‘Diversity rock star’ returns to East St. Louis from Finland; studied abroad through the Quest Scholarship Fund
By Patricia Merritt, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Source: The St. Louis American www.stlamerican.com

Front row: Tagotta Whitley (Jasmine’s mother), Jasmine Whitley (CHS student), Basel Heyari (AFS study abroad student from Jordan living in St. Louis) and Pamela Coaxum (Greater East St. Louis Community Fund executive director). Back row: Desara’ Whitley (Jasmine’s sister), Robert Elam (student advisor from The Scholarship Foundation), Debbie Veatch and Suzanne Sebert (Quest Fund co-founders), James Butler (AFS Team Development Specialist), Redina Medley (former language arts educator) and Adrienne Magner (AFS volunteer).

Smiling brightly is Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Charter High School (CHS) senior Jasmine Whitley, surrounded by her host family in Karvia, Finland.

Whitley made history as the first student from the CHS and the East St. Louis Senior High School to participate in a foreign study.

“It was my first time out of the country and my first time on an airplane,” said Whitley, during her PowerPoint presentation at a reception held in her honor Tuesday, September 11 at the CHS. “But I wasn’t scared, and I had a wonderful time. I would love to go back.”

Whitley visited Karvia, a town of about 2,400 people in a western province of Finland, from June 30-July 27. Her trip was made possible by the Quest Scholarship Fund and AFS-USA Faces of America program, with the help of the partnership building by the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund.

Quest and AFS scholarships offer high-achieving, low-income high school students in St. Louis and the Metro East the opportunity to step outside their local community, and develop a global vision by studying and living abroad. While the community fund has provided scholarships for numerous students over the years, this is the first time it collaborated to build support to help send a high school student abroad.

“My host family was very nice. We did everything together,” said Whitley. “They loved the forest, and they took me there a lot. We swam and cooked out. We ate barbecue moose and wild boar. But mostly, I loved being at home with them.”

However, Whitley’s mother, Tagotta, was not initially so enthused. “I want to thank everyone who made it possible for her to go, but it was very hard for me. When she boarded the plane, I cried like a baby,” said Tagotta Whitley.

“I had resolved not to text and call her, because the purpose of her going was to experience life and culture there,” added Tagotta Whitley. “Our kids need to know how to reach for the stars and know that they can go outside of East St. Louis. Jasmine called one time and that was to talk to the dog.”

“We are extremely grateful to Mom for letting her go and grow in her own way,” said CHS Director Gina Jeffries. “Without that, we wouldn’t be reaping the benefits of her experience. Other students get to reach for that potential and realize they can do something similar. Jasmine was able to go and experience a different culture and come back with the testimony, ‘They didn’t see color there.’ I think Jasmine is a diversity rock star.”

“I was a first-generation student who studied abroad, and it made a huge difference in my education and my life,” said Suzanne Sebert, Quest Fund co-founder with Debbie Veatch. “Quest gives half of the scholarships monies, while the AFS Faces of America program gives the other half and provides the programs. AFS has been in Greater St. Louis for more than 50 years, but the students have come from the suburbs. They’re the ones who could afford the fees associated with the program.”

“Debbie and I didn’t feel that was right,” she continued. “That didn’t look like the St. Louis area to us. We began to partner with AFS to help bring these opportunities to low-income high school students in the area.”

The Quest Scholarship Fund is only 18 months old, according to Sebert. In its first year, it sent one student from University City Senior High School to Paraguay to live with a host family. Last summer, it sent six students abroad, including Whitley.

“We’re shooting for the stars,” said Sebert. “We’d like to send 10 or 12 next year, but for each student we have to raise approximately $4,500. That’s our goal, and we would love to keep East St. Louis in the program.”

The goal is one that Pamela Coaxum, the community fund executive director, wholeheartedly supports.

“I didn’t know about the Quest Scholarship Fund. They found me,” said Coaxum. “The Greater East St. Louis Community Scholarship Fund was more than happy to collaborate to bring this first-in-a-lifetime experience to an East St. Louis high school student. This year, we also had support from community members, such as Redina Medley, who is retired from East St. Louis School District 189.”

“We would like East St. Louis to send two high school students from our area,” said Coaxum.  “It’s important for our children. Sometimes you have to take a leap, and I thank Jasmine and her mother for taking the first leap.”

For more information about the Quest Scholarship Fund, contact Sebert at (314) 250-1796 or suzanne.sebert@gmail.com, or Coaxum at the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund at (618) 271-2200 or pamela@greaterestlfund.org.