MUHS senior wins national scholarship for persistence


MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School senior Paige Williamson is the only Vermont student to win a Horatio Alger Association scholarship this year. It’s a reward for her academic persistence in the face of hardship. During her junior year at MUHS, Williamson, 17, lost her mom to cancer. Independent photo/John Flowers
Winning the scholarship “was like all the work I’d been doing was important, and people were seeing it. People were seeing I was working through these challenges, and that’s the important part.” — Paige Williamson

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union High School senior Paige Williamson was thrilled to learn she’d won a $25,000 college scholarship through the Horatio Alger Association (HAA).

The only thing missing was the ability to share the moment of euphoria with her chief motivator and best friend — her mom, Cheryl Rose Kirby, who died in December of 2019 following a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer.

“I know she would be ecstatic to hear I won this award; she would probably be screaming if she heard about it and would be talking about it all the time,” Paige, a diminutive dynamo, said tenderly as a late-winter breeze feathered a wisp of dark hair across her face.

“She did everything she possibly could to give me a better life, especially since she knew she probably wasn’t going to live much longer,” she added.

Indeed, her mom Cheri would be very proud. Her daughter is the only Vermont resident to win a national scholarship this year from the HAA. In addition to the financial award, Paige will receive an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., this spring to participate in the National Scholars Conference.

The Horatio Alger Association promotes the values exemplified by its namesake, Horatio Alger, Jr., a prolific American author in the 19th and early 20th centuries whose books inspired readers to work hard and persevere through adversity. Alger’s many books recount how a can-do spirit and individual initiative can enable anyone to achieve their dreams, regardless of circumstances.

Sadly, Paige more than qualified on the adversity criterion.

Her folks split up when she was a baby. Paige was raised by her mom, who was very ill.

“She had cancer my entire life, pretty much,” Paige recalled.

In fact she can’t remember her mom ever not having cancer. It was a rollercoaster ride, with periods during which her mom was bedridden, to happier times when she was in remission.

School had always been a source of stability for Paige, who will turn 18 early next month. But the coronavirus pandemic took that away from her just three months after her mom’s death.

Distance learning hasn’t provided the same intellectual satisfaction and social interaction that had sustained Paige through the rough times.

“I really love school,” she said. “It’s always been my thing. With coronavirus it’s been difficult, because I love being here.”

Paige’s grades began to suffer and she admittedly wasn’t sure what the future might hold for her. Neither of her parents had attended college, and she didn’t think she was going to break that streak.

Until a special person made a profound difference in her life: Carrie Harlow, a Vermont Student Assistance Corp. counselor. She urged Paige to apply to colleges, and gave her plenty of leads on scholarships and financial aid — including the Horatio Alger opportunity.

“Without (Harlow), I wouldn’t be applying to college,” Paige said emphatically. “I wouldn’t be in this situation or have this life ahead of me if it wasn’t for her. She’s been a tremendous help to me — not only academically, but emotionally she’s always been there for me.”

FATEFUL PHONE CALL

She applied for the HAA scholarship last October, then basically forgot about it — until early February when an HAA representative called Paige and coyly asked her name contact information in the event she were to receive a scholarship. As soon as she’d provided the requested info, the caller dropped all pretense and said, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted as a Horatio Alger scholar.”

It was quite the stunner.

“I was not expecting that,” she said with laugh. “It didn’t sink in, at first. I’d been having a hard time and I was thinking there’s no way I was going to get into the colleges that I really liked.”

That single phone call gave her reassurance and a renewed sense of optimism.

“It was like all the work I’d been doing was important, and people were seeing it,” Paige said. “People were seeing I was working through these challenges, and that’s the important part.”

Among those heaping praise on Paige is her guardian, Shaina Roorda. Roorda had known Paige’s mom since kindergarten. She’s taken Paige into her home and is treating her like one of her own children.

“Paige has always had huge dreams,” Roorda said. “She’s always been determined to do great, amazing things. She’s very dedicated to her school and puts in a lot of work. We’re so proud of her.”

Paige has applied to a dozen colleges and universities, and is on pins and needles as she waits for responses. Her top choice is Bryn Mawr College, located outside of Philadelphia. She hopes to pursue a career in international relations and diplomacy.

Who influenced her affinity for international relations?

Her mom, of course. She at one time had worked at Autumn Harp in Bristol. The workforce there was quite diverse.

“She knew a lot of people who were from different countries, and a lot of her friends were immigrants,” Paige said. “They really helped her out when she was sick and were really great friends. Their lives were so interesting, and what they had to overcome to live in this place.”

International relations demands knowledge of different languages and cultures, and Williamson yearns to travel. She’s taken a few years of Spanish and wants to learn other languages — including Arabic and Mandarin.

Adrien Preston is Paige’s counselor at MUHS. She, too, admires Paige’s courage and persistence.

“Paige exemplifies what it means to persevere through obstacles with an open heart, focus and determination,” Preston said. “She is exceptionally bright, resilient, driven and focused on achieving her dreams. It has been such an honor to work with Paige these past four years.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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