Chicago students surprised with $40,000 Amazon scholarships: ‘If you have the ambition, you can go do it’

Thirteen Chicago Public Schools students will receive $40,000 over four years to study computer science or related fields this fall as part of the Amazon Future Engineer Scholarship.

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Student Ayesha Abdiel hugs her father during a surprise scholarship announcement at Amazon corporate offices in the loop Tuesday.

Student Ayesha Abdiel hugs her father. Ayesha was one of 13 Chicago Public Schools students invited to Amazon’s Loop headquarters to receive an Amazon Future Engineers Scholarship. Ayesha will attend Cornell University in the fall.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Ayesha Abdiel acquired a passion for puzzle solving during the coronavirus quarantine, spending hours poring over thousands of jigsaw pieces to complete the intricate designs.

Abdiel, 18, was also learning to code around the same time and quickly realized that the two subjects were all about problem-solving. Her new hobby further fueled her passion for computer science and pushed her to work hard in school toward a career in the field.

“I figured, just like I’m moving different code around, I do the same thing with puzzles,” said Abdiel, “It’s converting that hobby into a passion and into a career.”

On Tuesday, Abdiel’s efforts as a student at George Westinghouse College Prep were rewarded.

Students Justis Walker, Shantiah Watt, Ayesha Abdiel, and Stephanie Vega hold up their scholarships.

Students Justis Walker (from left) Shantiah Watt, Ayesha Abdiel and Stephanie Vega hold up their scholarship notifications. Thirteen Chicago Public Schools students are among 400 nationwide to receive the scholarships.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

She was one of 13 Chicago Public Schools students who were surprised with a $40,000 scholarship from online retailer Amazon to pursue an undergraduate degree in computer science or engineering.

The students, accompanied by their parents, friends and teachers, were summoned to Amazon’s corporate headquarters in the Loop for what they were told would be a final round of interviews.

They were handed envelopes that supposedly contained their interview questions. But when the students opened them they were shocked to see a certificate congratulating them as recipients of the scholarship.

The students were caught by surprise, and many couldn’t hold back tears. They held up the certificate to loved ones in the audience who were cheering and clapping, some wiping their eyes as well.

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Student Stephanie Vega is overcome with emotion as she holds up her scholarship recipient card during a surprise scholarship announcement on Tuesday. Vega plans to enroll at the University of Chicago in the fall.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I was really surprised and just overwhelmed with joy,” said Stephanie Vega, a student at Noble Street College Prep. “I felt all my emotions let loose, and I looked right at my dad because I was really happy, knowing that I can pursue this.”

The Chicago students are among 400 students across the United States to receive the award. Each scholar will receive $40,000 over four years to study computer science or related fields this fall. The scholarship also includes a paid internship offer at Amazon after their freshman year.

Amazon said recipients were chosen based on a variety of criteria, including academic achievement, leadership, participation in school and community activities and financial need. Amazon partnered with Scholarship America to review the applications and select 400 scholars.

“At Chicago Public Schools, we like to say: ‘The Best Are With CPS,’ and today’s announcement makes it clear that isn’t just a saying, it’s a fact,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement. “Our students are among the best and the brightest in the nation, and I could not be more excited to offer my heartfelt congratulations to this amazing group of CPS students and Amazon Future Engineer Scholarship recipients.”

Students Yaneli Cervantes (left) and Alessandra Romero (right) take a photo during a surprise scholarship announcement Tuesday.

Students Yaneli Cervantes (left) and Alessandra Romero take a photo during Tuesday’s surprise scholarship announcement.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Scholars also hailed from Whitney Young, Jones College Prep, Westinghouse College Prep, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Kenwood Academy and World Language High School.

Abdiel, who lives in Englewood, will be attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the fall. She said when she’s done with school she wants to develop ways to battle bias against minorities in artificial intelligence.

She also wants to start a nonprofit to help introduce more minorities to technology jobs and show them that they can be successful, no matter their background.

“Even though you come from this area you still have an abundant amount of opportunities you can get,” Abdiel said. “You just have to apply yourself and show that you’re just as dedicated as the next person. If you have the ambition you can go do it.”

Vega plans on attending the University of Chicago this fall. She said the money will help her focus on her studies and not be distracted by the financial pressures of pursuing a college education.

“This really helps, so I can focus on my education and not have to worry so much with the financial stuff,” said Vega 17. ”I really appreciate the opportunity to receive this scholarship.”

Student Justis Walker stands for a photo alongside fellow students during a surprise scholarship Tuesday.

Lane Tech student Justis Walker (far right) stands for a photo alongside fellow scholarship recipients. Students were led to believe they were coming to the Loop for a final round of interviews when they were surprised with scholarship award letters.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Justis Walker, a Lane Tech College Prep student who is slated to go to the University of Iowa, said he also appreciated how the scholarship will ease the financial pressure on him and his family.

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“At the top schools, especially with competitive majors, tuition gets very expensive,” Walker said. “Once you graduate, they’re going to be knocking on your front door. Knowing that you’re going to be able to ease some of that, it makes it where you can be able to focus on your studies more.”

His mom, Rosalynn, echoed her son’s thoughts, adding that she was so proud of the hard work that he put in at school to earn the honor.

“I’m so absolutely proud of him and the example he is to his little brother,” Rosalynn said. “It helps me a lot. Just knowing that he has access to these funds, it makes it easier on me. I know there’s many good things to come.”

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