New Haven decorated two of its most promising students in a ceremony at City Hall on Monday. One aspires to be a brain surgeon, just like her award’s namesake. The other aspires to be “brilliant” and “mighty,” just like his dad.
The pair, Jacqueline West, 16, and Giovanni Preciado, 11, are the city’s first Carson Scholars. The program, founded by leading neurosurgeon Ben Carson ’73, has awarded over 2,800 scholarships in 16 states since 1994, recognizing high-achieving students who display a dedication to community service.
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West’s and Preciado’s $1,000 scholarships were sponsored by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, by Bruce Alexander, the vice president of that office, and his wife, Christine. The students also received a medal, trophy and certificate.
“It’s an opportunity to focus on academic excellence and feature individual kids with as much hoopla as possible,” Christine Alexander said of the prizes. “It features them the way society tends to feature athletes, and the whole concept of featuring academic achievement front and center is so important to the kids’ long-term success.”
The city has committed to continuing the program at the two recipients’ schools. Once a scholarship is introduced at a school, the award is given to a top student there every year. Students are eligible to win more than once.
Mayor John DeStefano congratulated the students on their achievements and praised the scholarship program for making a difference in their lives.
“It’s an awesome responsibility to be the first winner,” he told them. “It’s no small thing being the pacesetter for all to follow.”
Preciado, a sixth-grader at the Columbus Family Academy, was accompanied by his parents, who are from Mexico and for whom he translated the well wishes of their many congratulators. In his application essay, Preciado described his father as his role model.
“He’s strong, hardworking, loving and unselfish. He works so that his family could have a better life,” he wrote. “I feel very proud to have a father like him. These are some of the characteristics of my dad, the best role model anyone could ever have.”
Christine Alexander said she and the rest of the selection committee were moved by the simple eloquence of Preciado’s tribute.
“Don’t read it to your own father unless you can say the same thing,” she advised.
As an active member of a student service committee at his school, Preciado had the idea to start a buddy system for reading to kindergartners and helped run a canned food drive.
West, a junior at the Metropolitan Business Academy who tutors at local elementary and middle schools and volunteers at her church, said she was inspired by Carson’s success story when she heard him speak on a book tour.
“I like his humble beginnings,” she said. “He really strove to make something of himself.”
She hopes to follow his example by attending Yale College and then studying medicine. Her dream of becoming a doctor developed from her experiences with illness in her family.
West’s uncle suffered from amyloidosis, a terminal disease in which proteins accumulate abnormally in the organs, causing them to harden and fail. Her aunt had a brain aneurysm, but survived thanks to advanced biomedical engineering.
“She’s a living miracle,” West said of her aunt, adding that she hopes to learn how to perform such miracles herself.
West said her award will help convince other students in her school that “you can reach your goal of becoming whatever you want, just like Ben Carson.”
Before presenting West’s medal, Mayor John DeStefano asked about her plans for college. “I want to go to Yale,” she answered.
Bruce Alexander, sitting across the room, leapt to his feet and rushed over to hand her his business card, inviting her to meet him on campus to discuss her application.
West and Preciado will be invited to meet Carson at a banquet in Hartford this spring.