By Martha Shanahan
Alversia Wade, a senior at Waterford High School, has attended predominantly white schools her entire life.
One of six Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship winners this year, Wade said Thursday night she had been told she didn't speak the way most black people do.
"How is a black person supposed to speak?" she wondered in a speech to a packed crowd at the awards dinner.
Wade was one of six local high school seniors to receive a $20,000 scholarship from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund at the Mystic Marriott.
Wade said she shook off stereotypes in order to become one of the 2015 winners of the scholarship.
She encouraged the local eighth graders who attended the dinner to do the same.
"Don't let them put you in that box — break free," she said.
Wade, a co-captain of the swimming and diving teams at Waterford High, plans to attend Spelman College, eventually get a Ph.D. in biology and become a pediatrician.
The six recipients each spoke about Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and his impact on their lives.
Former teacher and New London mayor Eunice McLean Waller and her husband, William DeHomer Waller, founded the scholarship award after King's death in 1968 with a $100 award to a student who exemplified the civil rights leader's ideals.
In the years since, 133 students from southeastern Connecticut have been awarded scholarships through the fund.
Scholarship recipient Anneliese L. Lapides, a senior East Lyme High School, said her parents taught her about King before she even learned about him in school.
"I idolized him, I wanted to change the world the way he did," she said. "I want to pursue my passion for helping people."
Lapides hopes to study biology and international relations at either Brown University, Cornell University or Boston University.
Diaj K. Toussaint, a senior at Norwich Free Academy, spoke about his father, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 18 and worked low-wage jobs without being able to read or write.
"Education could have rescued him, knowledge could have protected him," Toussaint said.
His father never learned to read, but Toussaint, a member of several clubs and the Norwich Robertstine Duncan Youth Council, said he wants to honor him by getting an education.
He hopes to attend Columbia University and study computer science and electrical engineering, he said.
Kiana Foster-Mauro, a senior at Fitch High School, hopes to attend Fordham, Hofstra or Boston University to study to become a teacher.
Foster-Mauro, a peer mediator, teaching assistant and member of her school's humanitarian and photography clubs, thanked her parents and her teachers for inspiring her.
"Learning makes me feel alive," she said.
Kobe Haley, a New London Science and Technology Magnet High School senior and a captain on the football team, said he hopes to attend either Yale or the University of Connecticut and wants to be a surgeon.
Haley is also a member of the track team, participates in the More Than Words leadership program, coaches football to young kids at New London High school, and last summer worked as an intern in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy plasma lab.
Shandara Smith, a senior at the Norwich Free Academy, a varsity cheerleader and an avid volunteer at various Norwich organizations, made a promise in her speech to the audience Thursday.
"I will return, and I will fund another scholarship for dreamers just like myself," she said, receiving a standing ovation.