Islaea Anderson, a senior at Johnson High School in St. Paul, posed with her green envelope after she was surprised with a Wallin scholarship. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Islaea Anderson sat before the cameras in the Johnson Aerospace and Engineering High School auditorium and offered a poised smile. She had come to participate in what she’d been told was a St. Paul Public Schools video highlighting the spirit of the senior class.

Most of the seats in the white cinderblock auditorium were empty. But in one corner stood Jean Carlos Diaz, the video interviewer; two video cameras and their operators; two large production lights; and a handful of teachers and school staff. 

Diaz stood under the lights and behind the cameras. “What are you most proud of achieving here at Johnson?” he asked.

Islaea, sitting on a stool by the blue auditorium seats, listed her leadership roles as captain of the cheer team and president of the senior student council. She explained that she hoped to go to an HBCU—a historically Black college or university—though on that mid-April day, she had not yet made her college decision.

“I’m most proud of everything I have done because I know I’ve put my all into it,” she said. “I worked hard for it. And I let nothing stop me.” 

Diaz praised her answers. He checked one video camera, then the other, and hesitated.

“I have good news and bad news,” he said. “The bad news is, that wasn’t rolling at all.”

“The good news is, I can do it over,” Islaea offered.

“I have better good news,” Diaz replied. “We’re actually here to give you this.” 

He handed her a green envelope. Islaea’s face creased in confusion as she opened the card.

“You’re a Wallin scholar,” Diaz announced. 

Islaea’s eyes grew wide. Her mouth fell open. She had just won a $16,000 scholarship for college. She looked up from her card, smiled into the camera, and let out a shriek. “Thank you!” she managed through her grin.

Islaea hugged school staff who came to watch her video surprise. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Her counselors, waiting in the auditorium, came over to give her hugs. “You are so deserving,” one told her.

“You tricked me!” Islaea said, wiping at her eyes. “You guys are messing up my mascara!”

Diaz, who is the senior marketing manager for Wallin Education Partners (and a 2012 Wallin winner himself), asked Islaea how she felt.

Islaea regained her poise. “It feels like I have accomplished another goal,” she said, sounding practiced despite the surprise. “It feels like — augghhhh!” 

She broke her composure, letting out a burst of emotion with a grin. “I feel like my work is finally starting to pay off. And I’m so happy,” she added with a giggle.

Islaea is one of 361 recipients of the Wallin scholarship this year. Students from 68 partner high schools around Minnesota apply for the award; they must demonstrate financial need to be eligible. Ten Johnson students received the scholarship this year; nine accepted it, while the tenth received a different scholarship that will cover her college costs. 

Last year, Wallin Education Partners—the nonprofit providing the scholarships—filmed a video showing the moment students realized they had won the scholarship. This year, St. Paul Public Schools invited me to watch the scholarship surprises at Johnson High School. The organization also surprised students at Blaine High School, Owatonna High School, and Richfield High School. 

The video scholarship reveal is both a stunt tailor-made for social media—and, as I observed, a moment of genuine joy and emotion for the students who, in an instant, see their path to college get easier.

This year, 88 percent of recipients are students of color, and 74 percent are first-generation college students, according to Wallin Education Partners. The St. Paul–based nonprofit—founded in 1992 by a former Medtronic CEO with a passion for reducing barriers to higher education—said this year’s class will be the largest in its 31-year history.

“Each student motivates and inspires us. Our scholars are creating a more equitable Minnesota, one that we desire and that they deserve,” said Susan Basil King, the president and CEO of Wallin Education Partners, in a statement.

In addition to the financial award—students receive up to $16,000, or $4,000 a year, throughout four years of college—the Wallin scholarship provides students with an advisor throughout their college experience. That aspect of the scholarship is a highlight for Johnson student Rose Yang, who plans to pursue dentistry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She’s excited about attending a diverse school, but worried that she might not get much support at a large university. 

“That’s why I’m glad I got the Wallin,” she said. “I’ve got some support from somewhere.”

Rose Yang laughed with joy when she opened her green envelope and learned she was a Wallin scholar. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The class of 2023 looks back at the pandemic

For many of the recipients opening green envelopes that day at Johnson High School, the scholarships represented more than financial aid and advising. The scholarships allowed students to have more choice and less stress about college. And for many students, it provided them a boost of something less tangible: self-confidence.

