When Colchester High School senior Tullia Mamenga and her mother first moved to America from Gabon, fleeing conflicts in surrounding countries, it was a fresh start and an opportunity for a better life. Tullia was just seven years old. Along with that fresh start came uncertainty and hardships. “My mom had to first start off in housekeeping and work her way up to the job she’s in now,” explained Tullia. Money has always been tight, which presents many obstacles for the mother-daughter duo. Seeing her mother persevere while continuing to educate herself is motivating to Tullia.
After their midyear arrival in the States, Tullia repeated 2nd-grade at Union Memorial School. The extra time is often imperative to new Americans to help them acclimate to school culture and to learn English. “I think a pivotal time for me was in middle school. My algebra teacher, Mr. Simmons, was probably the first teacher that made me feel like I could be a good student,” she says with a smile. “He was like, ‘You got this, you can do this, you just need to practice, you’re good.’ That reassurance that I could do it was validation that I wasn’t stupid.”
The insecurity that Tullia describes is common among English learners. “Going through the pressures of having to talk to others and being in school and really just working to be a better person than your parents were,” she explains, “there was always that pressure. My mom came here because she wanted a better education for me and needing to living up to that expectation was important.”
Fast forward to her senior year, her class schedule is full of advanced placement courses, she is the reigning Vermont State Debate Champion, she competes on the school’s track and field team, she was chosen to attend the prestigious HOBY Youth Leadership conference, and she continues to be involved in her church, particularly with the youth group.
Tullia aspires to become a doctor but the thought of college expenses overwhelmed her and her mother. “I’m not only looking at college but I’m also looking at med school which is a whole other entity that’s going to cost a lot more money.” Exceptional student or not, finances continued to be a stressor as the pair started looking at colleges last year. Accruing substantial debt to send Tullia to college would put them back in the type of living situation they had worked so hard to overcome.
“Seeing that whole process [of what her mom went through] was very inspirational to me but it also taught me that debt and bills can really impact your living circumstances and the opportunities that you have access to. That’s what stressed me out about college. I didn’t want my mom or I to go through that whole phase again of being uncertain about what we could afford. That was a very stressful situation.”
At the encouragement of her guidance counselor, Tullia applied for a QuestBridge College Match Scholarship. The organization connects the nation’s most exceptional, low-income youth with leading institutions of higher education. Recipients of the College Match Scholarship are granted admission to one of QuestBridge’s college partners with a full, four-year scholarship. It covers every cent attributed to attending college including tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, and travel expenses. Out of 14,926 applicants, only 1,127 students were selected as Match Scholarship Recipients. Tullia was one of them; she was matched with Colby College. “We were both crying when we found out. I’m really grateful and thankful. It’s still so surreal, I can’t believe it.” Tullia shares.
Tullia is the first Colchester High School student to receive a College Match Scholarship. Principal Heather Baron is thrilled for her. “Tullia is an incredible young woman with a bright future. This scholarship is a recognition of her hard work and promise as a young adult. In addition to being an amazing opportunity for Tullia, Colby will be lucky to count her as one of their own,” says Principal Baron.
When asked, Tullia is assured in her advice to rising students at Colchester High School. “Building strong bonds with your teachers and your guidance counselors is really what’s going to help you out. Not only in getting work done but also getting different opportunities. If I didn’t know Ms. Pastore or Mr. Hall, I probably wouldn’t have known about QuestBridge and I wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship.”
Now that the news is setting in, she can take a deep breath for the first time since she started thinking about college. “It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. It opens up a lot more doors for me, in the sense of achieving more than I probably would have if I hadn’t received the scholarship. I’m really excited for the future.”