A diverse group of more than 700 top-performing high school students from across the nation gathered at George Washington University over the weekend to celebrate their academic success, connect with college recruiters and corporations, and pledge to make the world a better place.
It was all part of the annual “Scholar’s Day” for the National Society of High School Scholars—a Georgia-based nonprofit that provides scholarships and other forms of assistance to students who are the best in their schools.
“The ultimate purpose is to reach young people around the world, to give them resources to kind of help them in their life choices, education, becoming global citizens,” said NSHSS scholarship director Susan Thurman, who said that the organization now has about one million members worldwide, including alumni.
“So the main thing is to recognize them, encourage them, provide resources,” Thurman said. “We have a very diverse membership.”
Indeed, among a select group of students recognized Saturday for winning scholarships from NSHSS were students such as Meilani Meleisea, of San Diego, who won a “Women of Tomorrow” scholarship for her work in bringing back the choir at her high school, where she also ran track.
As a student of Chinese, Samoan, Irish and Scottish background—but whose Samoan features are more prominent—Meleisea said her life has been filled with a series of “can’ts.”
“I was told I couldn’t go to college because I’m Samoan and that Samoans only go to college if they play sports,” Meleisea said. “I’ll be going to UC Berkeley on a full-ride and studying molecular biology and public health,” she said to applause from the jam-packed room, which included some 1,500 people.
Though NSHSS has been around since 2002 and was co-founded by Claes Nobel—a member of the family that established the highly esteemed Nobel Prizes and who was on hand to deliver the keynote speech—the organization is still viewed with skepticism in some quarters.
For instance, some online critiques dismiss the organization as a “scam” and question the $60 membership fee that it charges in letters that invite parents of prospective scholars—identified through their high scores on college and pre-college entrance exams and other academic criteria, such as having a 3.5 GPA—to join the society.
“I think it would be misinformation to judge NSHSS as a scam,” said Amy Weinstein, executive director of the National Scholarship Providers Association, or NSPA, although she revealed that NSHSS was a member of NSPA.
“We do not advocate that students pay for scholarship information as it is free,” Weinstein said. “However, our membership policy states that members that charge students a fee must offer services for those fees and this is something NSHSS does.
“Their website clearly states what they offer for the fee so it’s the students’ choice as to whether they want to join or not.”
The $60 membership fee is a onetime fee that is good for life, and the benefits of NSHSS go beyond the college admissions process, organization officials say.
“It’s not something you apply to in high school, put on your resume and get into college,” said Morgan Vasquez, a human resources business partner for a major bank and NSHSS alumni who also serves as president of the organization’s Fellows Executive Board, which is its alumni association.
Vasquez, who graduated from Fordham University, said NSHSS builds a foundation of support for member scholars and provides opportunities to network and “continue to be successful in college and beyond.”
“There is no endpoint,” Vasquez said.
If NSHSS is a “scam,” it isn’t a very lucrative one. Tax returns show the organization only had assets of about $169,000 in 2014. And Thurman does not earn a salary.
Paxton Peacock, a 2016 high school graduate from Alabama and NSHSSS member who won a Claes Noebl Academic Scholarship, said he saw the “scam” allegations in an online forum and decided to respond.
“One said it was fraudulent and that he didn’t need another bumper sticker,” said Peacock, referring to the NSHSS bumper stickers that read “Proud Parent of a Scholar” and come with the invitation letters to parents of prospective scholars.
“Another one said save it (the $60) for college textbooks,” Peacock said.
But Peacock said that, while skeptics question the value of joining NSHSS, he himself has benefited in many ways, including being able to travel to Switzerland for a global leadership summit through connections he made through NSHSS.
He also credits NSHSS connections with his being accepted to Johns Hopkins University, which was also on hand to recruit, despite being a “southern farm boy without a 36 on my ACT.”
“My mom still sports that ‘$60 bumper sticker’ on her car,” Paxton said.
Larry Chambers, of New Jersey, said he didn’t need much convincing when he got a letter from NSHSS inviting his daughter—Jasmeen, a rising high school senior—to join the organization.
One of the things that motivated him to pay the fee was the fact that the scholar’s day event included a college fair. The fair featured several colleges that ranged from American University to the University of Alabama, HBCUs such as Claflin University and foreign institutions such as the University of British Columbia.
“I thought it was a good thing that you have a bunch of colleges in one place at the same time instead of going there and there,” Chambers said as his daughter visited with college representatives. “I thought it was a good opportunity that everybody was here at the same time.”
Chambers said that, while there may not be an immediate payoff to joining NSHSS, “time will tell” if the $60 fee was worth it.
“Hopefully we will get some knowledge going forward and discover something that we possibly wouldn’t have discovered if we didn’t come in, such as taking classes abroad,” Chamber said, referring to the fact that the U.S. Department of State was on hand touting the benefits of its portfolio of study abroad programs.
“If nothing else, the information itself is beneficial,” Chambers said.
The scholar’s day event was remarkable in more ways than one. For instance, Inge Thulin, chairman, president and CEO of 3M—a company that an NSHSS “Millennial Career Survey” identified as the best place to work—gave out his personal e-mail address and invited students to seek work at the company.
“If you come and work for us at 3M, I can guarantee you a couple of things,” Thulin said. “One, you will work with science that will be applied to life. And I can guarantee you one other thing,” he said, explaining that the company develops leaders.
“The future is already here,” he said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.