• Four PPS students who overcame hardships earn ‘Beat the Odds’ scholarships

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     Collage of Beat the Odds winners

    The 2019-20 Renaissance School from PPS are (clockwise from top left) Mekdes Hilete from Jefferson High School, Roberto Charboneau from Roosevelt, Tessa Robinson from Cleveland and Salsabel Al Masri from Madison. (Photos courtesy Stand for Children Oregon)

    Four high school students from Portland Public Schools who have excelled academically despite hardships have been named Renaissance Scholars and recipients of $16,000 “Beat the Odds” college scholarships.

    The awards, which started in 2007, are administered by Stand for Children Oregon in partnership with the Renaissance Foundation. The 2019-20 class has 18 winners from around the state who overcame such hardships as poverty, disability, homelessness and personal tragedy.

    The four PPS awardees agreed to share their stories through biographies provided by Stand for Children Oregon:

    Mekdes Hilete, Jefferson High School
    At 4 years old, Mekdes stood with her father in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and said goodbye as her mother boarded a plane to America. That was the moment that Mekdes became known as “the girl without a mother.” When she wasn’t being bullied, she was pitied.

    But education helped Mekdes change that narrative. By excelling in school, she distinguished herself as an intelligent girl with a promising future. But when Mekdes joined her mother in America at the age of 14, her confidence wavered again. She felt dumb and isolated, but that only made her more determined. She worked hard to perfect her spoken English and by the end of her freshman year, she was carrying a 4.0 GPA.

    Today, Mekdes volunteers in and outside of school. She is a member of a leadership cohort that represents second language learners in the Portland Public Schools system, and has 45 college credits. After college, she plans to go to medical school.

    Roberto Charboneau, Roosevelt High School
    A Lakota-Sioux and Anishinaabe Native American, Roberto’s culture grounds him and gives him strength to confront the scars of his past. He was raised by his mother, a strong woman who was plunged into depression following the death of her youngest son. Until middle school, Roberto was enrolled in a different school every year.

    The rootlessness and instability impacted his mental health and pushed him to a breaking point. But his tenuous family circumstances led Roberto to develop a signature trait: adaptability. Roberto sees education as his path toward the future. His teachers describe him as a quiet yet powerful leader. When a group project needs direction, Roberto is the compass. If a fellow student is struggling personally, Roberto steps in to console.

    It’s no surprise that his dream is to become an Emergency Nurse Practitioner – one of the most compassionate professions.

    Salsabel Al Masri, Madison High School
    Salsabel Al Masri was born in Daraa, Syria and fled to Jordan because of war when she was 9 years old. She lost everything – her happy life, her lovely house, her school, her friends, and her smile. But she never lost her dream of becoming a doctor.

    After moving to the United States in 2016, Salsabel kept that dream in her heart. After just three months, Salsabel could understand English well, but she was often afraid to speak. She pushed herself to overcome those fears so she could help her family adjust to life in their new home. Salsabel read the mail, helped her brothers with their homework, and helped her parents pay bills and look for work. She soon became an A student, challenging herself with classes that would prepare her for life beyond high school.

    Salsabel is an active volunteer at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and a member of the International Youth Leadership Conference. Surrender is not in her character. Her dream of being a doctor is closer than ever.

    Tessa Robinson, Cleveland High School
    Tessa comes from a loving, close-knit family. Her mother works hard to support Tessa and her two sisters, but money has always been tight and the family has faced homelessness several times.

    When Tessa was a freshman, she lived with her mother and sisters in a small red truck. The cramped conditions took a toll on Tessa’s physical and mental health, and her grades suffered. But despite those challenges, Tessa took away some important lessons. Being unhoused taught her how strong she can be in the face of adversity and stoked her compassion and empathy for others.

    Tessa is committed to her education and, after credit recovery, she has a 3.59 GPA. She is gifted in mathematics and challenges herself with advanced courses. In addition, she is a talented track and field athlete, an active member of the Black Student Union and the Cleveland Alliance for Racial Equity. She works after school to help support her family.