April 2019 (5 years ago)

The Horatio Alger Scholarship

7 min read (1388 words)
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I’m not saying going to Washington D.C. for five days, meeting some former CEOs and famous people, and having a few fancy dinners suddenly changed me into a better person or elevated me to a certain level; in retrospect, I actually didn’t make the most of that experience because I didn’t have the social conditioning to navigate an environment like that.10

overall view of the conference hall
One evening's programming for members (scholars seated on mezzanine).

But it was an important part in tying together disparate strands in society together from experiences in the past two years of adult life I’ve lived, one that brings flashbacks to this day as I drive down streets in Atlanta and see an avenue named after Gladys Knight, who performed for us that night in DC. I think about how Barbara Barrett recently became Secretary of the Air Force, and all I was told was “hey, the former ambassador to Finland is here, you should go talk to her!” I see KIND bars in stores and I think of Daniel Lubetzky, who had started his ventures by trying to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Gladys Knight at conference hall
Gladys Knight at conference hall

What I mean by all of the above is: things are started by people. And the people behind these endeavors and projects can be surprisingly normal and humble. Meeting well known people, honestly, is a bit of a shock: their reputation and impact seems incomparable to their normal, human self.

The Conference

I’m not going to focus on the application because I don’t remember it well enough. Just be real with your situation. I never thought I grew up poor but you always understand things better looking back than in the moment. First there is a notification regarding semi-finalist status. Finalist status will come later, usually with a call. They then send you some paperwork for the trip to DC.

My take on the event is that a large part is about celebrating the new Horatio Alger Association members, as the main dinner event at DAR Constitutional Hall had the members seated in a main area and the scholars in a balcony overlooking everything. When we were in the Supreme Court for a ceremony, the students sat off to the side while the members sat in the middle. (on a side note, how cool is it to literally borrow the Supreme Court as an event venue)20

Nevertheless, students and members are encouraged to mingle together in breakfasts and table talks, and that was a significant help in me finding my first internship. Looking back, the only reason that happened was because I could make a personal connection by telling an honest story about my family, contrary to the advice they gave to scholarship recipients that they should keep such things private.

The first night started off as an orientation where we learned how to use utensils properly. I used to eat things with just a fork. I had no idea why people wore tuxedos. For some scholars, it was the first time they had been on a plane. For those of us who came from poor backgrounds, which was everybody, it was valuable to experience “high American culture.” I’d never had a multi-course meal before. We also did some financial and career workshops.

fancy food
fancy food

also fancy food
also fancy food

One of the justices of the US Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, spoke to us on the first night, commending us for striving despite adversity. He too, had overcome many obstacles from his rural upbringing in Savannah, Georgia. Though many people disagree with his policies, what I found profound was that he was an affable, good-natured guy. We hear much about how people on the other side of the political spectrum are evil or that Republicans are racist, yet many people from this political side were willing to help me despite my background and ethnicity. As someone who has spent time in both types of places, I find the political polarization shocking with regard to my personal experiences.

The passion of the young, fighting for what they believe in, is admirable in every way. One scholar who had come from an undocumented family spoke directly to Clarence Thomas about DACA, undocumented immigrants, and why his policies were the way that they were. Everyone in the room instantly knew it was an inappropriate question, but everybody saw why she had asked it.

Conclusively, I think that the conference had both pros and cons. It is difficult for poor people to adjust to five days of an amazing experience and then have to go back to their normal lives. It makes me question myself, if that moment was a peak of my life just at the end of high school, and that I would live a boring, mundane, and difficult life in the future. One scholar who had a verbal promise for a car from a member then had that offer revoked. Some scholars feel angry; they think that the association should’ve helped them more. I disagree—it is like all things in life: it is what you personally make of it.

Update 2024: Life worked out OK. It isn’t as good or as bad as I expected it to be. In a way, you can never really escape your past or family background, and you carry all the scars of the life that you’ve lived, no matter how much you try to improve your own situation because the knowledge, world conception, and application gap is too large to easily bridge for most.


In retrospect there is nothing I wish I had changed about what I did at the conference, as it was only a one-time event. I made the connections I could with the experience I had at the time. One-time events are not the most important things in life, unless it’s getting hit by a bus. College is a bigger deal, and I wish I had the life experience to understand what I was looking for out of a college. But I had to start it as soon as possible because I had to leave living at home and go on with my own life, nor did I have the resources for a meaningful gap year.

schedule of events at the conference
schedule of events at the conference

The irony is that if I were better informed about colleges, my family situation would’ve never allowed me to get such a scholarship. The truth is I really had no choices then, I did the best I could, and I can’t spend too much time regretting the past. As I go onward to grad school and adult life, I’ll remember those who’ve helped me and promise to give back to the communities that have supported me.

So if you’re reading this and thinking about your own plan: don’t think too hard. If you get the scholarship, congrats and enjoy the national conference. But think harder on college, read books, travel, live more of your own life, and I promise what you want will emerge from your experiences.

Addendum: December, 2021

In the book “A Hope in the Unseen”, Clarence Thomas makes a cameo appearance where he talks to the main character and mentions the HAA. It’s funny because in that book, he’s only 40 or so years old, much different from the one time I saw him, yet in many ways the same because of his support for disadvantaged youth around the DC area.

Based on my experiences talking with others, he comes off as a controversial figure for his job. Can you call someone bad for their political views yet consider them a good person for their support for disadvantaged youth? I often ask myself where someone’s professional character ends and personal character begins and how it might be possible to hold two conflicting views of the same person. Mind that I haven’t read any Supreme Court dispositions in depth.

  1. I suspect the students who managed meaningful connections follows a power law: a few students going to top schools made a lot of connections, some with 1-2 connections, and a large percentage who only have the conference as a memory in their minds.
  2. Other notable/interesting moments include: sending a bald eagle through the concert hall, someone getting a 100 dollar tip from one of the people they had breakfast with. Rob Lowe was there too, but I wasn’t into adult life yet, so I didn’t grasp the significance of a lot of the people there. I think John C. Maxwell spoke that evening too, and he also sent us some books afterward. Daniel Lubetzky sent us all two boxes of KIND bars, haha.