Two students from southwest Detroit are the first recipients of the Southwest Solutions scholarship awards that provide $2,500 a year for up to four years of college.
The winners are Suhail Ali and Claudia Aleman, who both graduated from public high schools in southwest Detroit this spring. Suhail graduated from Universal Academy, a K – 12 school that has a large Arabic student population. Claudia graduated from Western International High School, recognized as the most culturally diverse high school in the entire district.
In addition to Suhail and Claudia, the Southwest Solutions scholarship committee gave one-time awards to four other students. Reyes Castaneda (enrolled at University of Michigan – Dearborn) and Sabrina Shalhout (Universal Academy graduate) each received $1000. Cesar Aquino (Cass Tech graduate) and Karen Alvarez (César Chávez Academy graduate) each received $500.
The scholarship committee received many outstanding applications in the submission process. Suhail, 17, and Claudia, 18, exemplified selection criteria of strong academic performance and potential, commitment to community service and a desire to help others, and compelling personal stories.
The summer before Suhail entered high school, a letter arrived at his family’s home that contained a foreclosure notice. “When I opened the letter, my heart dropped and I knew I had to do something to help my parents,” Suhail says. “I told them I was going to spend the summer break in Grand Rapids with my cousin, though I didn’t tell them I would be going to work in his restaurant so I could help pay the mortgage.”
A week after he went to work, Suhail’s parents walked into the restaurant, and Suhail explained why he was there. “My parents cried, and it was the first time I had seen my father cry,” Suhail said. “My father ordered me to come home, and on the way back he told me that I needed to focus on my studies, and how proud he will be to see me graduate from college.”
Suhail comes from a close-knit family where each member feels a deep responsibility for the welfare of the whole. His parents were born in Yemen and came to the United States in 1995. They are now citizens. Suhail has six brothers and two sisters, and they will be the first generation to go to college.
“We came to America so we could be free and so our children could have a better life,” said Suhail’s father, Ahmed Mohamed. “We are very thankful to be here and that our children are taking advantage of the opportunity.”
“My success is my parent’s success,” Suhail added. “As I realize my dreams, I am realizing theirs, too. My father has overcome so many obstacles and he personifies perseverance. My parents raised me to look past the simple life of my ancestors and achieve success through education.”
Suhail has already earned as many as 25 college credits through his extra and honors courses in high school. He will be attending Wayne State to study biology in the fall. With the Southwest Solutions scholarship plus other awards, Suhail is able to cover the entire cost of his undergraduate education. Then he intends to go to medical school and train in anesthesiology.
“I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember,” Suhail said. “I know that my future success may take me away from southwest Detroit, but it is also very important to me to remember my roots and give back.”
Suhail has been a dedicated community service volunteer through the nonprofit ACCESS. He is board member of its program called JIRAN (Join In to Revitalize Arab American Neighborhoods). Through JIRAN, Suhail has helped organize and has participated in neighborhood beautification projects, outreach efforts, and youth leadership development.
Community service work became a turning point for Claudia Aleman, the other major winner of the Southwest Solutions scholarship award. At Western High, she joined the buildOn afterschool program. buildOn is a national organization that engages youth in meaningful projects to better their communities. Western is a buildOn partner school.
Claudia assisted with projects at Clark Park and elsewhere in southwest Detroit. Then, in her junior year, Claudia decided to participate in buildOn’s program that enables young people to help build schools in some of the poorest counties in the world. Claudia went to Haiti for two weeks.
“For the first time in my life, I felt that I was accomplishing something truly meaningful because I was helping to change the lives of children,” Claudia said. “The experience changed my life perspective and purpose. I don’t take things for granted, and I don’t complain about what I may not have. I want to dedicate my life to making a difference.”
Claudia’s parents were born in Mexico. Her father works in maintenance. Her mother works in a factory. Both of her parents did not complete elementary school.
“My parents used to talk about growing up in harsh poverty in Mexico, but only when I went to Haiti did I understand what living in poverty really means,” Claudia said. “They would also tell me that they wanted me to go to college and have opportunities they could never have. I know they are very proud that I will be starting college in the fall.”
Claudia will be attending Eastern Michigan University and she wants to study filmmaking. She hopes to one day make films that have the power of persuade people to help children in need, whether in a place like Haiti or in our own country.
“I feel that I know my long-term goals and that I’m pretty focused,” Claudia said. “In the past, I struggled with my self-image. I was concerned about the way I look, and I would also get frustrated because I was sick too often. I would ask: Why me? But my self-confidence has really improved. When people show faith in you, it helps you have faith in yourself. I look at the scholarship from Southwest Solutions in that way, too. It reinforces my confidence and will help me achieve my dreams.”