South Elgin H.S. Grad Wins 2024 American Dream Fellowship Contest

June 7, 2024 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications


american dream scholarship

Elmhurst University has named South Elgin High School graduate Gia Nitti the 2024 winner of the American Dream Fellowship Competition, awarding her a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to attend Elmhurst U. this fall.

The second-place winner was Armani Smith, a recent graduate of West Aurora High School. He received a $10,000 renewable scholarship to attend Elmhurst.

Elmhurst University launched the annual American Dream Fellowship Competition in 2018 to celebrate and reward first-generation college students. Ninety-four high school students, all first-generation college students who have been admitted to Elmhurst, entered this year’s competition. They and their families then were invited to come to Elmhurst U.—in person or remotely—for Round 2, where they met other contest participants, took part in a group project, and joined panel discussions about the college experience.

The day culminated in an awards ceremony hosted by University President Troy D. VanAken, a first-generation college student himself. During the ceremony, each participant was recognized and presented with a $1,000 scholarship. The winning group project, as well as the first-place and second-place winners, also were announced.

Addressing the students, President VanAken recalled his college experience and how it transformed not only his life but also the lives of his family.

“While we do live with many challenges in the world and in our own country, we also live in a place with many opportunities, so I hope that you will take advantage of this opportunity to live your American Dream,” he said.

To enter the scholarship competition, students were asked to submit a video with their take on this topic: “The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success. What is your version of success?”

In her first-place video, Nitti, who plans to major in exercise science at Elmhurst, described being raised to believe that the definition of success is “all the goals you’ve set for yourself and accomplished.” She spent much of her childhood and teen years winning awards and recognition in dance and athletics, always looking for the next challenge. She recently realized that true success wasn’t as much about accomplishing her goals as “learning to appreciate all the moments working towards them” with joy, friendship and gratitude.

Smith, who plans to major in music education, said in his video that his version of succeeding begins, ironically, with failing. “Failure is essential for us to know what success even looks like,” he said, adding that “every time failure occurs, so does learning and so does growth.” He considers himself successful because “even when life got hard, I pushed hard to make it better every single day.”

At the awards ceremony, Elmhurst University also announced winners of the award for best group project. This year, the award was presented to two groups. Each member of the groups won a $2,500 renewable scholarship that can be applied in addition to any other financial aid each student receives. The group winners include:

  • Kaylee Aimone from Plainfield, Ill.
  • Estefania Camarillo from Chicago
  • Zachary Hartwig from Berwyn, Ill.
  • Eduardo Vargas from Glendale Heights, Ill.
  • Abril Sanchez from Bensenville, Ill.
  • Heaven-Leigh Scalf from Canton, Ill.
  • LuTavia Smith from Aurora, Ill.
  • Andrea Sosa from Chicago
  • Ivonne Vazquez from Bloomingdale, Ill.

The American Dream Fellowship Competition and other initiatives to support first-generation college students demonstrate Elmhurst University’s commitment to building a caring community and diverse student body that will enable students to excel in their careers and become inclusive leaders.

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