This year’s senior class started high school in the fall of 2019. But they finished freshman year in their kitchens and living rooms, after COVID closures sent them home into distance learning. They did not return to their school classrooms until the spring of 2021; some stayed online until that fall.

Islaea started losing interest in her classes as distance learning dragged on.

“My motivation was low,” she said. “I didn’t have time for schoolwork. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to be on the phone or watch TV. I lost myself as well.”

A call from her older brother, who attends Bryant & Stratton College, in Milwaukee, helped her get back on track. He told her not to let her grade-point average drop below 3.0. At the time, it was 2.9, she said.

“Once he told me that, something just activated and I got back on it,” she said. She studied to improve her grades and dove into leadership activities. In mid-April, when she received news of her scholarship, she was still deciding between colleges. She had received generous financial aid offers from two colleges nearby, but she was hoping to be able to attend an HBCU—if she could figure out how to afford it.

The money would be a “lifesaver,” Islaea added. She and her brother are the first in their family to go to college.

“It means that I broke generational curses,” she said. “And I am going to reach for the stars.”

YouTube video
Islaea called her mom on camera to tell her the good news.

‘They persevered’

Two down, eight to go. With Islaea and Rose awarded their prizes, the Wallin team waited for the rest of the Johnson High winners to take their turns in front of the cameras. 

More than 90 percent of students at Johnson High School, on St. Paul’s East Side, are people of color: 54 percent are Asian and 21 percent are Black, according to state data. The school mascot is the Governor, a nod to the many notable political figures who have graduated from the school, including former Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson and former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. Now, about a third of students participate in a “Govie leadership” program to help mentor younger students, lead advisory classes, and build the school community.

A few Wallin scholarship recipients said they had figured out the real purpose for the video in advance. But most were surprised and excited. Some said they felt disappointed when Diaz claimed one camera had not been rolling. (That was a “ruse and a lie”—another part of the surprise, Diaz explained. All the cameras had been on the whole time. “I am doing my job correctly,” clarified Cindy Xiong, the intern and 2019 Wallin scholar operating the allegedly balky camera.)

Jean Carlos Diaz pretends to check the camera for intern Miguel Marin. Diaz, Marin, and intern Cindy Xiong are all alumni of the Wallin scholarship program. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The scholarships were supposed to remain secret, even at school, until later in the day. Some students still awaited their own surprise announcement. Others applicants had not yet been notified that they would not receive the scholarship.

But teachers and counselors, including Johnson’s principal, Jamil Payton, could not resist congratulating the scholarship recipients as they left the auditorium and walked down the hallway.

For Payton, the scholarships marked a welcome recognition of students’ hard work and ability to overcome obstacles. 

“It’s a really great feeling to see my students be commended and recognized for things they’ve done inside the classroom and outside,” he said during an interview in his office. “Let’s keep it honest: It’s a big deal. As a parent myself, college is expensive.”

Payton was previously principal of Hmong International Academy in Minneapolis. He reflected on how these students, many of whom were Hmong or Black, had overcome generational obstacles. “They are the dreams of their ancestors,” he said.

Payton started at Johnson last year, when these students were juniors. One of the first students he got to know was Islaea, he recalled.

“I think her future’s bright,” he said. “She’s someone who her peers look up to and respect, also teachers and staff.”

The kids were glad to be back in school after distance learning, he recalled, but many struggled to get used to daily routines and cope with anxiety.

“I’ve watched these kids come back to Johnson last year as juniors out of distance learning, readjust and reacquaint to what school looks like,” he said. “They persevered. That’s what it’s about: the perseverance.”

‘I’ve been through a lot’

Many of the Wallin scholarship recipients overcame much more than the pandemic.

“I want you to guess why we’re making this video,” Diaz prompted Damian Xiong, who was taking his turn under the lights.

“I’ve been through a lot, I think?” Damian guessed.

“We are here because you are a Wallin scholar,” Diaz told him. “You’re getting $16,000 to go to school. What does that mean for you?”

“It means a lot,” Damian said. “It means…” He paused, and brought his hand to his eyes.

“That’s okay,” Diaz said. “Breathe. Take that emotion.”

