At my high school’s honors night in May, I was introduced as one of the 253 Coca-Cola Scholars in the class of 2011 (out of 71,000 applicants!). As I looked around the room, I could tell how proud everyone was of me. Most importantly, my mom was proud of me.
After my mother found out I was a semi-finalist for the scholarship, she kept asking me every day, “Una wina?” or “did you win?” in my native dialect, Nyanja. Now that I had “won,” she could not wait to hear what I was going to say on honors night.
She knew that I, as the most outspoken person in my class, had the tendency to touch insidious subjects no matter what the occasion. But this night was all about the people who had gotten me this far and helped me become part of an amazing network of more than 4,000 driven men and women who use their talents to make the future bright for many.
As I gave my speech, I became emotional. I could not believe how far I had come in just the four and a half years since I first arrived in the United States.
Coming to the United States from Zambia provided enormous windows of opportunity for my family, but it also came with numerous challenges. Right after my freshman year of high school, we lost our home. I learned very quickly how to become the man of the house after that, as I started to work 40 hours a week at a local McDonald’s so that we could get our own apartment.
It had never occurred to me that my family had actually been homeless until I started interning with United Way of Metro Atlanta this past summer. The organization focuses on dealing with health, income, education, and homelessness in metro Atlanta. Through my work with United Way, I learned that homelessness means you don’t have a place you call your own home. My mother, sister, and I were living with a friend, but that wasn’t our home. We were homeless.
Such experiences, including growing up in one of the poorest countries on the planet, have inspired me to set my priorities straight. One of my favorite quotes says, “One does not begin to live until he or she can help someone who will never pay back.” Therefore, I have always found a way to help others, even if my family isn’t wealthy.
My initiative in high school to collect clothes for the disadvantaged and donate them to children’s and women’s shelters was largely influenced by my family’s experience when we were homeless. I later joined a friend in forming the Dream Scholarship. We gave out two $500 scholarships to graduating seniors in my class. I look forward to continuing these initiatives in college and beyond.
I will be attending Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Although not widely known, it was ranked the best college in America by Forbes Magazine. I want to become a professional soccer player while studying Political Science and Spanish.
I was chosen as a Coca-Cola scholar because I expressed my story and how it has led me to act to better my community. A lot of people tell me, “You are African, therefore it is easy for you win scholarships.” But I disagree with that. Every person’s story is unique and worth being expressed. And it is how we express our stories that sets all of us apart.
Mpaza Kapenbwa is a 2011 Scholar from Atlanta, GA who is attending Williams College this fall.