The place was Gotham Hall in mid-town Manhattan. The date was April 2, 2014. And the vibe―with more than 700 alumni, students, and friends in attendance―was nothing short of electrifying.
Welcoming the capacity crowd, Penn President Amy Gutmann explained the raison d’etre for the Penn Scholarship Celebration, which she always terms one of her favorite gatherings. "Twice a year, we convene an alliance of dreamers: the generous people who endow scholarships at Penn and the deserving students who receive them," said Gutmann.
Mid-evening, Gutmann introduced two student speakers, always a greatly anticipated part of the program, to share their stories of hope, promise, and opportunity.
Tonjanika Smith, W’14, dramatically described her journey from her central Florida home to West Philadelphia, conveying amazement at how she has fulfilled her dreams by helping others in the communities surrounding Penn.
During her own childhood, she explained, the local Boys & Girls Club was where she found encouragement, explored the arts and service learning, and prepared for her future student leadership roles at the Wharton School. At Penn, Tonjanika has served as a Wharton Ambassador, taught dance at a local community organization, served as Vice President for the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir, and traveled through the Wharton International Program. After graduation, she will participate in Teach for America and continue her studies at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.
Tonjanika concluded by expressing gratitude to those who have helped sustain her dreams: her mother, the Boys & Girls Club, and “the scholarship donors who continually give back, allowing countless others like myself to let our light shine, one scholarship at a time.”
To see Tonjanika’s full speech, watch the video.
Bianca Cutler, a senior at Penn Nursing, explained that her “calling” began with her own stay in a neonatal intensive care unit as a premature infant. “It was in the NICU where I first experienced the healing powers of a nurse when my twin sister and I went straight from the womb to the walls of an incubator.”
While in elementary school, Bianca witnessed the gentle care nurses provided to her aunt in her battle against cancer and, as a result, was inspired to form a business with her sister that raised $10,000 for the American Cancer Society. During high school, Bianca volunteered in the same NICU where she had spent the first months of her life, in a sense reliving that experience from a nursing perspective. “Volunteering seemed to bring me full circle,” she said. “I knew in those defining moments that nursing was my purpose.”
At Penn, Bianca was awarded the Melissa Sengbusch Inspirational Scholarship, created by Doug and Lauren Spiker in memory of their late daughter. “Being chosen to honor Melissa’s legacy has been the greatest privilege that I have ever received,” said Bianca, acknowledging the Spikers’ presence in the audience. She has intentionally taken full advantage of her Penn experience, studying abroad in Spain to complement her minor in Hispanic Studies and serving on the boards of two anti-cancer organizations on campus. After graduation, Bianca will work on a transplant unit at Georgetown Hospital and plans to continue her graduate education at Penn Nursing Science.
To see Bianca’s full speech, watch the video.
As the applause finally subsided for the student speakers, Trustee Emeritus George A. Weiss, W’65, spoke with passion about how Penn’s needs-blind admission policies and no-loan financial aid program have made the dream of a Penn education a reality for so many students. He praised the assembled alumni, parents, and friends and reminded them of the impact of their generosity. “Give a deserving student the chance to get a Penn education without incurring daunting debt,” said Weiss, “and the investment will yield untold dividends for generations to come.”