Thurgood Marshall HS graduate, Eliza Straughter, graduated from N. Illinois University last year and today is employed by Hewlett Packard in Chicago. Straughter received several scholarships from the Dayton Foundation. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer
Photo: Contributing Writer

Scholarship leads to unexpected friendship

For generations, the Dayton Foundation has been helping people in the local community help others through giving. This includes everything from funding of organizations to helping deserving young people go to college.

One of these — Eliza Straughter — graduated from Thurgood Marshall High School and moved to the Dayton area with her family after Hurricane Katrina drove them from their home in New Orleans in 2005.

Straughter began researching college scholarships because she didn’t want to have a lot of debt upon graduating.

Elizabeth Horner, the scholarship program officer with the Dayton Foundation and a resident of the historic South Park district in Dayton, said when Straughter called to get information, she stood out immediately.

Someone who stood out

“I don’t talk to everyone who calls,” Horner said. “This year we had about 1,400 kids in the system but only about half of them finished applications. I mostly talk to parents but what struck me about Eliza is that she called me – her mom didn’t!”

Horner remembers that Straughter sounded very composed for a high school senior.

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“She had her own ideas about what she wanted,” Horner said. “She knew she had to make connections. Her applications were strong and she stood out.”

During Horner’s 13-year tenure with the Dayton Foundation, she said she doesn’t remember any student being as engaged in the process as Straughter, who was interested in studying engineering.

“We don’t see a lot of engineering scholarships go to Dayton Public School kids,” Horner said. “Honestly they usually go to kids with super high ACT scores and who have a lot more advantages.”

Straughter ended up being awarded three scholarships as she graduated from high school, with one of those being the Pearl Dale and Audrey Parker Scholarship, a renewable scholarship that required her to check in with Horner each semester.

A rough transition

“My mom and grandmother made it clear to me that I didn’t have a choice and I would go to college,” Straughter said. “I wanted to make my family proud of me and engineering has always been a passion of mine.”

But once Straughter got to Ohio University, she began to struggle with her classes and with the adjustment of becoming a full-time student living away from home. She felt herself coming perilously close to losing the scholarships for which she worked so hard and that were funding that important college education. But by this time, Horner and Straughter had become very close and their relationship changed the course of Straughter’s life.

“Elizabeth was like my second mom,” Straughter said. “She just started staying on top of me. I wasn’t doing well in the classroom or with my professors and I thought I was watching my dream slip away.”

Straughter continued to struggle at OU for three years, but at the end of that time, Horner had convinced her not to give up. They looked together for another school that might be a better fit for Straughter.

“I applied to Northern Illinois University because of their engineering program,” Straughter said. “I got some scholarship money from them as well and encouragement from Ms. Elizabeth and my family.”

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And armed with that encouragement, Straughter returned to school and graduated last year with a degree in computer science.

“It doesn’t happen often that I need to save a scholarship,” Horner said. “But Eliza’s situation was a little different. She did have some grade issues but she could earn back her scholarship. I was touched by her so I was trying to keep up with her and make sure she didn’t fall through the cracks.”

Horner also went above and beyond by locating another scholarship for her young friend to replace one she had that was only usable at Ohio schools.

A happy ending

Today, Straughter is working full time for Hewlett Packard in Chicago, after completing an internship with them while still in school. And she said she knows she is where she is today because of the kindness of her friend and mentor, Horner.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do what I did – pull myself up and make my dream a reality – without the Dayton Foundation and Ms. Elizabeth,” Straughter said. “Looking back and knowing how great she is and how much she believes in me and was willing to help me. That and the change of environment made all the difference for me.”

Straughter’s dream now is to one day give back to the community that supported her.

“I’d like to start an Eliza Straughter scholarship to help make an impact on other young girls,” Straughter said. “I want to be able to play my part in the community that has done so much for me.”

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