Damian entered foster care during his junior year, he said later. His family situation changed quickly: His father had passed away, and “my mother couldn’t handle it.”

“It was difficult going through that and participating in high school,” he said. But things have gotten better, he added. “And with this news, receiving the Wallin scholarship, I think that’s going to help me a lot.”

Damian entered foster care during his junior year, he said. His family situation changed quickly: His father had passed away, and “my mother couldn’t handle it.” He added, “It was difficult going through that and participating in high school.”

Damian plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This year, he’s been taking classes at St. Paul College through Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, a program that allows high school students to earn college credits.

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve the things that are given to me,” Damian said. “Now…it feels different. I’m excited and happy for myself. And that’s kind of a new feeling for me: being proud of myself. I’m just excited for the future.”

After receiving the Wallin scholarship, Damian Xiong reflected on the struggles he’d experienced. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Sharing the good news with a social worker

Troy Cleaton arrived a little late, wearing pink from the durag on his head to the flowers on his shoes. At 18, he lives on his own; he had to wait for an Uber to get to school that day. He took his spot before the cameras.

Diaz asked him to look into the camera. “What are you most proud of achieving in the last four years?” he asked.

“I am most proud of achieving independence,” Troy said.

Again, Diaz checked the cameras and announced the “bad news” that one had not been running. “The good news is that we’re here to give you this,” he said.

Hesitantly, Troy took the green envelope Diaz handed him. As Diaz explained that he had won the scholarship, a smile spread over Troy’s face.

“Who are the first people you’re going to tell?” Diaz asked.

“My case manager,” Troy said. “And I’m going to tell my social worker, too.”

Troy Cleaton receives a hug from counselor Samina Ali after learning that he was a Wallin scholar. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Like Islaea, Troy hoped to attend an HBCU, but had not yet decided which one. He reflected on what the scholarship meant for him, as the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college.

“There was a lot of days when I wanted to give up,” he said. “My only motivation was people here.”

After the video surprise, Troy explained that he had moved out of his mom’s house at 17. But he started taking care of himself at 13 or 14.

“I’ve kind of had to be an adult and a student throughout my whole time in high school,” he said.

Another challenge he overcame: insecurity. Early in high school, he used to cover his face because he did not like his appearance, he said.

Having time away from school during distance learning helped him recalibrate.

“I got the chance to really sit down and figure out my worth, and I came back more confident than ever,” he said.

That year, Troy said, he’d received acceptance letters from 11 different HBCUs. Like Islaea, he was still deciding which one to attend when he received his Wallin scholarship. He hopes to study entrepreneurship and keep pursuing his other passions. He’s also a dancer—somewhere between hip hop and R&B, he said—and enjoys cooking and styling hair.

“I kind of suck at showing emotions right away,” he said. “But I honestly feel great. I’ve kind of been striving this year. And I’ve kept my hopes pretty high.”

Another reveal: committing to a college

A month later, in early May, as the new Wallin scholars were preparing to graduate high school, I checked back with them to see how they were doing—and to hear about their final college choices.  

Troy decided on Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans, which offered him a generous financial aid package. The Wallin scholarship will help cover most of the remaining balance. He recently received his dorm assignment and has been getting to know some of his classmates through an Instagram group chat.

“Honestly, I’m very excited,” he said. “I just feel like it’s going to be a good experience for me.”

Islaea committed to Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It’s smaller and I’m able to get more attention within my classes,” she said. ”That’s something I was looking for.” She had received two full-tuition scholarships at schools closer to home, she said. But she wanted to go to an HBCU. The Wallin scholarship allowed her to really explore those other options.

“That was just very important to me: to be around a lot of people who look like me and who are doing good just like me,” she said.

Islaea hopes to study criminal justice and become a lawyer. She hasn’t visited her college campus yet. But a friend who is a current student gave her an online tour. She’ll see it for the first time when she leaves for school in August.

“I’m feeling very excited,” Islaea said. “I am ready to see what life has in store for me.”

Islaea hasn’t yet shared her college choice with most of her family. She said she plans to surprise them with the news soon, at a “school reveal” party. No announcement yet on whether she’ll make a video.

Clarification: this story has been updated to clarify Wallin Education Partners’ nonprofit status and scholarship awards. 

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...