Meet Denise Akabey: The B3 Foundation’s First-Ever Collegiate Scholarship Winner
Ask the average person to define ‘home’ and the response is fairly predictable – a particular building, their current city, or a hometown. Ask Denise Akabey, the first-ever recipient of the B3 Foundation’s Future Community Leaders Scholarship, however, and the response is anything but.
For a time, home was a storage unit she lived in with her mother and father. Not long after, home was the roof she shared with two different foster families. Home has been the inside of a car; home has been a homeless shelter. Home was as far away as Turkey, but for the most part, home was one of many towns scattered across Long Island, N.Y. or New Jersey.
Explaining ‘family,’ isn’t a simple answer for Denise, either. Her father was often absent from her life. The relatives she met in Turkey were numerous, but not supportive in any sense, she says. And while she says her second foster home offered one of her first true experiences of ‘family,’ her first foster family was “horrible” and abusive.
These experiences are just some of what has shaped the life and ambitions of the 2021 Happauge High School graduate. It’s Happauge High and the people she’s met there, that Denise says most qualify as her home and family.
It’s no wonder, then, that when considering which college to attend, “the most important thing was the feeling of home.” While she’s yet to step foot on campus, it’s the sense of home that developed with every future classmate she connected with that drew her to the University of Oregon.
Denise will be focusing her studies on early childhood education with the intention of becoming a teacher, a dream she’s had since her own days in elementary school. She recalls slipping on a blazer in her bedroom in Turkey and ‘teaching’ her dolls everything she had learned that day in her first-grade classroom. Her first-grade teacher – who would stop midway through lessons to translate material into English and come to Denise’s home to offer additional tutoring – is someone Denise still wants to emulate to this day.
It took Denise nearly her entire eighteen years of life to find the place and people she happily calls ‘home’ and ‘family.’ With her sights set on teaching kindergarten or first grade, Denise hopes to introduce these concepts to children much sooner. Her vision for her classroom is “a very safe and welcoming environment.” A place where no one feels left out; where kids are taught to respect and love one another, “no matter what the other person looks like or what their story is.”
“There’s a generation of kids that go by thinking that they don’t have a future, or that they don’t have a chance at anything,” Denise says. “And quite frankly, I was one of those kids growing up. I didn’t have people to look up to, to say, ‘That’s who I want to become’ or ‘That’s what I want to do.’ The minute I started school, those teachers became role models for me. They pulled me out of a tunnel that I was constantly in. I want to be like that for the little kids I’ll be teaching.”
Outside of the classroom, Denise’s goals for the future include creating a non-profit organization that specifically aids homeless immigrant families. In the meantime, Denise is just excited to get to Eugene, admitting that she made “going to college an entire personality trait” of hers.
As the first recipient of the Future Community Leaders Scholarship, Denise characterizes the individual that the B3 Foundation seeks to recognize and encourage under the Ron & Vanessa Banner Scholars Program. The Future Community Leaders Scholarship in particular focuses on identifying students who are committed to further developing as local community leaders in college and beyond. It’s fitting that Denise’s career interests are in education, as the program’s namesakes have both worked in education for the last 25 years. “I think for me it was sort of a validation that all the hard work I have put in for years was worth something and it’s more than just a scholarship to me,” said Denise of the honor. “Through this process I gained such an incredible caring family and that means a lot more to me than anything else.”