When Gabriella White was 11 years old, “she had never met a book,” said her mom, Shannon O’Donnell.

O’Donnell and her husband, Joseph White, adopted the now 18-year-old Gabriella in 2008. “She just blossomed,” O’Donnell said proudly as she talked about her daughter’s accomplishments.

White worked hard, her mother said. And it paid off. She graduated from Normal Community West High School in the spring with a 4.49 GPA out of 5.0.

White will study psychology and criminology at the University of Illinois-Springfield in the fall with a full tuition waiver provided by the youth scholarship program of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

She was one of 53 students honored at an awards ceremony in the West Loop.

The tuition waiver is for up to five years of school at any public university in Illinois, said Tiffany Gholson, associate deputy director of education and transition services for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The scholarship also includes a $511 monthly stipend, a medical card and a voucher for textbooks, Gholson said.

The DCFS program is open to youth who have at some point been in the agency’s care. Applications are based on academics, community engagement, extracurricular engagement, a personal essay and letters of recommendation, she said.

In order to continue to receive the scholarship, Gholson said, students must maintain a 2.0 GPA and stay enrolled full-time.

The state child welfare department’s scholarship program started in 1964, said Debra-Dyer Webster, DCFS guardian administrator. It started with 24 scholarships.

This year’s 53 recipients all seem to know where they want to be in four years.

Rachel Satterwhite, for example, was inspired by her social worker.

“My caseworker is the best,” said the 18-year-old from Murphysboro, Ill. Satterwhite will study social work with a minor in criminology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in the fall.

Kendra Escudero plans to have her law degree in six years.

DonTerrance Nixon wants to play professional football. He will attend Olivet Nazarene University. | Natalie Watts/Sun-Times

DonTerrance Nixon wants to play professional football. He will attend Olivet Nazarene University. | Natalie Watts/Sun-Times

She will study political science with an emphasis on public law at Northern Illinois University in a special program that also includes law school.

Other students will attend private schools, so the tuition waiver will not apply. They still receive the monthly stipend, medical card, and book waiver, Gholson said.

DonTerrance Nixon will major in business administration and finance at the private Olivet Nazarene University.

He wants to play professional football and eventually become an investment banker.

“I love numbers,” Nixon said. “Even when all my friends hated math, I loved it.”

He received academic and athletic scholarships from the university and will use the $511 stipend for room and board.

Because of his hard work, Nixon won’t have college loans. A relief, said the 18-year-old, because Olivet’s tuition alone is around $33,000 a year.

Many students honored Friday said the scholarship program has changed their lives.

“I wouldn’t be going to college without DCFS,” Satterwhite said.