We congratulate the winners of our 2021 scholarship cycle and hope you will join us by reading their expanded stories below.
Lamiya Cotton: San Francisco, California USA
When Lamiya Cotton stood in front of her peers to share an original poem she wrote for her high school English class nearly four years ago, she took a different approach than most.
“She spoke a few words, and then stopped,” her former English teacher wrote in a letter of recommendation as part of Cotton’s scholarship application. “I’ll never forget her asking if she could sign along with saying her poem out loud, that signing would help her be less nervous.
“In that moment, Lamiya’s passion for creativity and self-expression was a beacon for every student in the room who had ever experienced disappointment or doubt. With her hands, Lamiya’s movements showed us how she could reach down and grab hold of what was true for her and what was true for everyone else in her world, our world.”
Just a few months earlier, the young student from California, USA would not have been as bold.
In her scholarship essay, Cotton wrote that she grew up hiding that both of her parents were deaf and that her family used American Sign Language to communicate.
“What was normal to me was strange to others and I didn’t want that to be a part of who I was,” Cotton wrote. “Talking about my parents was not something I was comfortable with because I felt that I couldn’t talk about my family without receiving some sort of associated hate and/or discrimination. Not knowing any better, I soon began to resent my parents’ inability to hear.”
That changed on the first day of her English class that year – her freshman year of high school. Each student was given one minute to talk about themselves. Cotton wrote in her essay that she was “ready to share with the world what makes me unique,” and spent the minute talking about her family’s background. Her peers responded with intrigue, and that interest helped Cotton develop her own pride in her culture.
“To know Lamiya is to see passion, depth and clarity,” her teacher wrote in the recommendation letter.
And her commitment to self-growth only expanded from there. Cotton excelled at her academics throughout high school, but she also took on several different interests: She was captain of the dance team. She interned for a program that focused on incorporating a mental health curriculum into schools. She participated in youth development work and an informational cultural exchange program that sought to strengthen the ties between San Francisco and its sister city in Japan.
Now, she’s in the first generation of her family to attend college. Cotton entered the University of San Francisco in September 2021 with plans to study communications. She hopes to draw on her background by focusing on underrepresented and marginalized communities to make “communicating more accessible, effective and easy.”
“I want to inspire other youth by letting them know that you can always reach your goals regardless of the challenges that you face, whether it’s race, gender, culture or something else,” she wrote in her essay. “Everyone deserves an equitable and equal chance, and I am here to show and prove to myself, friends, families and peers that regardless of inequalities you may feel ashamed of, it is the very thing that makes you unique.”
Rebecca Ejom: Tamale, Ghana
Rebecca Ejom grew up on the campus of the Savelugu School for the Deaf in northern Ghana.
When she graduates from veterinary school, that may be one of the places she returns to work: Ejom’s dream is to offer on-the-go services to farmers who don’t normally have access to veterinary services for their animals. That includes deaf farmers like her father who face communication barriers in getting access to an otherwise routine experience.
“I have observed first hand, constant frustrations that deaf people in our communities, including my father, go through on a daily basis trying to communicate with other members of society when getting through basic life activities like boarding a bus, buying food at a local restaurant, getting medical care, or engaging in economic activities to earn a living,” Ejom wrote in her scholarship essay. “It has always been my desire to see a more balanced and inclusive Ghanaian society for the deaf.”
As the first born in her family, Ejom said she took on a lot of responsibility to advocate for her father – especially in visits with extended family members who were hearing. It left her with a strong sense of compassion toward others and an inclination toward inclusion.
She found further community in working as an interpreter for projects with the Peace Corps in Ghana, by joining her church school choir, and by staying active, playing tennis and practicing yoga.
The Millie Brother scholarship will support Ejom at a time when her academics were severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In her scholarship application, she said her father has always “strived against all odds” to raise funds for the education of her and her sisters, but financial constraints are inevitable. When the pandemic hit – and most of her courses transferred online – Ejom said a lack of extra funds for reliable internet and a laptop made it difficult to complete her assignments, and her grades suffered because of it.
“When I gained admission into Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a Veterinary Doctor/Surgeon 3 years ago, it was all joy and celebrations for the whole family,” she wrote in her application.
“I believe strongly that the Millie Brother Scholarship will take this burden off my shoulders by enabling me to pay my tuition, allowing me to allocate more time to my studies, and reinforce the confidence I have always had in myself to pursue and achieve my dreams. The scholarship will also bring joy to my parents, especially my deaf father and deepen his resolve to push all my younger sisters all the way through tertiary education.”
Mantombi Ndlovu: Pretoria, South Africa
Mantombi Ndlovu’s fondest childhood memory comes from an after-church lunch gathering with other deaf families and their children.
“These were the times we will gather and share our culture and identity by demonstrating back and forth as we converse,” Ndlovu wrote in her scholarship essay.
That culture is something she is still trying to explore.
Raised by two deaf parents in Pretoria, South Africa, Ndlovu wrote in her essay that she spent her childhood “split between two cultures.” She nurtured a love and understanding of sign language young. But she also saw how her parents struggled to access education as the first deaf people in their families. Still, they made it through and found fulfilling lives she described in her essay.
And she wasn’t shy about sharing those experiences with others.
“Her love for sign language and telling us about her parents was an eye opener for me,” a former teacher wrote in a letter of recommendation. “It was really an honour to witness her hard work and commitment to equality and access for her parents.”
Ndlovu is in the first generation of her family to enter university, and said she is pursuing a combination of social work and sign language interpreting. But her real dream is to partner with other nonprofits to help improve the sense of choice and self-esteem for children of deaf adults in South Africa.
“This, in turn, can cultivate the feeling that life can be enjoyed rather than endured,” she wrote.
