Jeffrey Warren, 17, a senior at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside won a scholarship from Martin Luther King Senior Citizens Club, but gave it back because he is white after realizing it was intended for a black student.
A hush fell over the King High School gym when Jeffrey Warren was announced as winner of an African-American student scholarship.
Then giggles erupted, followed by laughter as the white student got up to receive his $1,000 award.
Later that evening, Jeffrey and his father Rod decided to return the scholarship to the Martin Luther King Senior Citizens Club. The Riverside group, despite mixed opinions among its members, accepted, scholarship chairwoman Etta Brown said.
“They were kind of surprised,” the 17-year-old said about club members at the school awards night. “They announced it was for an African American.”
Despite what was said in the crowded gym, the application itself stated only that African-Americans were “encouraged to apply,” all involved said. A cover letter to high school counselors — that Jeffrey never saw — specified it was for African-American students.
Though the presentation was an awkward moment for everyone, Jeffrey said, “now it’s kind of a joke” with his friends.
As for the club, it will change language on next year’s application to clarify who is eligible, Brown said.
Attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based group that has fought to uphold state laws banning affirmative action in public agencies, said organizations using private money can give scholarships to whomever they want using whatever eligibility criteria they choose.
As economic inequality and the costs of higher education have increased since the 1970s, scholarships for races of students underrepresented in higher education, are more necessary than ever, said Riverside resident Dennis Lopez, who has long been involved with minority student scholarships.
Latinos, blacks and American Indians attend universities in far lower percentages than their percentages in kindergarten through 12th grade. More also live in high-poverty neighborhoods, he said.
Private scholarship efforts to help them only scratch the surface of the need, he said.
Lopez also is director of business and institutional relations for the Inland Empire Scholarship Foundation, which seeks private donations for scholarships for Inland Latino students. It gave 111 last year, but more efforts are needed, he said, such as those by his group and by the King Senior Citizens Club, which Brown said has about 35 active and 70 total members.
When club members at last month’s senior awards night presented the scholarship, Jeffrey and Rod Warren said they could tell Brown and fellow club members were surprised to see Jeffrey is white.
“Jeffrey and I wanted them to be happy,” said Rod Warren, a language arts teacher at King. “The ladies were trying to do something really nice.”
The club later gave the scholarship to an African-American girl at King, Brown said. King, the slain civil rights leader for whom the Riverside school is named, wanted to help all people, she said.
However, “the scholarship is written for African-American seniors,” and the club doesn’t have enough money to award three scholarships, she said.
Cheryl Simmons, director of secondary education for the Riverside Unified School District, and King High Principal Darel Hansen said they had never heard of another situation like this.
Brown said the club will change application wording for next year to include a question about race.
Jeffrey, who graduated Wednesday, June 6, said his father encouraged him to apply for every scholarship for which he might be eligible. He visited the school counselor’s office to review updated lists every two weeks and picked up applications from a student assisting in the counselor’s office.
Rod Warren said his son applied for 27 scholarships and also won three others, two for $2,000 each and another $500 scholarship. Most required at least a brief essay.
Nearly all scholarships from private groups are intended for certain groups of students, Brown said.
“You may be left-handed, or a single parent or going into nursing, and that’s fine,” she said.
College-going rates are lower among African-American and Hispanic students than white students, according to the latest statistics available from the California Department of Education.
Latino, African-American and American Indian students also are more likely to go to community colleges than to state universities, said Lopez, who helped found the Latino Coalition for Educational Equity & English Learners of the Inland Empire.
University admission has become more competitive as the state’s budget crisis has cut funding and enrollment. To get in, students need to attend not only high schools with high-quality academic programs, but also middle schools with strong academics to prepare them for college-prep classes in high school, Lopez said.
Scholarships for black or Latino students are one means of motivating those students to prepare for college, he said.
Jeffrey, who has a 4.25 cumulative grade-point average, plans to go to San Diego State University next year to double major in English and business.
Todd Pollard, another teacher at King High, said he felt bad for Jeffrey because winning a scholarship isn’t easy. Pollard recalled the feeling of accomplishment he had when he won scholarships as a teen.
Jeffrey’s decision to return it speaks to his character, the language arts teacher said.
“I don’t think many people would have returned it,” Pollard said.