“I am so very grateful for this. But I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” Verda Tetteh, 17, said during the Fitchburg High School graduation ceremony on Friday.
The crowd, made up of her fellow classmates, their families, teachers and school administrators, applauded and cheered Tetteh after she made her announcement.
“When she started speaking on the microphone, I was overwhelmed. I think a lot of people in the stadium were, honestly,” Principal Jeremy Roche said. “I was so moved by her generosity.”
Tetteh, 17, told CNN she plans to study biochemistry at Harvard College in the fall. During the impromptu speech, Tetteh told the crowd that she was inspired by her mother, who had attended community college.
The school has awarded its General Excellence Award to a graduating boy and girl since 1914. The prize was augmented in 2004 with a substantial financial scholarship of $10,000 a year, which can be renewed for up to four years’ worth of undergraduate education, Assistant Principal Tom DiGeronimo said.
Tetteh had applied for the award, “but for some reason, I thought it would automatically go to someone who needed it more, so I had ruled myself out.”
She said she was initially happy.
“Then I sat down, and it hit me. This is $40,000. That’s a lot of money. Obviously I could use that,” Tetteh said. “But there’s definitely someone sitting in this crowd who needs it more.”
Rosemary Annan, Tetteh’s mother, had immigrated from Ghana, before having Tetteh in the United Kingdom. She currently works two jobs, including an overnight shift at a group home, she told CNN.
Annan was “in shock” as she watched her daughter take the stage again, but was proud when her daughter spoke about her hopes for the scholarship money.
“I just knew she’s ready for me to let her be on her own,” Annan said. “I’m not afraid, and I’m not sad about it that someone’s going to get some good help. If I had gotten that help, I would have been thrilled.”
Tetteh has received additional scholarships, in addition to financial aid from Harvard College, she said.
The school is now in the process of contacting the family that had initially set up the scholarship to see if they would be open to reallocating the money, administrators told CNN.
“We’re blessed to be a blessing,” Tetteh said. “I thought that I was in the position where God has blessed me so much, and I thought it was the right thing to do to bless somebody else.”