Written by Blaine Boyd of Civic Nation. Read the article below or on Forbes.com
Rochelle Fraenig, Darius Wesley, and Tenzin Choenyi had never met. Rochelle went to Brighton High School in Brighton, Michigan; Darius attended North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago, Illinois; and Tenzin grew up across the world in Nepal.
However, the three were always united in their relentless pursuit of an education—even in the face of tremendous adversity.
As fate would have it—three years ago—their paths would cross at the White House after a phone call they never expected. The Reach Higher team was on the line from Washington, DC, and they were inviting Rochelle, Darius, and Tenzin to meet with then-First Lady Michelle Obama.
“It really was incredible,” Rochelle agreed. “I felt like I was actually in a dream, and I kept thinking, ‘Who, me? Really?’”
Rochelle, Darius, and Tenzin were part of a select group invited to take part in a roundtable with Mrs. Obama and her staff. That first year, only twelve students gathered at the White House to share their stories with the First Lady. But in the years that followed, Beating the Odds (BTO) grew into a summit with 150 student participants from every state, celebrity partners joining the effort, and the President, First Lady, and Secretary of Education leading panels and workshops.
“I have never met so many intelligent young men and women who all have the same mindset and aspirations to be successful all in one place.” Darius said, “It was an amazing feeling to be around such a group.”
“When I came to this country as a Tibetan refugee in 2010, I would’ve never thought in a million years that I would be surrounded by hundreds of students who were just like me in so many different ways,” said Tenzin. “Hearing their stories gave me a sense of comfort and made me realize that I was not alone in this journey.”
“My experiences with [Beating the Odds Summits] have been incredible. I met Tyler Oakley, Jidenna, and Lana Parrilla. And I’ve been able to make many connections and friends with other BTO alums,” Rochelle said. “I’m thankful that I’ve also been able to continue to share my experiences and give advice on the student panels.”
As veterans of BTO, the trio has joined as contributors during the summits, serving as speakers on panels and in breakout sessions.
“BTO has given me the opportunities to work with organizations from all over and to be an advocate for education, to show others how important it is to get a higher education,” said Darius.
Beating the Odds not only focuses on the students’ stories—the summit also equips students with skills and a support network that will help them complete their degrees.
“During BTO, I learned that asking for help is not a sign of weakness and that relying on others can help us better reach our goal,” said Tenzin.
“I have met so many mentors and people who have invested time into helping students like me succeed, not only in college but also in life,” Darius said. “I’ve learned that you can achieve anything when you have determination and a great support system.”
The lessons of Beating the Odds stayed true for the three as they started their college careers.
“Once I got comfortable with my college workload around my sophomore year, I started to really get involved around college and started to meet new people. Today, as I look forward to my senior year of college, I am excited for the new challenges facing me,” said Tenzin.
“Life since my freshman year of college has been complicated,” Rochelle said, “but I’ve learned that the route to and through college, it isn’t just one path. And most importantly, I learned that no matter what, you must always keep fighting.”
As Rochelle, Darius, and Tenzin close in on their ultimate goal of completing their higher education, they never forget the example they set for those who follow.
“I’ve taken my Beating the Odds Summit experience to encourage others to work hard. I’ve had little kids in my community ask me if my picture with the First Lady is wax or real,” Tenzin said laughing. “Somehow, I always end that discussion around how hard work pays off in the end.”