That journey is one she is still navigating herself.
“I come from a family that is cut from a different cloth, not the usual but rather unique,” she wrote at the start of her essay.
She closed it on a similar note: “I still battle to understand how we were treated differently by some community members. I still want to understand in depth my identity and cultural diversity.”
Saul Ordaz: Livermore, California USA
Saul Ordaz attributes his tenacity and commitment to education to his family.
His parents, born deaf and raised in Mexico, were seen as “inferior” to those around them, Ordaz wrote in his scholarship essay, and restricted from educational opportunities growing up. But that didn’t stop them. When they moved to the United States, his parents sought out resources for deaf people and took courses at a local community college.
His brothers have also found academics challenging: Two have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and one has autism. But they didn’t give up either, oftentimes turning to Ordaz for support to understand and complete school assignments.
He was tasked with a lot of responsibility himself as a young teen, including helping to interpret for his parents and others between English, Spanish and American Sign Language. But Ordaz said he takes these tasks as a privilege.
“Being part of my family opened up a multitude of ideas and experiences,” the California student wrote. “I believe that my parents have not only supported me in my endeavors, but have also nourished the development of my strong character. The deaf community is kind, patient and giving. They have taught me the importance of community service and selfishness. Having seen my family work hard to achieve success has given me a sense of hard work ethic and resilience that I apply in academics.”
It paid off.
Ordaz earned a place on the honor roll for his grades during his freshman year of high school – and maintained that position for all four years of his studies, even while taking advanced placement courses.
And his interests in his community are widespread: Ordaz competed in volleyball and cross-country; attended a leadership conference; volunteers with rescued birds and at church; and played clarinet in the concert band.
“I know that he will excel in whatever endeavor he attempts,” a former teacher wrote in a letter of recommendation. “If he does not succeed, he is tenacious enough to right the course and take on another task; I think his reaction to setbacks will serve him well in life.”
In fact, he’s using his background to motivate his future. Ordaz was in the first generation of his family to attend college when he entered the University of California, Santa Cruz in September 2021. He is studying psychology, inspired by the therapists who helped one of his brothers “overcome difficulties and lead a fulfilling life.”
“This inspired me, in fact lit a fire inside of me,” Ordaz wrote. “The courage that my parents have displayed as well as the risks they have partaken in to allow my family to thrive has given me the courage to follow my dreams and seek out a higher education, one that will help my family in the near future. Like the rest of my family, I refuse to let any circumstance hold me back from the greatness I can achieve.”
Chloe Rodriguez-McCallister: Corpus Christi, TX USA
By the time Chloe Rodriguez-McCallister completes her education, she hopes to be able to perform an important task: Advise clients about their prescribed medications as a pharmacist – for deaf and hearing patients alike.
Her goal is rooted in communication, something she found as lacking for her parents growing up.
In her scholarship essay, Rodriguez-McCallister described a scene where she had to interpret a conversation between her deaf parents and a social security caseworker at just 8 years old.
“There were many hard and difficult conversations that I had to translate to my parents for their benefit because others didn’t bother to provide them with a fair and equitable chance at communication,” she wrote.
As she got older and picked up an interest in medicine, Rodriguez-McCallister thought again about the obstacles her parents faced in healthcare facilities or with pharmacists that failed to provide proper communication. This was a gap she could help fill.
Rodriguez-McCallister, who lives in Texas, said growing up with deaf parents built a strong sense of independence and a skill for goal-setting reflected in her academics and extracurricular activities.
In high school she took advanced courses while maintaining high grades, and was involved in the student council, national honor society and Spanish national honor society. She also held a part-time job and engaged in multiple community service projects.
A former teacher described her as “inspiring in the classroom setting” and the embodiment of “leadership and perseverance” in a letter of recommendation.
She entered Texas A&M University in September 2021.
“None of this could have been accomplished without my parents being there for me when I needed them,” Rodriguez-McCallister wrote. “Even though I found a way to work on my studies despite my parents’ lack of academic assistance, something tells me I wouldn’t have succeeded much without their love and support.”
Oranit Steven: Kampala, Uganda
Oranit Steven takes his pride in deaf culture directly from his family. It wasn’t easy.
Steven said deafness in Uganda – especially in the period when he was growing up in Kampala – was seen as a curse. Having two deaf parents, and five deaf aunts and uncles, did not make his family’s experience easy.
But their involvement in working toward the betterment of life for deaf individuals in Uganda has inspired Steven to take up the same cause.
“My father was working with the Ugandan National Association of the Deaf and this exposed me to the deaf world, giving me an opportunity to realize and appreciate the potential of deaf people contrary to stereotypes within the mainstream community,” Steven wrote in his scholarship essay.
When Steven saw his father and his father’s siblings championing deaf education and activism, including for themselves, it inspired him to do the same. He started volunteering as a sign language interpreter for deaf students at various colleges and advocating for their rights to social services.
And it shaped how he viewed his own education as well. Steven was forced to drop out of university after his first year, after his family could no longer support the cost of his education among those of his cousins.
“My ambition to complete the university program is still valid,” he wrote in his essay.
Receiving the Millie Brother scholarship will assist Steven to return to university, where he plans to study information technology with the hopes of exploring technology innovations that can bridge a communication gap between the deaf and hearing cultures in which he lives each day.
Steven also hopes to set up an association for children of deaf adults in Uganda to continue to combat stereotypes and prejudices of deaf people there.
“Looking at the potentials and achievements of my parents really shaped me and I strongly believe that deafness is not an inability,” he wrote. “They all, against all odds, went to school and are championing the rights of the deaf. This is also inspiring me to do what it takes to complete my graduate education.”