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Michelle Schafieh’s parents came to the United States from Afghanistan in 1992. Two years later, Michelle was born, and 16 years after that, they got to hear former United States Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, tell an audience about their family history, and their daughter’s hope to be valedictorian of her high school.
Schafieh, who just finished her second year at Fairfax High School, had the opportunity to meet Christopher because she has been awarded a 2010 Warren Christopher Scholarship, an award given each year to a small group of low-income 10th graders from Los Angeles Unified School District Schools by O’Melveny & Myers LLP, where Christopher is a senior partner.
Since the scholarship’s inception 15 years ago, 138 LAUSD students have been awarded $20,000 each for college. The students receive $5,000 each year to cover expenses such as tuition and books, and must remain enrolled to receive the money.
“The program targets high school sophomores — not juniors or seniors — and looks for talented students who are also socially committed, yet extremely disadvantaged,” said Matthew Kine, chairman of the Christopher Scholarship Committee and an O’Melveny & Myers LLP partner. “The program’s mission is to identify promising tenth-grade students and encourage them to stay in school, graduate high school, and go on to college.”
Schafieh became the ninth student to win the scholarship while attending Fairfax High, which boasts more Christopher Scholars than any other LAUSD school. She said that since she won the award, she has started to dream about going to a top-tier university.
“I had always planned on going to college,” Schafieh said. “But I hadn’t been thinking about it much. I was focused on getting straight A’s, and wanted to become valedictorian. My parents make minimum wage, so I thought there was no way I could go to a private college. That’s why I’ve been working really hard in high school, so I could get a full scholarship so my parents wouldn’t have to pay anything.”
Dennis Furlong, a college counselor and guidance counselor at Fairfax High, said Scahief was the top student in the sophomore class.
“Besides getting lots of good grades, she’s contributing to some things that interest her,” Furlong said. “She created an organization called Afghan Teens United, which raises money for people in Afghanistan. And she played on the freshman basketball team even though she’s only about four-feet-ten-inches tall.”
Furlong said the scholarship has helped motivate past Fairfax High winners to believe in themselves and work hard through high school and college.
“One of our winners, Jennifer Lee, she was just such a great kid,” he said. “When she moved into the dorm ac UCSD [University of California, San Diego], she scotch taped the latter from O’Melveny saying congratulations to the mirror. She said she would look at it when she got out of bed and didn’t feel like going to class. I think when somebody believes in you and says, ‘we’re going to give you twenty-thousand dollars,’ when you’re fifteen years old, I think that changes your life.”
At the Christopher Scholarship luncheon in June, Schafieh was served steak by someone other than her mother for the first time in her life. She also got to meet past Christopher scholars. She now says she’s hoping to attend Princeton or Stanford.
“We met scholars who won the scholarship before,” she said. “Some of them went to Harvard and Stanford. They said if we needed help we could contact them, and they gave us their information.”
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