Women who overcame everything from homelessness to culture shock have been recognized for their efforts in overcoming adversity with their selection as recipients of college scholarships from the American Association of University Women Ashland branch.

Basing their decisions on the recipients' academic merit and inspiration to the community, representatives of the AAUW awarded scholarships on May 24 to 14 women who are attending Rogue Community College or Southern Oregon University.

“When I first came to the U.S. I was surprised at how beautiful it was. But the most surprising thing to me was that people were treated equally,” said scholarship recipient Yang Shu, a senior accounting major at SOU who was raised in a small tea-farming village in southwest China.

In her acceptance speech, Shu told a story of her initial shock when cars stopped in the street to allow her to cross and how fascinating it was that “people’s lives are valued and accepted just because we are human.”

A wife, mother, and the first college graduate in her family, she plans to complete a master’s degree in business and become a certified public accountant.

“I feel obligated to this country, to the people, and those values,” Shu said. “I want to help preserve what you have and I want to help spread that to other countries and to other women around the world.”

Other recipients displayed enormous resilience throughout their lives, facing issues ranging from homelessness to abuse and life-altering injuries. Others were mothers who had decided to continue their education despite their age and financial struggles.

Once afflicted with severe depression, award recipient Mary Margaret Kelly is now pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.

“I truly believe that my experiences with mental health and this scholarship will help me to become an excellent and empathetic counselor,” she said while holding back tears.

“Without this involvement in school I don’t know where I would be,” said Caitlynn Abshire, who was homeless for nearly six months after moving to Medford with her mother from Arizona.

Abshire attributed her success in high school and acceptance into SOU’s McNair Scholarship program to two exceptional high school teachers. With the help of the AAUW scholarship she will enter her senior year at SOU, graduating as a first-generation college student.

Aiyana Donske, a junior at SOU majoring in psychology, recalled when she opened the email alerting her that she had received the award.

“I cried because my story wasn’t silenced this time,” she said, referring to previous personal struggles. “My story was finally heard with gentleness and non-judging hearts.”

“This scholarship was given to me by women who understand what deep hurt feels like, given to me by an organization whose goal was to help aid,” Donske said in thanking the AAUW members for their work and generosity.

SOU President Linda Schott emphasized to the recipients that they earned the recognition.

“It’s important to have that boost of confidence that comes from a group of esteemed women such as the one here saying ‘We think you’re worth it,’” Schott told the award winners. “They’re smart women. Believe them.”

— Ashland freelance writer Hannah Jones is editor of The Siskiyou, the Southern Oregon University student-run news website. Email her at hannah.m.jones21@gmail.com.