Growing up on Vinalhaven, Kassandra Hopkins has long aspired to leave her small island community in Penobscot Bay and make something of herself somewhere else.

Now that she’s 16, her childhood dreams of becoming a dentist have evolved into more concrete plans to be a surgeon, though she’s still open to other careers.

And because of her exceptional French-speaking skills, she will be a teacher’s assistant when she starts 12th grade this fall, and hopes to spend a semester in France or Belgium when she goes to college.

All of her dreams are now more certain to come true. Hopkins, whose father is a lobsterman, has won a $250,000 Leonore Annenberg College Scholarship through the Rural School and Community Trust. She is the first Mainer ever to win the scholarship, and one of five winners in the United States this year.

“It really is mind-boggling,” Hopkins said Wednesday. “I think it’s starting to sink in, but it’s still so amazing.”

The size of the Annenberg scholarship shocked her parents, James and Angela Hopkins, whose families have hauled lobsters for generations.

“It’s kind of like winning the lottery,” Angela Hopkins said. “We knew we would be dependent on financial aid, and we knew she would get scholarships because she’s a top student and a lot of island kids get them. But this is beyond our expectations.”

The annual scholarship, announced Tuesday, recognizes high school juniors of uncommon intelligence, empathy and drive who overcome challenging circumstances and demonstrate exceptional character and academic achievement, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s website.

Each recipient gets a four-year, all-expenses scholarship to any fully accredited college or university based in the United States. The scholarship reflects the late Leonore Annenberg’s lifelong commitment to education and her desire to prepare the next generation of national and international leaders.

Hopkins was nominated by Yvonne Thomas, her counselor and mentor at Vinalhaven School, which serves students in kindergarten through high school. Thomas said Hopkins is an “incredible” student who has always demonstrated poise, maturity, curiosity and commitment to learning, even in elementary school, when she made a mid-year jump from fourth to fifth grade.

“When I read about the scholarship, Kassandra popped into my head immediately,” Thomas said. “She’s going to be a first-generation college student. Like most people on the island, her parents can’t afford to send her to an expensive school. This scholarship means she doesn’t even have to think about finances when she’s looking at colleges. And because it’s a national scholarship, it makes her more appealing as a student. The sky’s the limit.”

Hopkins is one of 14 students in her senior class, and among 200 students in her school. She gets great grades in tough courses and is a member of student government and the National Honor Society. She led friends in transforming the island’s recreation center into a student-run Internet cafe, so young people would have a positive place to hang out. She also works several jobs, volunteers regularly and helps care for her two younger siblings.

Her broader education got a boost when she attended Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport for a semester during her sophomore year. Her interest in medicine solidified a couple of years ago, when she spent more than two weeks in the hospital recovering from a toothache that spiraled into a life-threatening illness.

“Even though it was a tough time, I really got into watching everything that was going on,” Hopkins said.

She has visited a few colleges and was impressed with Amherst College in western Massachusetts. It has a small, pastoral campus, but it’s near the much larger University of Massachusetts. She said a smaller college would provide a more gentle transition from the isolation of Vinalhaven to the intensity of the wider world.

Wherever she goes and whatever she does, she’ll always return to Maine, if only for vacations.

“I love the island and I love Maine, but a lot depends on what I do for work,” Hopkins said. “I want to do bigger things.” 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:
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