that she moved back to Madison. We are very lucky to have her.
“I want to thank the [Mann Scholars] families that come together every year as a team. I learn something every year from the moms and the families and the people that I work with,” Wallace added. “Your partnership is critical in all this. We cannot do this job without the participation and support of your student.”
The Annual Mann Scholar Celebration was also a chance to announce the new 2018 Mann Scholars, eighth-graders chosen out of hundreds of potential students. They included LaMarion Allen of Black Hawk Middle School, Jalah Johnson of Sennett Middle School, Amir Lee of Sherman Middle School, Kimberly Watts of Velma Hamilton Middle School and Genesis Woodards of Spring Harbor Middle School.
Ziyad Sultan, a 2014 Madison La Follette High School graduate and a 2018 University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate in Neurobiology, gave Mann Scholar Alumni Reflections and shared some words of wisdom with the Mann Scholar graduates.
“I have just accepted a job from the UW Department of Anesthesiology and I hope to apply for the PH.D. program in neuroscience in the next two years,” he said. “For me, being a Mann Scholar has been an invaluable part of my life and I’m humbled to be part of this tradition of excellence. The Mann Foundation enriched my experience both in high school and college and has helped me reach my full potential.
“To my Mann graduates, three core values that will help you succeed in college are community, continuity and balance,” he added. “Find community in spaces of shared interests. Continuity is important – college is a time for discovery, but getting involved early and staying involved is the key to growth. Find balance between your academics, your extra-curricular work and your mental health really should be a high priority.
“Stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation are all too common on college campuses, but by taking care and understanding your limits and balancing your schedule, you can have much better outcomes in all facets of your experience in terms of your grades, your leadership opportunities, and your relationships as a whole,” he added.