Aboubacar Cherif and Khoa  Le Minh Tran
Aboubacar Cherif and Khoa Le Minh Tran

Sometimes good things happen to good people.

Back in the summer of their sophomore years, Aboubacar Cherif and Khoa Le Minh Tran were selected to become Educational Justice Scholars. Now the two Central High School seniors are on their way to the Ivy League.

Cherif will attend Dartmouth and Tran will be at University of Pennsylvania. Both schools paid for the students to fly up to their campuses once they were accepted, and both have offered generous financial aid packages. Charif told IL that when Vanderbilt offered him more money than Dartmouth, he shared that information with Dartmouth, and within two days, they’d matched Vandy’s offer.

“Matched to the penny,” he said, laughing.

The two friends met in eighth grade where they “sat in different corners” of the same ESL class, according to Tran. Tran’s family had recently immigrated from Vietnam; Cherif and his family had just joined his dad in Louisville from Guinea.

Tran and Cherif attended a test prep class led by Louisville Tutoring Agency’s Moshe Ohayon during their sophomore year and found out about the agency’s EJ Scholars program. Just a couple years out of ESL classes, both students felt like their school was failing to challenge them. Both came from families who made education a top priority.

The EJ Scholars program provides disadvantaged students with a full scholarship to all of LTA’s services, along with lots of one-on-one attention from Ohayon and his employees and volunteers. These kids, usually two to three a year, receive the same high level of assistance at the agency that their private school/wealthy counterparts receive: test prep, application help, academic tutoring, study, and life skills training. Ohayon values the EJ Scholars program at around $4,000 a semester.

Tran said of the LTA offices, “We made this our second home.” At times the two would come to the office after school three times a week and then all day on Saturdays. When the weekend college applications were due, Tran and Charif were at the office from 11 a.m. until midnight two days in a row. Ohayon was there by their side.

“I wanted to test myself at an Ivy League School,” Tran said. “High school doesn’t test me enough.”

The fact that both kids already were aiming for the Ivies in their sophomore years was part of what made them appealing to Ohayon for the EJ Scholars program. Even really good grades wouldn’t be enough to get them in — not from a high school with limited opportunities, including few AP programs. The young men would need to get great test grades and create opportunities for themselves that the school couldn’t offer.

The two have similar interests, although Charif plays and loves soccer and Tran describes himself as more of an “indoors person.” Both want to be doctors: Charif a cardiologist and Tran an ophthalmologist. They both love reading fantasy novels, they recently both took up guitar, and they’ve both developed a love of software and coding.

When Ohayon realized they wanted to learn how to code but the school offered no coding class at the time (even though the school has a computer technology magnet program, it’s hardware only), he encouraged the guys to start a coding club at school. They did. They also wanted to give something back to the community, so after brainstorming with Ohayan, they decided, as a club, to create a new website for their school.

They started working on the site at the end of the school year in 2014.

“At first, the school didn’t know what we were doing,” said Tran.

But when they eventually showed the site-in-progress to the powers that be, the school was so impressed that it decided to create a new Web Design class the following semester. In that class, members of the club and other students finished the site.

Moshe
Moshe Ohayon

Ohayon also recognized that Central High School didn’t offer the kind of high-level science classes that Tran and Charif would need to prepare them to enter a pre-med program. So this year, in addition to their full course load, he enrolled them in an online Harvard Extension School chemistry class. Both earned an A last semester; this week is their second semester final exam.

Despite the fact that Tran and Charif had been fired up about attending an Ivy League school from the get-go, at the start of their senior year, unbeknownst to Ohayon, they both quietly dropped the Ivy League schools off of their application lists. They’d lost their nerve.

When he found out, Ohayon was crushed. It was late in the application game. He was frustrated the guys had silently abandoned their big dreams.

It took a lot of cajoling to change Charif and Tran’s minds and a lot of catching up (hence the late nights) to get the applications together in time. Still, Ohayon said, “be prepared for a lot of ‘nos.'”

And sure, they got some nos. But the yeses ruled the day.

For both students, their respective visits to their future college campuses were the first time they’d ever set out on their own. Tran said he was nervous and that it was scary, but both came away feeling “really comfortable.” Their year of taking the Harvard Extension School course prepared them for the rigorous expectations of college classes. Charif said Dartmouth students “seemed like geniuses but not too competitive.”

As with most EJ Scholars, they expect to have an ongoing relationship with Ohayon. But Ohayon said there has been “no spoonfeeding.” He said some other EJ Scholars struggle in their first semester because they had become so reliant on the program. So with Charif and Tran, he’s changed his approach and forced them to become more independent sooner.

The EJ Scholars Program seeks to help “break the cycle of family low income” by giving select high-achieving, low-income students the academic support usually afforded only to wealthy students. The goal of the program has always been to get these students accepted into a state school with a full scholarship.

Both Charif and Tran are the eldest children in their families, so when they leave in the fall for their respective Ivy League schools, they’ll not only be role models for future EJ Scholars, but their siblings as well.

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