116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
At 17, Aliya Keaton of Mount Vernon has been leaping over all the hurdles in her path, climbing higher with each one - all the way up to a $25,000 Horatio Alger National Scholarship.
She is one of 106 students across the country - including Rebekah Craighton of Hampton - to win this award, which will provide $5,000 per year for five years. Students who finish college in four years will receive $10,000 for their final year.
According to the Horatio Alger Association, the scholarships 'recognize outstanding students, who, in the face of great personal adversity, remain committed to obtaining a college degree.” Financial need, academic achievement and the desire to give back to their communities also factor into the awards.
Keaton draws inspiration from her mother, Jennifer Keaton, who is deaf and is gradually losing her eyesight to Usher syndrome, a degenerative condition. She has enough vision to still communicate through American Sign Language.
When she worked for Hands Up Communications in Cedar Rapids, Aliya volunteered with the city's deaf and blind community. Before COVID-19, Aliya also volunteered with her school district's kindergarten classes, assisting the teachers, taking kids to recess or helping students who needed some extra attention.
An only child, Keaton's parents divorced when she was 6, so she has been raised by a single mom most of her life. Her father, Ronnie Keaton, moved to Alabama, and while they still communicate, the miles have put distance between them.
'My mom, with all the challenges she faces, it's definitely given me the mindset that when there's a challenge, you just face it head-on,” Keaton said. 'You do what you've got to do, and you can do anything that you set your mind to.”
Keaton has set her mind toward high achievement, maintaining a 3.9 grade-point average at Mount Vernon High School and working three jobs during the pandemic to put the former track team member on track to becoming a first-generation college student. She has been working in the school's day care, serving as a nanny for a local family, and picking up shifts before school and on weekends at Cabin Coffee Co. in Lisbon.
She'll need to pay her way through college, and the Horatio Alger scholarship, along with other financial aid, will help her attend her top choice, Creighton University in Omaha. She plans to major in social work, then earn a master's degree toward realizing her dream job as an elementary school social worker.
'Creighton's been a goal of mine for a long time,” she said, 'but it's a private university, so it's really expensive. They have such good academics, and I just like that it's in a big city. I like the size of it, and being a Jesuit college, they have a really good social work program. Their whole culture on campus is focused around helping people and being a good person who contributes to the community.”
Social work is a natural outgrowth for the compassion she has developed through her life experiences.
'I definitely have the mindset that you never really know what's going on with someone in their home life, or things you don't see,” she said. 'It's definitely made me more empathetic and understanding, and I just try to be kind to everyone, because you never really know what they're facing.”
Other life lessons will come into play as she strives to give back into whatever community her career takes her.
'With majoring in social work, I really have this goal of maybe working with underprivileged youngsters,” she said. 'The biggest thing that I've learned from my circumstances is resilience. If you're resilient you can get through anything. I'm really looking forward to working with kids. For one, I understand where they're coming from, and I have a lot of empathy for that, to the point that I would love to be able to instill some resilience to improve their lives than their circumstances would ordinarily allow them.”
For now, she's looking forward to some of the 'fun parts” of the high school experience that previously were put on hold because of the pandemic. Not having a homecoming dance in the fall was one of the 'most disappointing” losses, but her classes are back in person, so she's hoping they'll still have a prom. So far, an in-person graduation ceremony is in the works, and after doing volleyball and track in the past, she's looking forward to tennis this summer. She also has participated in speech, choir, National Honor Society and the peer leadership group known as Thundering Herd.
The Horatio Alger scholarship also will provide her with a trip to Washington, D.C., when it's safe to travel and gather with other award recipients. In addition, the association will offer the students counseling and referral services, career exploration opportunities and alumni connections - all of which will help Keaton as she embarks on the next chapter of her life.
'As a first-generation college student, going to college in general is monumental, because my parents never went through that,” she said. 'I'm responsible for paying for it, so being able to go wherever I choose is a really big door that's been opened for me that wouldn't have been otherwise. Being able to go to a good university means I'll be able to get a better job or have more connections, so it's good for everything in the future.”
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