"I am so very grateful for this. But I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most," the 17-year-old said on stage as she returned the award.
A Massachusetts high school student left fellow students and the Fitchburg High School faculty momentarily stunned during her graduation ceremony last week when she turned down a $40,000 scholarship. Verda Tetteh, a 17-year-old bound for Harvard University, implored the high school to instead give the money to a struggling student or students who need help paying for community college. "I am so very grateful for this. But I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most," the teen said onstage.
"I've never seen anything like that," principal Jeremy Roche told The Washington Post. Tetteh's surprise move was a counterpoint to the "bad rap" given to young people sometimes and a testament to the kind of students at Fitchburg High and schools around the country, he proudly added. "She represented the class and the school amazingly well, and I would even dare say her generation," Roche said. "When she started speaking on the microphone, I was overwhelmed. I think a lot of people in the stadium were, honestly," he told CNN. "I was so moved by her generosity."
The school has been awarding its General Excellence Award to a graduating boy and girl since 1914. The award was augmented in 2004 with a substantial financial scholarship of $10,000 annually—for up to four years of education—from a foundation established by the family of an alumnus. Since it is not restricted to tuition, Roche revealed, Tetteh could have used the funds however she wanted. However, Tetteh, who told the Boston Globe that she has already received significant scholarships and financial aid to help pay for college, wanted to use the money to help other students continue their education without worrying about financial constraints.
The teen revealed that although she had applied for the award, "for some reason, I thought it would automatically go to someone who needed it more, so I had ruled myself out." When she was announced as the recipient of the General Excellence Award during the graduation ceremony, she said, she was initially happy. Tetteh beamed as she posed for a quick picture in her maroon cap and gown and headed back to her seat while the ceremony continued. "Then I sat down, and it hit me. This is $40,000. That's a lot of money. Obviously, I could use that," she said. "But there's definitely someone sitting in this crowd who needs it more."
As she sat contemplating the opportunity before her, Tetteh heard the assistant principal urge the graduates to be "bold and selfless." The address made her think about her mom, who had immigrated from Ghana and often works 80-hour weeks to provide for her family. Moments later, she returned to the podium to turn down the award. "Knowing my mom went to community college, and how much that was helpful, I would be so very grateful if [the] administration would consider giving the... scholarship to someone who is going to community college," she said onstage.
"No one had the chance to say 'Don't give away $40,000," Tetteh chuckled, recounting the jaw-dropping moment to CBS. "Yes, I would do it again. I'm excited to see who it helps and how that changes their life, so I am so happy that God gave me the strength to do that." Rosemary Annan, Tetteh's mother, said that although she was "in shock" when her daughter took the stage again, she felt proud when the teen explained her hopes for the scholarship money. "I just knew she's ready for me to let her be on her own," Annan said. "I'm not afraid, and I'm not sad about it that someone's going to get some good help. If I had gotten that help, I would have been thrilled."
Verda Tetteh is sweet, kind, a hard worker, and giving. Her classmates loved her, and she has returned the love in this act. Her parents must be so proud! 💜— WriterIowa 🇺🇲 (@writeriowa) June 8, 2021
Harvard-Bound Senior Asks That $40K College Scholarship Be Given to Others https://t.co/58yOXEBLlC
"We're blessed to be a blessing," said Tetteh, who plans to study biochemistry with a pre-med track at Harvard College in the fall. "I thought that I was in the position where God has blessed me so much, and I thought it was the right thing to do to bless somebody else." She plans to meet with principal Roche soon to discuss re-awarding the scholarship and possibly splitting it among multiple students.