Enough Tupperware
by Leslie Lawrence '72


Tappan Square



Promises Kept

Indira  Tappon

She cannot figure out her dorm phone. She misses her mother's steamed vegetables. She has never touched snow. But Nansamba Ssensalo moved with quiet confidence as she traded the jammed halls of a Los Angeles city high school for the bucolic sidewalks of Oberlin College in September. As far as her high-school officials can tell, she is the first student from her tough Inglewood neighborhood in West L.A. to come 2,000 miles to Oberlin. Her dorm room is tinier than her bedroom at home.

Ssensalo, 18, made it here for the same reasons as her new classmates: hard work, high scores, and swooning recommendations. She can afford it for a unique reason: When Nansamba was 6 years old, Merrill Lynch promised 25 first-graders at her 74th Street Elementary School a full college scholarship for graduating from high school on time. They made the same promise to randomly selected classes in nine other big-city schools.

"I don't remember much,"Ssensalo said. "I had to sign a contract in the first grade. There was a big event in the auditorium. They gave us gifts, a little pencil and eraser. I didn't understand what it meant."

Ninety-three percent of the 250 original inner-city first-graders started college in the fall. Ssensalo said the magnitude of the Merrill Lynch philanthropy hit her when she and other ScholarshipBuilder students flew north in October of 1999 for a spate of campus tours. She spent three days in Oberlin, which became her first choice.

"The atmosphere here, all the trees, the burgundy--you don't get fall in L.A.--well, I really liked the atmosphere," she said over black coffee at the Java Zone. "It wasn't a big city. It wasn't noisy. It was friendly, with benches and green."

The sight of students pedaling bicycles to class amazed her. "I'm kind of paranoid to ride in the street," Ssensalo said. "That's nothing we'd do at home. I'm thinking about it."

Ssensalo, who likes Skittles and Yo-Yo Ma, intends to major in chemistry and music education. She has a wry sense of humor. Asked to write the standard "why do you want to come to Oberlin" essay, she riffed on the fall colors matching the college stationary.

"She is wonderful," said Diane A. Marshall, college counselor at Alexander Hamilton High School. "She's very warm, very talented, and moved beautifully through our multiracial, multiethnic school. She is also very, very astute for a girl her age."

The willowy Ssensalo, the youngest of three children of two teachers, is aware that Americans cherish the idea that education is a huge engine of meritocracy, that the diligent and able will get to the top. She doesn't buy it. "People find so many weird ways to get advantages," she said. "There is the whole issue of who you know and, of course, the money thing. Who can afford $5,000 to take the Princeton Review for the SAT? You see the same thing in the arts. Can you afford a private teacher? Do you study with the old lady at the end of the street who played a little a long time ago or do you take $100 per half-hour sessions with someone from the L.A. Phil? The ones with the expensive lessons also get the advice on how to go to Juilliard."

Ssensalo plays viola and flute. Her mother, Donna A. Edwards-Brown, said Merrill Lynch paid for a pricey summer camp for students gifted in strings when Nansamba was 16. "That made a big difference," Edwards-Brown recalled. "It was an international program, with a lot of students from Asia, and Nansamba did well. All her life, she hasn't been afraid to try new things."

Ssensalo brought her instruments north, joined Oberlin Community Strings, and has found practice space in the conservatory. Her roommate, Elizabeth Mier, came here to study harp. "It's really nice having a roommate you can get along with, especially one who is into classical music," said Mier, 18, of Lexington, Kentucky. The pair share a passion for Ma's Bach Suite recordings and were trying to figure out how to find a ride to Cleveland to see him perform at Severance Hall.
Ssensalo, who daily arose to catch a series of city buses to her magnet high school--the first one left at 6:45 a.m.--required much less help than many students in ScholarshipBuilders.
Merrill Lynch estimates it has spent $16 million on the program. Early on, it hired full-time coordinators in all ten cities as tracking students became difficult and family chaos threatened to overwhelm some.

These ten adults filled in at parent-teacher meetings, arranged school transportation, and after-school access to computers. In some cases, they found jobs for parents and tutoring for siblings. A girl in Detroit got cab vouchers to school when she was bounced among foster homes. A New York student got child care after she gave birth to twins, and will continue to receive it through college.

Ssensalo had no such hardships. Her father is an instructor in Swahili at California State-Long Beach, and her mother teaches adult education. Her older brother, Kizito, is studying computer science at Berkeley, and her sister, Nabachwa, who graduated from Occidental College with an economics degree, is a new member of a modern dance company in Dayton.

"Nansamba had more family support than most of our students, and we think that's great," said Melanie Mortimer, a member of the Merrill Lynch global philanthropy team in New York.

The name "Nansamba," chosen by her Ugandan father, translates roughly to "I get a kick out of life." Asked if it fits, Ssensalo arched an eyebrow. She glanced around at the picturesque place she has chosen, so many miles from home.

"I hope so," she said, smiling.

• Reprinted with permission from The Plain Dealer 2000.