Donnay and Donshanay Brown share a birthday and a good portion of their genetic makeup. So it makes sense that they also share a few interests.
Throughout middle and high school, the twin sisters have both volunteered at the US Dream Academy, tutoring, reading with, and talking to elementary school students at the same DC learning center where they once spent time as youngsters. The Browns both enjoy babysitting their nieces and nephews at least once a week. And you’d have to squint to spot the difference in their stellar GPAs at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast DC—Donshanay earned a 4.17 to Donnay’s 4.2.
At the outset of 2021, though, a shared higher education destination was uncertain. Each twin’s college list featured many of the same schools—but not all. Donnay narrowed her interests to education and writing, while Donshanay winnowed it to accounting and psychology.
This spring, however, “a shock” arrived—times two. Donnay and Donshanay were both selected as members of AU’s latest cohort of District Scholars. Incredulous, the sisters snapped screenshots of their acceptance letters and sent them to their college advisor.
“It was just like, wow, out of all of these students in DC, and out of all of our peers, we got picked,” Donnay says.
It was disbelief mixed with relief, adds Donshanay. “It’s nice because even though we’re still in DC, it’s not all that close to home,” she says. And the (short) journey will come free of cost.
The 2021 AU District Scholars are, clockwise from top left, Diane Nguyen, Donnay Brown, Donshanay Brown, Francine Worsoff, Jocelyn Lopez Arias, Riley Campbell, and Tsenat Shifraw. Not pictured: Christian Smith.
Their scholarships are part of the $3 million AU dedicated to the District Scholars program in December 2019. The prestigious award—which covers full tuition and room and board—is given to high-achieving students from DC’s public and public charter high schools who demonstrate significant financial need.
“One of the pillars in our Changemakers for a Changing World strategy focuses on our partnerships in our Washington, DC, community,” says AU President Sylvia Burwell “and the District Scholars program provides the opportunity to help talented local students pursue their educational goals close to home and join fellow Eagles in shaping the future of their neighborhood and the world.”
It t is an “exciting process,” says Andrea Felder, assistant vice provost of undergraduate admissions, “to be able to select high-talent students who are right here in our backyard and who found AU to be a good fit for their college experience.” . The program has already prompted more students from the District to apply to AU, she adds.
In addition to its first ever set of twins, the second District Scholars cohort includes: Diane Nguyen and Tsenat Shifraw, Benjamin Banneker High School; Riley Campbell, Frank W. Ballou High School; Jocelyn Lopez-Arias, Woodrow Wilson Sr. High School; Christian Smith, KIPP DC; and Francine Worsoff, School Without Walls.
While Donshanay Brown’s academic interests are split between the Kogod School of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences, her sister will join the School of Education as one of two new District Scholar teaching fellows in SOE’s Teacher Pipeline Project. The initiative, which includes a dual enrollment program for high school seniors and scholarship opportunities for DC high school graduates, prepares young Washingtonians to return to DC Public Schools as teachers after graduation and meet the educational needs of the same community that nurtured them.
Donnay says her interest in teaching stems from looking after her young cousins and the pride she takes in small developmental milestones, such as when she gets them to use their words. Lopez-Arias, another incoming District Scholars teaching fellow, worked four days a week before the pandemic as an after-school counselor at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Woodley Park. She also nannies full-time.
“I just love kids, and I want to see how I can make an impact on them and get them to stay learning,” she says. “I know how easy it is for kids to just drift away from education.”
In the fall of her junior year, after four months of planning with United We Dream, the immigrant youth-led activist organization of which she is a member, Lopez-Arias led a walkout in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. The November 2019 trek to the Capitol, which drew hundreds of Wilson students, came on the eve of arguments before the US Supreme Court about the Trump administration’s efforts to terminate the 2012 immigration policy. The high court ultimately blocked DACA’s dismantling with a 5-4 decision in June 2020.
“The whole reason I’m in United We Dream is because my mom is an immigrant [from Mexico]. I have to do the most I can because of my family,” she says. “At first I did it for the community service, but then I fell in love with taking action and getting people to care about things.” Lopez-Arias hopes to start a chapter of the organization at AU.
Community service similarly doubled as a passion project for Nguyen. She first became involved in Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development (AALEAD) as an elementary school mentee and has served as a mentor since her freshman year at Banneker.
“There aren’t really all that many Asian students in DC, but [AALEAD] is a fun space for me because it gives me that Asian community,” says Nguyen, who also presided over Banneker’s Asian Cultural Club.
As part of AALEAD’s youth council, Nguyen conducted a research project in DC’s Chinatown, collecting data and interviewing community members about the impacts of gentrification. In their findings, the students recommended community programs ranging from a grocery bus to a forum for intergenerational meetings.
Nguyen says she’s not usually the type to show emotion, but when she reread her acceptance letter from AU this spring—she scrolled a bit too fast the first time, missing the detail about a full scholarship—she “almost cried.” She was overwhelmed but reflective—and proud that she had made her parents proud. The Nguyens immigrated to the US from Vietnam in the early aughts, when Nguyen’s mother was pregnant with her, and “they didn’t have the opportunity that I have now. I’m glad I decided to pick up on it.”
Nguyen said she’s still undecided between business and legal studies but looks forward to taking courses in each to gauge her interest.
“I’m just really excited to be at AU,” she says. “I can discover what I want, who I am, and what I’m capable of doing.”
Donnay and Donshanay Brown, Lopez-Arias, and Nguyen will be joined this fall by four other impressive District Scholars:
- Campbell, who plans to major in film and media arts, held multiple web content creator internships, coauthored the children’s book Man Up!, and participated in SOE’s Dual Enrollment Program.
- Shifraw, who will major in business administration and legal studies, participated in four high school clubs—gardening, chess, book, and Mikva Challenge—and organized a fifth, the international club. She and her family immigrated to the US from Ethiopia.
- Smith coached youth basketball while studying at KIPP DC. He plans to major in computer science.
- Worsoff, who has lived in the US, Canada, and Israel, will double major in journalism and international studies. She served as president of School Without Walls’ Poetry Club, worked as a Hebrew language counselor, and was a member of the National Honor Society.