Jeffrey Warren found out on senior awards night that he was the winner of a scholarship meant for African-American students.
No big deal.
That's how 17-year-old Jeffrey Warren describes his decision to return a $1,000 college scholarship meant for black students.
“I just thought it was the right thing to do,” says Warren, who is white.
His decision is winning him praise for his character – and offers of alternate financial help.
A hush, followed by some giggles, enveloped the Martin Luther King High School gym in Riverside, Calif., when it was announced on senior awards night that Warren was the winner of the scholarship awarded by the local Martin Luther King Senior Citizens Club.
The $1,000 scholarship, one of two awarded annually by the seniors club, is meant for African-American students. Club members didn’t know Warren is white until he rose to receive the award.
“We just couldn’t believe it at the outset. It was really something. There was a mixed feeling in the crowd,” recalled Etta Brown, chairwoman of the club’s scholarship committee, of the May 22 ceremony.
“People were surprised. Laughter started to come up from crowd,” Warren said. “They still shook my hand, they still said ‘thank you.’”
After some contemplation, Warren and his parents decided to return the scholarship. They sent an email the next day informing the MLK senior citizens club of the decision.
Warren Family / Warren family
Jeffrey Warren and his mom Frances Warren on graduation night.
“They said they would accept it back. They were very nice about it. They thanked me for being generous and for being a great kid,” Warren told msnbc.com on Tuesday.
“Jeffrey and I wanted them to be happy,” Rod Warren, who teaches language arts at the high school, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise, which first reported on the episode. “The ladies were trying to do something really nice.”
The scholarship application itself stated only that African-Americans were “encouraged” to apply. Warren applied online and apparently never saw a separate letter sent to school counselors specifying that it was for black students.
Some club members felt Jeffrey should be allowed to keep the scholarship, Brown told msnbc.com. “It was a very thoughtful decision between his family and himself that they would not accept it,” she said.
“I think it says a lot for his character and it says a lot of the character for the family,” said King High School Principal Darel Hansen.
“This was not something the school or school district asked him to do. He in our opinion won the award in good faith though there was a mix-up.”
Jeffrey’s scholarship was later awarded to a runner-up -- a female African-American student.
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Organizations using private money, like the MLK seniors club, are allowed to set their own eligibility criteria for scholarships they grant.
Brown said the club’s scholarship committee will meet to revise the language on the application to clarify it's for African-American students so there’s no misunderstanding in the future.
Warren won’t be totally lacking in financial help for college. Rod Warren told the Press-Enterprise his son applied for 27 scholarships and also won three others, two for $2,000 each and another $500 scholarship.
Hansen told msnbc.com that since the story made local headlines, several people have contacted the school “asking where they could send a check to make a donation to Jeffrey.”
Several teachers also showed up at his graduation party at his home on Saturday and presented him with an envelope with $351 in cash donations collected from school staff.
Warren said he plans to attend San Diego State University in the fall where he will major in English or business, or both. He says he wants to teach, like his dad.
Brown thinks he has a bright future ahead.
“He’s a really neat student,” Brown said. “He deserved it (the scholarship). Martin Luther King would say he did everything right.”
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