Rotary Club presents scholarships to 18 graduates

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Rotary Club of West Orange granted $15,000 in scholarships to 18 graduating seniors from West Orange High School, the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and the Mount St. Dominic Academy during the club’s annual luncheon at Mayfair Farms on June 17.

The recipients were selected following a process that saw the Rotary’s scholarship committee whittle down more than 30 township-based applicants to just 19, who were then interviewed by the committee members. Of that group, the committee selected 16 students to receive scholarships. Additionally, two students, Joel Yapez and Sophia Figueroa, of WOHS, were also recognized as Outstanding Foreign Language Student and Outstanding Business Education Student, respectively, after being recommended by their teachers.

And the Rotary is confident that it chose the right students for the funding. Committee Co-chairwoman Megan Brill said that the club is the only service organization that interviews its scholarship candidates to obtain a better sense of who they are. Having gotten to know them after personally meeting each one, Brill said she knows the funds are in deserving hands.

“They’re all super-special kids,” Brill told the West Orange Chronicle following the ceremony. “Our world is going to be in a great place. We’re going to be OK because our future rests in the hands of these kids. I wish I had the insight they seem to have when I was their age.”

The scholarship recipients boast grade-point averages of more than 4.0, in addition to glowing recommendations. As committee member Christopher Cohrs recalled in his introduction, one guidance counselor even called Tom McGovern “an ideal son.” And the students have some lofty goals in mind, with some heading off to schools such as Howard University and Pennsylvania State University for degrees that include biomedical engineering and psychology.

But the personal stories of the recipients and their interests that really made them stand out, according to committee member Michael Karu. Speaking with the Chronicle before the event, Karu remembered being impressed by Alexandra Lando’s demonstration of slam poetry during her interview, calling it reminiscent of something one would find in coffeehouses of the 1960s and ‘70s. He was also moved by Obianama Okani, who will attend Georgetown University with the mission of one day improving health care in her native Nigeria.

They are just two members of a truly exemplary class of students, Karu said.

“Every student is impressive in his or her own way,” Karu said. “We have future doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals. We fully expect great things from this group.”

Kathiana Cajuste, who overcame a major obstacle on her path to greatness, spoke no English when she moved to the United States from Haiti as an 8-year-old. But, by the time she reached WOHS, she was a fluent speaker who joined the debate team. Cajuste eventually hopes to combine her love of debate with her passion for finance by becoming a corporate attorney. She plans to study finance on a pre-law track at La Salle University. And she said that she is extremely grateful to the Rotary Club for helping to make her dream come true.

“They gave me a chance to pay a little bit back toward my tuition,” Cajuste told the Chronicle, adding that she will now have to pay less in student loans. “I love coming out of school knowing that I won’t owe as much now because I was helped.”

Kyla Trinidad was also thankful for the Rotary’s help, though she is no stranger to the club’s good work. Trinidad said her father was a Rotary Club member in the Philippines, so she has long admired the “incredible things” the organization does. Having been a member of the WOHS Air Force Jr. ROTC, she said service is very important to her, and the Rotary has further inspired her to help others.

In fact, Trinidad’s decision to major in communications and marketing at Rutgers University stems largely from her desire to make the world a better place. She told the Chronicle that she believes she can do a lot of good working in the media.

“I just see how media has an influence on so many areas — it’s more than just entertainment,” Trinidad said. “I feel that by majoring in communications I’d be able to let the world know about the truth or just mend relationships. I feel like one of the biggest issues in today’s society is communication.”

Longtime Rotary Club member Jerry Tarnoff knows about doing good for others. For years Tarnoff served as superintendent of the West Orange school district, and for the past two decades he has participated in the Rotary’s various charitable pursuits. These include conducting three to four food drives per year and raising funds for causes such as Camp Merry Heart and Rotaplast. The local chapter’s support of Rotary International’s PolioPlus program has helped bring about the elimination of polio in 99 percent of the world’s population.

Of course, Tarnoff is particularly proud of the fact that the club has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships for more than 50 years. The retired superintendent said he is happy to be part of an organization that sees the value of education in shaping the future. And, he said it simply feels good to give back to the community.

“There’s no greater feeling than when you’re giving something of yourself and your organization to help others,” Tarnoff told the Chronicle in a June 16 phone interview. “You get such a wonderful feeling when you know that you’re helping to support someone else in furthering their goals.”

Brill is also glad to facilitate so many young people’s educations, but she does not want the Rotary’s influence to stop in the classroom. She said she hopes all the scholarship recipients will use what they learn to benefit others, just as the club has helped them.

“I hope they remember all the good things that we do and take a piece of ‘service above self’ with them,” Brill said. “Our motto is something that everybody should live by.”

Photos by Sean Quinn