Growing up, Emmalynn Beck was told her chances of success were slim due to circumstances she was born into, but the Danville senior wasn't about to let herself become another statistic.
Now 17, Beck is among 34 students nationwide to be named an Alexander Hamilton Scholar this year.
She will join the rest of the scholars Saturday in New York City for the first of four Leader Weeks they will attend over the next five years.
"The main purpose of the Alexander Hamilton award is to help us make more educated decisions on going to college and stuff," Beck said. "So we'll start making a college list and working out what colleges will work for me and for the other Hamilton Scholars, and kind of figure out FAFSA, because I know nothing about FAFSA."
They also will tour Columbia College, talk to college admissions professionals and go to a Broadway show.
The award recognizes students for their academic, personal, service and entrepreneurial accomplishments. The award is for $500 and a five-year program designed to empower recipients to generate long-term, systemic improvements that will create positive change on a national scale and be successful in college and career with yearly conferences called Leader Weeks. It provides a network of support and practical guidance to scholars through life's transitions, such as going from high school to college and going from college to a career.
The program will help guide Beck on what steps she will take to bring about educational reform.
"I just want to work on educational reform in the government," Beck said, pointing to U.S. secretary of education as being her ultimate goal. "Education, when looking at our country as a whole, is the most important thing. You can't do anything if you don't have smart people."
Beck applied for the award during Christmas break after coming across is while searching for scholarship opportunities through the I Have a Plan Iowa website. The application consisted of several essays asking applicants to share adversities they've faced, why they feel they should get the award and what their future plans are.
"Nobody is what they came from. You create your own person, and I believe that 100 percent," she said.
Her experience proves it.
Beck was born in Danville, where her father was a known drug addict. Her parents divorced before she was born, but he would continue to drop in and out of she and her family's life.
"There were a lot of drugs in my life, I guess, and there was always this sense of feeling like you're never going to amount to anything," she said.
She was 8 years old when she, her sister and mother moved to Ottumwa. She recalled a time in sixth grade when a woman came to the school and shared with her class statistics that suggest children born into families whose members abuse drugs are more likely to be incarcerated and less likely to be successful.
"I was like no, that's not going to be me. I'm not going to be a statistic," Beck said. "So I got kind of mad, which is good in a sense."
Determined to prove those statistics wrong, she went on to do well in school, though she felt she wasn't really learning anything.
"I think if I could've been using algebra to do a project, it would've made a lot more sense to me," Beck said.
Life had grown hectic in Ottumwa and freshman year was difficult for Beck. She moved back to Danville to live with her grandparents. After a summer in a stable environment, Beck was ready to start her sophomore year running, literally. She joined the track team and met a girl who told her she should try cheerleading. That was how she met then-cheerleading coach Eva Carr, whom she described as the most positive person she has ever met.
"I think that really is what drove me, though, and it sounds crazy, but it's cheering, because I constantly had something I was doing each week that brought joy to my life," she said.
She became active in other other extracurriculars as well and continued to get good grades, but there something that still bothered her.
"I kind of realized even though I have all these As, I'm not learning anything, and I was getting really really mad, and then I took a college class," Beck said.
She took International Relations through Southeastern Community College. She found the content interesting and the class discussion stimulating.
"It inspired me, because it's not that I don't want to learn. It's just for me, learning things that I don't necessarily have an interest in is harder," she said.
Like so many people, she had a hard time with math as a middle-schooler. She feels the subject may have been easier to learn if it had been taught with project-based learning.
She began researching other countries with "top notch" education.
"It irritates me because I wish I could've had those opportunities, because I feel like the way my brain works it would've gone better and I'd be a lot smarter," Beck said.
She wants to see more hands-on course options for middle school students and more involved discussions for online courses.
She already has begun to work toward creating policy change within her school district through her service on the School Improvement Advisory Committee, which is composed of a couple parents, teachers, students and administrators who discuss school policy and changes to be considered. Beck joined the committee after filling in for a classmate who serves on it, but she and Superintendent Thomas Ward hit it off and she was invited to attend future meetings.
Through SIAC, she hopes to be able to cut back on the number of standardized tests Danville High School students are required to take each year in addition to the Iowa Assessment.
"It's really annoying, because we do them during class, so it kind of takes away from what we've been doing all week because we spend three days finishing the tests," Beck said.
She also is working to establish a peer tutoring program at her school through her seat on student council, helped bring Dance Marathon to Danville High School, co-founded a book club, helped her Quiz Bowl team earn a second-place title at the Southeast Iowa Superconference competition, and has participated in numerous fundraisers for the Interact Club.
She looks forward to the opportunities the Alexander Hamilton Scholar Award with provide her, as well as getting to know her co-scholars at Leader Weeks. Next year's conference will be in Seattle, the third will be in Guatemala and the fourth will be in Dallas.