Kayla Webster and her aunt, Erica Redmond, were both in tears.
The last few months have been difficult, so emotions come easily these days, but this time, they were tears of joy.
Webster, of Beverly, is a senior at Phoenix Military Academy, a magnet high school in East Garfield Park that is part of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). During a surprise ceremony on Feb. 27, she was awarded a $2,500 Black History Month Scholarship for college by Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers and representatives of BMO Harris Bank.
Over the last year, her aunt said, Webster has dealt with personal tragedy, including the death of her grandmother.
But that didn’t stop her from excelling in the classroom and earning the scholarship—and then celebrating with Redmond.
“Seeing my aunt made me cry because I thought no one knew about it,” Webster said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my family’s not going to be here,’ because I heard I was winning something. … My uncle texted me saying it’s going to be big. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I saw my aunt. I was just in tears.”
Webster won the scholarship after participating in the 11th annual Black History Month Essay Competition co-sponsored by the city treasurer’s office and BMO Bank.
The essay required applicants to write about an issue that their communities face “that often goes unnoticed.” Webster wrote about problems the black community members deal with and solutions they’re proposing.
Redmond, the only family member who was able to attend the ceremony, grew emotional when talking about the pride she has for her niece in winning the scholarship, which was open to all CPS seniors.
“She deserves it,” Redmond said. “She’s beyond smart—smarter than I think she knows. If anybody deserves it, she does.”
Webster began the school day just like any other. Soon enough, however, she thought she might be in for a treat.
“I kind of caught on this morning when I saw the news [media] people,” Webster said. “My sergeant started talking to me like I won something, but I didn’t know what.”
Soon enough, Summers announced Webster as the winner. In a prepared statement, he said Webster’s essay hit close to home.
“I was struck by Kayla’s insights into the consequences of lack of education funding for communities of color, specifically the school-to-prison pipeline,” Summers said. “Growing up in Bronzeville, I saw some of the same challenges affecting my school and my community. It was inspiring for me to read about Kayla’s hope for equitable education funding and strong communal support, ensuring that young people of color can lift themselves up and achieve their personal and professional aspirations.”
Corliss Garner, vice president of diverse markets at BMO Harris Bank, said Webster’s essay impressed judges.
“Each year, the Black History Month Scholarship gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the communities that we serve,” Garner said. “We were excited to learn about Kayla’s passion for justice and equity in under-resourced communities. We couldn’t have thought of a more deserving scholarship recipient, and we wish her all the best in her education and career.”
Webster has been active in a variety of ways at Phoenix. She co-founded the Black Student Union and served as an editor of the school’s newspaper and yearbook. On Feb. 28, she led efforts to turn the entire school into a black history museum to celebrate Black History Month.
She has also been on the honor roll for the last three years.
Webster has several colleges she is considering, including Loyola-Marymount, Beloit, DePaul, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Clara and California.
She said she wants to study international business and law. She called that field “my first love,” as she’s attended several fairs and conventions regarding the subjects.
“I’ve always wanted to be the boss in the big office, and I stuck with it,” Webster said. “And it’s something that I’m looking forward to doing in my future.”
Webster, who attended Barnard Elementary School, admitted that Phoenix wasn’t exactly her first high school choice—it was the only selective-enrollment school that admitted her. She was an “OK student” in elementary school, she said, but she’s now thriving at Phoenix, a place she loves.“I kind of had no choice to be here, but it was probably one of the best choices I ever made,” Webster said. “I’m actually grateful that I didn’t do that hot in eighth grade.”
Webster had to deal with a little bit of “adversity” lately, as her aunt put it, but she maintained her focus and can now look forward to starting her college education with some help with tuition.
Redmond said Webster’s diligence in the face of adversity has made her family proud.
“She stayed a good student,” Redmond said. “She stayed positive as much as she could.”