A Lincoln student is taking part in the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans national scholars program, which recognizes young people who overcome difficulties and provides scholarship assistance and mentoring.
The chairman of the association is David Sokol, a former executive with Berkshire Hathaway Inc. who now manages business investments from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Anh D. Nguyen is a graduating senior at Lincoln Northeast High School who is active in the Upward Bound college prep program and is applying at universities around the country.
“I didn't have major drastic adversities,” Nguyen said. “It was mostly poverty, but this forced me to become more independent.”
His parents and siblings came to the United States from Vietnam in 1995 and he was born the next year. His parents don't speak English, and he has been getting himself to school since grade school.
“They wanted to come to the U.S. for the children, for a better education and opportunities to improve our lives,” he said. “They had a somewhat comfortable life in Vietnam and would have stayed if it wasn't for the children.”
He said he may attend one of the colleges that have scholarship-matching and mentoring arrangements with the Horatio Alger Association. The Alger scholar award totals $21,000 per student.
The association is hosting this year's 106 national scholars this week at a Washington, D.C., conference where they will meet one another and adults who have been recognized by the association for accomplishments in their careers.
Horatio Alger was an author in the 1800s who wrote novels about people who succeeded through perseverance and hard work. Local honorees previously honored have included businessmen Walter Scott Jr., Dick Davidson and Charles Durham and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, now secretary of defense.
Sokol, who was honored in 2004, and his wife, Peggy, mentor some of the scholars each year.
“These kids typically are from poor families where adversity affects them, often affects the parents, and often these kids are working at jobs and trying to help out family members,” Sokol said.
The average family income of the national scholars is $15,000 this year, he said. “This gives them opportunities to go to college.”
Sokol has family in Omaha, has a home here and comes to town frequently. His investment company, Teton Capital Holdings Co., owns and manages businesses, including banking, manufacturing, consumer products and energy investments.
Sokol grew up in Omaha and graduated from Omaha North High School. He said his background lets him identify with the scholars. “It does hit home for me, but my adversity pales in comparison to theirs.”
Sometimes the students come from families where one or both parents were killed or in prison, or where there was severe drug abuse, sometimes just really bad occurrences to families, or accidents that killed their mothers or siblings.
“Each kid is remarkable,” Sokol said. “They stayed the course. They recognized that getting an education and keeping themselves out of trouble and finding a way to go to college is going to allow them to have the opportunity to reach their American dream. You really have to admire these kids, seeing that it wasn't all handed to them.”
The program cooperates with state scholarship groups in each state, including the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha. The group provided 921 scholarships totaling about $9 million this year, with more than $100 million awarded over the past 30 years.
Sokol said 78 percent of the students in the program graduate, three times the rate of students from the same demographic group. “With just a little bit of support, these young men and women do remarkable things.”
During the meeting in Washington, the students will see historical sites but spend most of the time in meetings to prepare for the future, plus meeting adult members of the Alger group. Some form lifelong connections.
In the past decade, Sokol said, he has met hundreds of the honorees and has mentored several dozen of them.
“I've never had anyone blame anybody. Most astounding, their optimism, their view that, almost to the person, they believe their adversities will make them stronger and more capable.”