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‘Fostering a great sense of courage’

In 2003, Simona Vareikaite was rejected by all but one New York City high school, which was required by the state to accept the self-described teenage “girl from the Bronx with something to prove.”

Vareikaite, now 22, will graduate with a degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University on Friday, some nine years after she chose school over a potential life in gangs or in jail.

The soon-to-be-graduate — who completed two co-ops and cofounded a student-run organization that aims to improve the lives of underprivileged youth worldwide while at Northeastern — recounted her journey on Thursday afternoon at a luncheon for the second graduating class of Torch Scholars.

The six-year-old initiative supports first-generation, low-income students like Vareikaite who exhibit potential in nontraditional ways. Based on data from the first graduating class, 100 percent of scholars were either employed in their fields or are in graduate school within one month of graduation.

Torch encompasses what it means to persist and fostered in me a great sense of courage,” Vareikaite told approximately 100 members of the Northeastern community who filled a festive tent on Centennial Common. “I wasn’t defined based on my GPA, but was recognized for who I was at my core.”

In his remarks, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun commended the Torch Scholars for their outstanding achievement both on campus and abroad.

Ryan Arias, a criminal justice major from San Francisco, for example, studied at the London School of Economics and interned at Parliament. Monyrath Chan, a biochemistry major, has conducted research in three different labs and published two posters, one of which was recently presented in Washington, D.C.

“Each of you has transformed yourselves, us and higher education,” Aoun told the scholars, whom he referred to as “ambassadors.” “You are living proof that opportunities are boundless.”

“Don’t forget that Northeastern will always be your home,” he said.

Torch Scholars inspire program benefactor Ted English, BS’76, who, Aoun said, “believed in the program from day one.”

“I marvel at all the graduates here,” English said. “What you have overcome to get to this point is truly enormous.”

Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte, N.C., the city in which Northeastern opened its first graduate campus in October, encouraged the scholars to draw on their collegiate success in times of hardship.

“Knowing what you have been able to achieve is source material for when you have to confront challenges later in life,” he said. “What gives us confidence about taking on challenges in the future is what we’ve accomplished in the past.”

He offered the scholars a piece of life advice. “Discern your purpose,” he told them. “It’s what’s in your core — what motivates your thinking, behaviors and choices.”

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