Washima Fairoz was too busy with her classes at the University of Southern Maine last week to hear about the college admissions scandal raging from the hallowed halls of Yale to the sun-drenched campus of the University of Southern California.

But upon hearing the details – how dozens of uber-wealthy parents are charged with greasing the skids to get their kids into prestigious schools by way of bribes, fraudulent test scores and other forms of checkbook chicanery – Washima summed it up perfectly.

“That is corruption,” she said, her indignation fully ignited.

It’s also enough to make one wonder: Is that how the rich people do it? Do kids get into college these days based not on their academic merit and potential, but on their parents’ net worth?

In some cases, apparently so. But if you need an antidote to all the headlines about privilege on steroids, look no further than USM’s fledgling Promise Scholarship program.

It started more than a decade ago when Richard and Carolyn McGoldrick of Scarborough quietly became benefactors for a boy and girl at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine’s Portland Clubhouse. With the McGoldricks’ financial help, Brianna DiDonato and Mo Awale went on to graduate from USM and embark on lives that they otherwise would not have dreamed possible.

Last fall, the McGoldricks teamed up with the USM Foundation to launch the Promise Scholarship. Its mission: Collaborate with youth development organizations all over Maine to identify kids with big aspirations but not a lot of money and provide them a $5,000 annual scholarship for each of the four years they attend USM.

So far, some 50 donors have pledged or contributed upwards of $6 million toward what organizers hope will be a $15 million endowment.

John Ryan, president of Wright-Ryan Construction Inc., served on the Boys & Girls Club board of directors with Carolyn McGoldrick and is now one of a core group working to meet the lofty fundraising goal. In an interview Friday, he said he’s been “blown away” by the response from deep-pocketed donors.

“Sometimes we’ll be sitting with someone, talking with them about what we’re trying to do, and you just see that immediately it resonates for them,” Ryan said. “We don’t even have to ask them sometimes for a gift; they’ll come back with a gift that’s larger than anything we expected. It’s definitely out there – that kind of selfless generosity.”

Ultimately, the plan is to award 25 scholarships each year, meaning USM’s student population will include 100 Promise Scholars at any given time. Using short-term foundation grants to get things up and running, the program currently consists of 17 students who now are, quite literally, living the dream.

The majority are immigrants. Almost all are the first in their families ever to attend college. And if you want to appreciate what this means to them, spend part of an afternoon in the sunny, second-floor lounge of USM’s Abromson Center with the ever-ebullient, 18-year-old Washima Fairoz.

“For me, that someone is thinking about people like us, marginalized people – whether it’s financially or race or gender or whatever – it’s a huge deal for me,” she said. “It’s literally changed my life because if that person didn’t contribute to the Promise Scholarship and I didn’t get my Promise Scholarship, I’d be working in McDonald’s right now. I wouldn’t have a life.”

She came to Biddeford from Bangladesh along with her father, mother and sister when she was 11. The family, citing political persecution, applied for asylum – a request that, seven years later, is still pending.

Washima spoke only Bengali when she first enrolled in the Biddeford school system, landing her in a class for non-English speakers. She hated it – not because of the other kids in the class, but because she felt so isolated from the rest of the school community.

So, she did something about it. At home each afternoon, she religiously watched “Dora the Explorer,” not to pass the time, but to teach herself English. It wasn’t easy.

“There, their, they’re. There’s three different kinds of there!” she said, laughing. “It took me a month to figure out!”

Within nine months, she conquered the language barrier. Painfully aware of anti-Muslim attitudes in this country, she put away her hijab and plunged into the social mainstream, using her humor, wit and fearless spirit to make friends far and wide.

By her sophomore year at Biddeford High School, Washima was class president. She ran again in her junior year and won that election, too.

Yet, through it all, she felt two-faced. Her Muslim heritage tugged at her, even as she did her best to conceal it.

When she recoiled from the notion of premarital sex, her friends would ask why. When she refused alcohol, again they would ask, “Why don’t you drink, Washima? Why don’t you hang out?”

“And I did not have an answer,” she said.

REVEALING HER TRUTH

Finally, one day in her junior year, Washima donned her hijab, took a deep breath, and went to school.

In an instant, her social network vanished – her erstwhile friends took one look at her covered head and decided, en masse, that she’d somehow betrayed them, that she wasn’t the girl she’d told them she was.

Her senior year?

“Pretty lonely,” Washima recalled.

Still, she finished high school with a 4.0 grade point average, first in her class. And when the time came for her valedictory speech at graduation last year, she refrained from the woe-is-me theme she knew so many of her peers expected and instead focused on her gratitude to her parents and all the others who had helped her, her pride in having mastered English.

“After that,” she said with a smile, “I got a standing ovation.”

She got into Bates College, but couldn’t afford it. Ditto for Mount Holyoke College, where her financial calculations for the first year alone left her $10,000 short.

So, she applied to USM at the urging of her adviser from Trio Upward Bound, a federal program that helps low-income and first-generation students prepare for college. It’s also one of 29 “Promise Partners” now nominating college hopefuls for Promise Scholarships.

Daniel Barton, an academic adviser and coordinator of the Promise Scholarship at USM, calls it a “warm handoff” between the youth development programs and the university.

“These are students who have a lot of aspirations and don’t always have a lot of support beyond their organization that they’re connected to,” Barton said.

They’re also students who, when they hit the inevitable speed bumps of college life, can still fall back on an organization back home rooting for them every step of the way.

Washima chose health sciences as her major because she wants to be a dentist. Doesn’t matter where, as long as she can be of service.

“Wherever they need me,” she said. “My passion is to give myself for the others. So, wherever you need me. You need me in Africa? I would love to be in Africa. You need me in Maine? I can stay in Maine.”

All that matters now is that she’s in college. And when she finishes, she’ll be debt-free – thanks in no small part to people who use their wealth not to game the system, but to help those navigating the steepest paths to a successful future.

What would Washima say to her ever-growing legion of patrons? People she has never met who nonetheless think she and her peers are worth a seven-figure donation?

“I think it’s very generous, first of all,” she replied. “And it takes a lot of, for a lack of a better word, courage. You have to be a really good person to think about others. Not all people think about others.”

Indeed. If last week’s news told us anything, it’s that doing well doesn’t always translate into doing good.

Here’s to the do-gooders.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]