Ejabella Shrestha, a graduating senior, visited Fort Campbell High School one last time May 12 with her parents, Sudhir Shrestha and Julee Thaiba Shrestha.
Although she did not know the purpose, Ejabella knew she was meeting with Stacy Daniels, the high school’s senior guidance counselor.
“I love surprises,” Daniels said.
Her father, Sudhir, who recently retired from Warrior Transition Battalion, said he was concerned something may have been wrong.
“I thought OK, we will just go and figure it out, whatever it is,” he said. “We were shocked to hear the news that she was an awardee for a scholarship.”
Chris Casa Santa, guidance counselor at Barsanti Elementary School, presented Ejabella with a $5,000 scholarship from The Journey Home Project, an organization chaired by country music icon Charlie Daniels that supports veterans through scholarships, and Code of Vets, a veterans support organization.
“I am speechless,” Julee said. “It will help her a lot, so she can focus more on her education and her goals.”
Charlie Daniels, who is 82 and lives in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, wanted to present the award in person but was hesitant because of the COVID-19 pandemic and his advanced age, Casa Santa said.
Instead, he sent a video congratulating Ejabella, and Casa Santa was contacted by The Journey Home Project to make the presentation in Charlie Daniels’ place.
Ejabella was awarded the scholarship “for her academic, community service and leadership abilities,” Charlie Daniels said in the video. “Congratulations, well done and God bless.”
Ejabella, along with many other FCHS seniors, applied for the scholarship in December. Because the scholarship is so competitive, she said she was unsure if she would be selected.
“It’s amazing, I am so appreciative and grateful for this scholarship,” Ejabella said. “It is going to help me so much on my college journey and alleviate some of the financial burden.”
Ejabella will attend Texas Tech University in the fall where she will major in biology with the plan of eventually becoming a doctor.
“She will be the first doctor in the Family, in the Shrestha Family, in terms of being a medical doctor,” Sudhir said.
“She will, she will do it,” Julee added. “I am looking forward to her becoming a doctor.”
Setting the standard
Although FCHS has been closed since mid-March, the students, faculty and staff have been hard at work completing this academic year virtually. Despite the challenges COVID-19 brought, the school’s Class of 2020 set a record receiving $7 million in college scholarships.
“No class in the history of FCHS has ever earned this much in scholarship awards,” Daniels said. “Fort Campbell High School is a small school. Our total enrollment is approximately 450 students. This year, we have 87 graduates. Our per pupil scholarship earnings are significantly greater than area schools, based upon the previous year’s data.”
This achievement also speaks to the adaptability and resilience of Army children, she said.
“One thing is for certain in the Army – change is a way of life,” Daniels said. “I feel like our students are genuinely happy at Fort Campbell High School. Their history of transitions allows them to step into FCHS at any point in their high school career and thrive. Our school is open and welcoming, and I can honestly say that every student finds a place to fit in. FCHS becomes home quickly. In the Army, home is where you make it. My goal is for every student who leaves our school to be able to reflect back on their time at FCHS and feel a sense of home, support and genuine care.”
Path to higher education
Part of the Department of Defense Education Activity’s priorities is to implement college and career readiness at a very young age, Daniels said.
“In DoDEA, students are at the heart of all we do,” she said. “The standards we use throughout our grade levels are designed to be relevant to the real world. These standards allow students to master more critical-thinking and unique problem-solving skills, and to reflect the knowledge, skills and social foundations that our students need for success in both college and work.”
Once students arrive at FCHS, counselors invest time into getting to know each student on a personal level. Daniels assists students with college and scholarship applications, writes “dynamic” letters of recommendation, provides a constant source of encouragement and helps students with their college decisions.
“I also support the Families,” she said. “We often meet to wade through the myriad of college questions, Family concerns, FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] issues, and we work together to figure out how to pay for college. It is very important to me to help students have higher education options that are affordable for our Families. Each college offers varying amounts of financial assistance and students are often surprised of their scholarship offerings.”
Fort Campbell High School’s Class of 2020 has 87 graduates of which 95% received at least one scholarship and 63% have a 3.0 grade point average or higher. In total the graduates received 309 college acceptance letters including two Ivy League admissions, 36% earned a Career and Technical Pathway endorsement, one U.S. Presidential Scholar semi-finalist for Career and Technical Education, two U.S. Presidential Scholar semi-finalists, one United States Military Academy at West Point nomination, one United States Naval Academy nomination, one Army ROTC scholarship, one Navy ROTC scholarship, and eight graduating seniors have committed to military service – five have enlisted in the Army, one in the Navy, one in the Air Force and one in the Marines.
In August the staff and faculty will hit the ground running, Daniels said, to begin preparing the Class of 2021 for their future.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “We will follow our tried and true process for college admissions, FAFSA completion and scholarship applications, all the while maintaining rigorous courses and top grades that will prepare students for college and career success.”
And for the incoming freshman, Daniels advises they begin building strong relationships and making connections as they create their future paths.
“Connecting with teachers, staff, counselors and administrators is vital,” she said. “School staff members need to know students and Families, and clearly understand a student’s educational goals. Ideally, preparing for top-tier college admissions requires ‘boots on the ground’ from day one of high school. Decisions about what classes to take, making goals for achieving top grades, building a stellar student resume, becoming involved in activities and taking leadership roles in those activities and participating in summer programs are all essential items that school staff, students and Families work with jointly. If Families and students take advantage of our services and students work hard to achieve their goals, the sky is the limit.”