Motivated Nigeria native turns down full-ride award for a chance at the Ivy League
For 15-year-old Hawthorne resident Thelma Godslaw, fear of failure was instilled at an early age, when teachers in her native Nigeria rewarded wrong answers with whacks from a cane.
But the bigger motivator for her was the elementary school’s hard-hearted ranking system. Instead of grades, every child was publicly assigned a number, from one to 35, based on his or her standing in the class.
“I was always second best, or third,” she said. “I always wanted to be No. 1.”
Now, at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, she is.
Though just 15, Thelma is already a senior. She’s enrolled in six Advanced Placement courses. Her end-of-the-semester report card has never been blemished with a B. She’s the only student in the school to have earned a perfect score on the AP calculus test, and by night takes an advanced calculus class at El Camino College.
In October, Thelma was offered a full-ride scholarship to attend the prestigious Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, an award worth $120,000. She turned it down. Why? She has her sights on the Ivy League and is days away from learning whether she’ll get there.
Thelma’s academic success illustrates the inner drive that propels many immigrants out of their social strata, which in her case is a step above poverty. But it also demonstrates how, for high-achieving low-income students, playing the scholarship game can be a high-stakes gamble.
Thelma lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and three siblings, one older and two younger. Though a bit cramped, their living conditions are an upgrade from the one-bedroom unit in which they’d stayed for a couple of years after their 2004 arrival.
Thelma’s decision to say “no thanks” to the Bucknell offer wasn’t easy.
“It’s like turning down a million dollars,” she acknowledged.
On the other hand, saying yes to the award – officially known as the Posse Scholarship – would have meant forfeiting her dream of attending an Ivy League school, namely Yale. That’s because she was given just three days to make a decision that was binding. She decided to hold out.
Now, the rest of November promises to be a nail-biter. Dec. 1 is the day she’ll learn whether she’ll be the recipient of the prestigious Questbridge National College Match Scholarship, which would cover 100 percent of tuition and housing to attend one of several participating universities. These include MIT, Stanford, Princeton and her dream school, Yale.
Thelma didn’t gamble without cause. In October, about a month after she applied for the Questbridge award, word came back that she was a finalist. Winning would be no small feat: Last year, just 310 students across the nation received the honor.
Petite and soft-spoken, Thelma plans to major in biochemistry, with an eye toward becoming a general surgeon. To attain this goal, she spends five hours a night studying at a TV tray in a living room recliner.
“She studies until 2 in the morning,” marveled her mother, Jully Godslaw (pronounced Julie), who speaks in a thick Nigerian accent. “She’s too much.” That, she explained, is Nigerian slang for “she’s excellent.”
Migrating for the children
The family journeyed to the United States in 2004 for the express purpose of providing educational opportunities for the children, Jully said. This required giving up their five-bedroom house and everything else they had in Lagos, Nigeria. Jully sacrificed her college degree in business administration from the University of Lagos; it became void the moment she set foot in the United States.
Upon her arrival, Jully went from working as a public relations officer at an oil company in Nigeria to working as a security guard at an elementary school in Compton.
Now, Jully attends Los Angeles Southwest College, where she studies nursing. She also works full-time as a licensed vocational nurse in the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
Their hardships aren’t confined to the financial. The parents have divorced.
For Thelma, the antidote to life’s trials seems to be to study, study, study.
Her academic counselor at Leuzinger, Judy Grood, said she’s never seen a student so driven in her 20 years on the job.
“She will not leave her class, short of being dragged out,” she said with a laugh. “She feels every minute in class is important, for fear that she would miss a gem or a drop of knowledge.”
Despite her low-income status, Thelma can compete with students of privilege. She scored a 1950 on her SAT, putting her in the 90th percentile nationwide. The average score in California and nationwide is just above 1500.
Helping Leuzinger turn around
Thelma’s academic success also is a boon to her school. Leuzinger High has long battled a sullied reputation, sown from decades of dismal academic performance. But the school, which serves a low-income population, appears to be in the midst of a turnaround, with test scores on a steep upward trajectory.
“I think that she represents what we are trying to accomplish at Leuzinger High School,” said Principal Ryan Smith, who informed the Daily Breeze of Thelma’s prowess. “She is a role model for all of our students, in particular those who are African-American.”
Indeed, Thelma is among 3,100 students across the nation – out of 160,000 applicants – to be named an Outstanding Participant in the National Achievement Scholarship Program, which recognizes outstanding achievement among African-American students.
Jully said other parents initially urged her to send her children to another school. But Leuzinger was within walking distance of their apartment. Besides, she had faith in the school.
“My belief is this: Any child that is smart is smart – it doesn’t matter the school,” Jully said, noting that her son Peter also is thriving there.
Thelma, meanwhile, praised her teachers.
“They take the extra time to help us out after school and during lunch,” she said. “They are always pushing us to do better.”
And all without the use of canes.