Pearson Prize, recognising community service, helps students already enrolled in college


Pearson PrizeA native of Staten Island in New York, James Casey knew he found a perfect college home in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, where he enrolled two years ago with an eye to a career in international law or intellectual property law.

He works 13 hours a week at a drugstore, stocking shelves among other duties, and is a resident assistant at a college dormitory. But as he neared his junior year “finances were very much a problem” for him at Howard, where undergraduate  tuition is $8,550 per semester, and he contemplated transferring to a less expensive state university in New York.

“I really wanted to finish here at Howard,” says James, age 20, seated on a bench on Howard’s campus two miles northeast of the White House. “The program I’m in is really good. Very few schools have programs that look at communications and culture.”

So Mr. Casey applied for the Pearson Prize for Higher Education, a scholarship awarded to students who demonstrate distinguished public service to their local community. The Pearson Prize is expressly aimed at young men and women already in college rather than, as with most university scholarships, students just preparing to enter college for the first time.

‘It’s a big help’

James Casey
James Casey on the campus of Howard University

“When I heard I won I was ecstatic,” says Mr. Casey. “I shouted ‘hallelujah.’ It’s a big help.”

The Pearson Prize is sponsored by the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Pearson Plc, and administered by the National Society for Collegiate Scholars. The initial recipients were announced in June 2010: Twenty recipients including Mr. Casey were named Pearson Prize National Fellows, receiving $10,000 over two years, while 50 others were honoured as Pearson Prize Community Fellows, receiving $500 in a single year.

Mr. Casey was honoured for such community service as his work in the Boy Scouts, teaching other young men leadership and emergency preparedness. Among other community work, he has also helped construct staging for theatrical productions at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York, whose students’ dreams and talents were dramatized in the play and movie Fame.

Mr. Casey is taking six courses this semester at Howard’s John H. Johnson School of Communications – including advanced public speaking, communications law and intercultural communications – and is preparing a 75-page thesis on how personal physical space affects interpersonal communications. Law school is his next stop.

Inspired by her grandfather’s community service

Another of this year’s Pearson Prize National Fellows, Leah Simoncelli, also attends college in Washington, at American University, where she has a double major in public communications and Spanish. A native of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Ms. Simoncelli, 21, applied for two dozen different scholarships and won eight of them when she first entered college three years ago.

Leah Simoncelli
Leah Simoncelli in Chile, where she helped build houses after an earthquake

“But scholarships really fall off after the first year,” says Ms. Simoncelli, who found out about the Pearson Prize early this year through an email from a Latin American student organization on campus. “I said to myself, ‘This has to be new, or I would have known about it.’”

Inspired by her late grandfather, who ran a gas station but still found time to help run a recreational park and organize charity bingo nights, Ms. Simoncelli’s community service has included working in soup kitchens and senior-citizen centers in Washington, and helping a non-profit group build homes for earthquake victims in Chile, while studying Spanish there earlier this year. Her photo album includes evidence of the earthquake devastation, including flattened houses and a damaged church.

“He was the absolute king of community service and a huge influence on my life from a very young age,” Ms. Simoncelli says of her grandfather, in a two-minute video filmed as part of her Pearson Prize application.

‘Giving back is way more important than receiving’

Among the most arresting videos submitted by the National Fellows is one from Lauren Hiatt, 20, a sophomore at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, who is studying to be a nurse. Filmed in a Kansas resource center for foster and adopted children, Ms. Hiatt, surrounded by racks of clothing and other items, explains how the center provides children with clothes, coats, socks, pyjamas and toys, because “typically, children come into foster care with nothing.”

Ms. Hiatt knows of that world. She was put into foster care herself at age 9 after a school nurse reported problems at home, and was adopted along with her sister at age 15 by parents she credits with helping her all along the way – including with her application for the Pearson Prize.

She now works two part-time jobs, as a hospital nurse’s aide and clerical duties at an automotive technology office, and still goes home to Kansas City every three weekends to work at the resource center, where she has logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours since high school by staffing the center or picking up donations.

“While in care my foster parents made sure we were given every opportunity to play sports, attend camp and just be normal kids,” Ms. Hiatt says in the video. “Because of these opportunities I realize that giving back is way more important than receiving.

“Receiving the Pearson Prize would mean the world to me, because it would help me to achieve my goal of becoming a surgical nurse so I could help people every day for the rest of my life.”