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Horatio Alger Scholar rises above abusive childhood


Freshman Whitney “Olivia” Wills overcame great odds before attending FIU – something a major scholarship organization has recognized.

Wills, whose mother was mentally ill, lived with various family members while growing up. As a teenager, she struggled with the stress of attending five different high schools and lived on her own for her last two years of school.

Whitney "Olivia" Wills last year at a conference for recipients of the Horatio Alger National Scholarship.

Whitney “Olivia” Wills last year at a conference for Horatio Alger National Scholarship recipients

“During my freshman year of high school, I had to deal with abuse and neglect on a daily basis and then had to stay up very late finishing all my homework,” Wills said. “I was hospitalized as a result of abuse. I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia nervosa. The psychologists made a big difference in my life, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Despite the conditions she was forced to endure, Wills always looked ahead. Today, the nursing major, who is also minoring in Spanish, credits these hardships as her motivation for pursuing a degree in the medical field.

Positive reinforcement

Last year Wills received a Horatio Alger National Scholarship to help her achieve her goal. She is one of six current students at FIU who has been honored by the association.

Every year, the Horatio Alger National Scholarship awards $20,000 to slightly more than 100 students in the nation. (Some of the other FIU recipients received smaller state awards.) What sets the program apart is that scholarship recipients have not only succeeded in the face of adversity, they are also committed to using their college education to help others.

“I always knew what I wanted to do: work in the health field, help people and contribute to the world,” Wills said.

In 2012, she graduated from high school with academic honors as a certified nursing assistant and with various college credits.

This past April, she attended the Horatio Alger National Scholars conference in Washington, D.C., which she says was the most amazing experience of her life thus far.

“When I got there I was given a [dress] gown and stepped into this gorgeous hotel. There were just so many surprises,” Wills said.

Connecting with an FIU icon

“We went to the Supreme Court. We met [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas and so many other influential people.”

Among those influential individuals was Dr. Herbert A. Wertheim.

Wills, center, at an evening event during the Horatio Alger National Scholarship conference. The more than 100 scholarship recipients -- all high school students who overcame overwhelming odds during their childhoods -- were each issued formal wear based on measurements they previously sent to the organizers.

Wills, center bottom, at an evening event during the Horatio Alger National Scholarship conference. The more than 100 scholarship recipients – all high school students who overcame difficult circumstances – were each issued formal wear based on measurements they previously sent to the organizers.

“We started talking, and he asked me where I was going to school. I told him FIU, and he gave me his card. I had no idea that the school of medicine at FIU was named in his honor,” Wills said.

“After that, I was so surprised. I was definitely meant to be here. He gave me an FIU Medicine pin. I still have it. I wear it every time I go to a special event.”

Wertheim, a long-time FIU benefactor and an official member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, is an active supporter of the scholarship program and remembers meeting Wills in the D.C. conference.

“She is a self-starter who knows where she wants to go. We are proud to have her here at FIU,” he said.

These days, the FIU freshman and member of the Honors College keeps busy with coursework for her seven classes and taking in the Miami culture.

“I love Spanish and Spanish music. This is one of the many reasons I chose FIU,” said Wills, who grew up in the Midwest.

In the future, she hopes to go to medical school and work with health organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. “My goal is to work as a missionary doctor,” she said.

Wills embodies the essence of a Horatio Alger National Scholarship recipient and is proud to be one of the students recognized by the association after years of struggling.

“People who struggle in society are also important. By dreaming and having a vision, we are able to overcome whatever limitations face us.”

 

Other FIU recipients of the Horatio Alger national or state scholarships are:

  • Tabitha Baker, Junior, Sociology/Anthropology
  • Maria Colon, Freshman/sophomore, Social Work
  • Laterika Kelly, Sophomore, Biomedical Engineering
  • Zaid Sheikh, Senior, Biomedical Engineering
  • Candice Tao, Senior, Criminal Justice