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Deja Chapman, a 2014 Greeneville High School graduate, received an invitation to participate in a discussion with First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Deja was one of ten recent high school graduates from across the nation selected for this special opportunity. The White House called the event “Beating the Odds.”  As the name implies, the attendees were selected because they come from challenging life circumstances, have succeeded in high school, and have established clear goals for completing a college education.  By accepting the invitation, Deja was asked to share with Mrs. Obama her life experiences and how more students can be encouraged to see post-secondary education as a goal for their future. 

She was accompanied to Washington, D.C. by Angelia Rodriguez, Director of the Family Support Center for Greeneville City Schools. Ms. Rodriguez has been a mentor to Deja since her arrival in Greeneville at the age of 11.  Commenting about their experience, Ms. Rodriguez said: “Dr. James Comer states that "no significant growth occurs without a significant relationship." I believe that relationship is key to the foundation of healthy beginnings in every area of life.  This life-altering adventure has been just that for Deja and for the other amazing nine students who participated with this opportunity. I am honored to have played a small part in this life-altering experience. Thank you does not adequately express the gratitude and appreciation to the Niswonger Foundation for their role in this monumental occasion and for their dedication to our students, schools, and communities.”

Deja’s selection was the result of a contact to the Niswonger Foundation by the United States Department of Education.  Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan contacted the Foundation for assistance in identifying a student to participate in this discussion.  In addition to the time spent at the White House, the student representatives visited the U. S. Department of Education for a meeting with Commissioner Duncan.

The Niswonger Foundation has gained a national reputation for their work in the areas of rural education and college and career readiness. As examples, their work in 30 of the region’s high schools has dramatically impacted the number of available online and Advanced Placement courses; the number of high school students taking college level courses; and science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) instruction.  The Niswonger Foundation’s nine College and Career Counselors have an established program of working with regional high school students in preparing for post-secondary education. 

Mrs. Obama has a focus on assisting our nation’s students in seeing post-secondary education as a goal for their lives. Her college and career focused efforts align closely with the mission and work of the Niswonger Foundation in Northeast Tennessee. Foundation President and Founder Scott M. Niswonger commented:” Deja represents what our work is about, every day, at the Niswonger Foundation. We want the students of our region to not see challenges as roadblocks, but to see them as opportunities. Deja’s clear focus on personal excellence and perseverance sets a perfect example for other students to follow.  We were proud to have her as a representative for our region”

Deja was raised in a military family. Her mother and step-father are Army veterans.  Her mother has served in the military for 15 years.  Her step-father is a 20 year veteran. Both have been deployed several times. She spent her young life moving to different army bases with her family.  In the seventh grade, she was brought to Greeneville, Tennessee to live with her grandmother, where she remains today. 

In high school, Deja was a cheerleader, member of the dance team, and a section leader of her chorus. In choir, she received honors as “All East” and “All State.”  She was also a member of the Key Club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the 1st Priority Club.  She has received numerous awards including National Honor Society, Tennessee Scholar, Honor Scholar, Honors Diploma, Graduate of Distinction, and Student of the Year for AHERN, Inc.  Deja serves as president of her church Youth Board, and is the first recipient of the Fannye M. Jones Scholarship, which honors exceptional African-American students in Greene County, Tennessee.

In speaking of this opportunity, Deja stated: “Meeting First Lady Michelle Obama was an experience more special than I could have imagined.  In the few moments that the other students and I shared with her, we were able to establish a sense of safety and trust which allowed us to openly share our stories.  Mrs. Obama gave us each her full attention. She expressed her dedication to helping students like us succeed.  As hard as I try, I simply cannot put into words how incredible she is as a leader and person.” 

Deja’s passion is science. She has received a scholarship to attend Pennsylvania State University. After completing her undergraduate degree, she envisions attending Duke Medical School and becoming a pediatric oncologist.

Dr. Linda Stroud, Director of Greeneville City Schools commented: “Deja Chapman embodies the character and accomplishments that Greeneville City Schools and Greeneville High School strive to instill in all of our students.  We simply could not be more proud of her and we are honored that Deja was chosen for this once in a lifetime opportunity.   I know that Deja has a bright future and will continue to beat all odds as she continues her education and career.”

In summary, Deja commented: “This experience has helped me with my transition to college.  I leave for my orientation at Penn State next week.  I will forever be grateful to the Niswonger Foundation and Dr. Linda Stroud for providing me with this opportunity and supporting me through it.” When asked what directs her in life, Deja commented:  “I realize the future is uncertain.  However, I believe one should plan like it is certain!” 

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