As It Happens

This Harvard-bound grad won a $40K scholarship — and promptly gave it away

Verda Tetteh says she was honoured when her high school awarded her with a $40,000 US scholarship during her graduation ceremony. But she knew almost immediately that she couldn’t keep it.

Verda Tetteh was thinking about her mom who went to community college when she decided to give the prize away

Verda Tetteh, centre, is pictured in her high school graduation cap and gown, flanked by her mother, Rosemary Annan, left, and stepfather Leslie Barnor, right. (Submitted by Verda Tetteh)

Verda Tetteh says she was honoured when her high school awarded her with a $40,000 US scholarship during her graduation ceremony. But she knew almost immediately that she couldn't keep it.

"I was just sitting down and, you know, thinking about my classmates around me and my community," Tetteh, 17, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And I just knew that someone around me needed it more."

Tetteh had just finished giving a speech at the Fitchburg High School grad ceremony in Fitchburg, Mass., when she learned she'd won the school's General Excellence award.

At first, she accepted the prize. But a few minutes later, after hearing her assistant principal talk about being selfless and doing the right thing, she returned to the podium. 

In a second, impromptu speech, she implored her school to take back the scholarship and instead give it to someone planning to attend a community college. 

The move elicited a standing ovation from the crowd. The school's principal, Jeremy Roche said, said it was a "powerful" moment.

"It was an exceptional act of generosity that was completely authentic and pure," Roche said. "The feeling in the stadium was electric with the understanding of what she just did, and I know it was because everyone knows how genuine Verda is and that she was willing to do that so someone else had a chance at an education."

WATCH | See Tetteh deliver her speech, recieve the prize and give it back.

Watch this high school grad win a scholarship, then give it back

As It Happens from CBC Radio

19 hours ago
3:00
Massachusetts teen Verda Tetteh delivers a powerful speech at her Fitchburg High School graduation ceremony and accepts a $40,000 scholarship. But a few minutes later, after hearing her assistant principal talk about being selfless and doing the right thing, she returned to the podium. (Video Credit: Credit: Fitchburg Access Television) 3:00

"It was very spontaneous, but I think I knew that it was the right thing and I just would have so much regret in me if I hadn't done that. So I just got up and did what I thought the right thing was," Tetteh said.

"I'm very glad that everyone kind of gave me that trust to go back up and speak what was on my heart, and no one even tried to stop me — and that was with them not even knowing what was going on."

She did it for her mom

Tetteh says she had her mother in mind when she asked that the scholarship be given to someone heading to community college. 

The teenager has already been accepted to Harvard in the fall, and says she has received several scholarships and isn't worried about financing her education. 

Tetteh, left, and her mom smile over Tetteh's high school diploma. (Submitted by Verda Tetteh)

But her own mother, Rosemary Annan, an immigrant from Ghana, attended the local community college at the age of 39 — while working two jobs, raising four children, and learning to speak English and use computers. 

"She worked really hard during her two years there," Tetteh said. "It was a lot on her plate. And I was just thinking if someone else is going through this, just taking that financial burden off would be such a blessing to them."

Annan told CNN that she's immensely proud of her daughter. 

"I'm not sad about it that someone's going to get some good help," she said. "If I had gotten that help, I would have been thrilled."

Do good things and work hard and it really will come back to you.- Verda Tetteh, high school graduate

Tetteh says she will be sitting down with the principal next week to devise a plan for redistributing the award money, which is not specifically earmarked for tuition and can be used however the recipient wants.

In the meantime, Tetteh is getting ready to head off to Harvard in the fall. She's tentatively planning to study chemistry and biochemistry on a pre-med track, though she says she's keeping an open mind. 

Meanwhile, her mom is now pursuing her bachelor's degree in psychology, Tetteh said. 

Tetteh says she has a message for "every immigrant and every dreamer out there."

"You really can do it. Don't sell yourself short. Work hard, and it really does pay off," she said. "Do good things and work hard and it really will come back to you. God will bless you."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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