KOKOMO, Ind. — Never give up.
That is Alessandra Smith’s motto, and her advice to anyone facing difficulties.
She could have given up as a high school freshman, when a sudden illness kept her at home or in the hospital most of the school year. Finally diagnosed with two chronic health conditions, Smith continued to study at home, until she was well enough to return to school. Dedicated teachers helped her keep up with the honors classes she had selected, so she could graduate on time with her Northwestern High School class.
Her persistence paid off, with Indiana University Kokomo’s most prestigious scholarship.
Smith, 18, is the campus’ 2015 Adam W. Herbert Presidential Scholar. The program offers four-year renewable scholarships, along with other benefits, to exceptional Indiana students. The scholarships are valued at $30,000 each.
She learned she has received the scholarship while preparing for a performance of the musical Beauty and the Beast at Northwestern High School. A friend answered Smith’s phone, listened for a moment, and then told her she better take the call.
“I think I cried a little bit,” she said of receiving the news. “I am extraordinarily thankful for every person who helped me. Had I not been able to stay in my honors classes, and had I not had teachers ready and willing to assist me, this would not have been possible. This is my whole education, and my future, and I am humbled and grateful beyond measure.”
Chancellor Susan Sciame-Giesecke congratulated Smith on the honor.
“It is always a pleasure to be able to recognize the academic achievements of one of our top incoming students,” she said. “I am sure Alessandra will be a successful student and leader on our campus.
“We are grateful to President Emeritus Adam W. Herbert for founding this program, to reward outstanding Indiana students for their hard work and effort.”
Smith’s struggle began the first day of her freshman year in high school, when she fainted and was sent home. She was later diagnosed with epilepsy and dysautonomia, an umbrella term used to describe several different medical conditions that cause a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system. This system controls automatic functions of the body, such as heart rates, blood pressure, digestion, and temperature control. People with various forms of dysautonomia have trouble regulating these systems, which can result in lightheadedness, fainting, unstable blood pressure, abnormal heart rates, malnutrition, and in severe cases, death.
Smith had planned to be an elementary school teacher, like her mother, but her experiences in the health care system inspired her to choose nursing. She selected IU Kokomo for its highly rated School of Nursing.
“After being a patient for a long time, I want to do what other people did, or should have done, for me,” she said. “There were good and bad doctors and nurses, and all of them inspired me.”
She had wanted to live at home while going to school, and was pleased to find a high-quality program in her hometown.
“I am earning a degree from Indiana University, which has one of the most respected Schools of Nursing around, and I can do it while living at home,” she said. “I am really excited about being an IU Kokomo student. I feel this campus is the best fit for me.”
Smith and her parents, David and Darvenia Smith, are all excited and relieved to have the financial burden of college removed. Her brother Alec recently graduated from college, and worked to pay part of his tuition and expenses. Her health condition would make it difficult for her to work and go to school.
“We are proud, and honored, and grateful for this award,” she said. “It was going to be stressful for us all. Now I know my college is taken care of, and I can just concentrate on getting my degree and preparing for my future.”
Smith hopes her story inspires other students with special needs.
“It may feel impossible at the time, but strive for it anyway, and you may end up where you never dreamed you can be,” she said. “Teachers, please don't give up on students, and don't feel like everything you do doesn't make a difference. You have the impact to build futures for students. You're changing lives. Mine is definitely changed for the better and I am so honored and grateful.”
Herbert created the program during his tenure, as the Hoosier Presidential Scholars program. The Board of Trustees renamed it in 2007, to honor Herbert’s commitment to recruiting and retaining talented young Hoosiers.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.