When a student who won a scholarship for African-American students walked to the stage at a Riverside, Calif., high school to pick up his award, the audience laughed nervously. The student, Jeffrey Warren, was white.
Warren, 17, a recent graduate of Riverside's King High School, won a $1,000 scholarship sponsored by Riverside's Martin Luther King Senior Citizens Club. While a cover letter to guidance counselors indicated that the award was intended only for black students, the application merely "encourage[d] African-American students to apply," according to King High School Principal Darel Hansen.
The morning after the ceremony, Warren returned the money. Since then, his story has made national headlines.
Warren's father Rod, a language arts teacher at King High School, said he told his son to apply for every scholarship for which he might be eligible. Since the application did not explicitly rule out non-black applicants, the soon-to-be San Diego State freshman gave it a shot. Out of the 27 scholarships for which he applied, he won four, including the one he later gave up.
"The laughter was slight at the beginning, then it got louder," Rod Warren said. "You could tell the [award presenters] were surprised, but they shook his hand and gave it to him."
When the Warrens returned home from the ceremony, they concluded that returning the money was the right thing to do.
Etta Brown, the chairwoman of the MLK Senior Citizens Club's scholarships committee, said she was shocked when she realized the winner of her group's scholarship was a white student. Since the scholarship was created in 2005, it had never been awarded to a non-black student.
Warren's decision to return the award was "generous," she said. Since the application did not explicitly disqualify non-black students, she said the group would not have asked Warren to give it back, despite some internal debate.
In the future, the application will be worded more clearly, she said.
Rod Warren said his son reasoned that if he were ineligible for the scholarship, the issue would be resolved at the interview stage of the application process. The interview, however, was over the phone, and Brown said it never occurred to the reader who interviewed Warren that the interviewee might be white.
After news of Jeffrey's decision to decline the scholarship spread, Susan Jaggers, his former math teacher, launched a campaign to compensate him for the sacrifice. Circulating a framed picture of Warren to all the teachers whose classes he took at King High School, Jaggers has so far yielded $351.
"We didn't totally replace the money, but I knew many of [Warren's former teachers] would be willing to throw a few bones," Jaggers said. "All his teachers love him."
Warren's scholarship has been given to an African-American student who will be attending Cornell University in the fall. The second of the scholarship's two winners is a North High School student who will be attending Xavier University.