Meet the Dream Award Scholars: Donja Wilkinson
By Joan Cronson
Growing up in Washington D.C., Donja Wilkinson excelled in multiple sports and had a passion for learning. But from a young age, she also had to take on difficult roles to help her household. At age 10, her mother was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening condition characterized by high blood pressure within the arteries leading to the lungs and heart. As the oldest child, Donja’s mother taught her to mix her pulmonary hypertension heart medicine, which went into a tube to help her mother’s heart.
“Though I realized the medicine was critical for my mom’s condition, I have never known the name of each medicine that I was using, “said Donja. “I just had the ability to remember how to make the medicine and I actually enjoyed mixing it.
She also helped care for her younger brother and sister when her mother was sick. Her experience as a caregiver influenced her career goals.
“My mother was very loving and inspiring,” she said. “She made me feel things were possible, even when we were going through difficult times,” she said. “Despite her health problems, she always had a smile on her face.”
Unfortunately, Donja’s mother died when she was only 12, leaving her without any full-time parents in her life. Her birth father was around from time to time, but was married and busy elsewhere. She moved in with her maternal grandmother—who was busy raising her own children and other grandkids, including Donja’s siblings. Though appreciative, Donja felt the environment was not always supportive. She drew inspiration from her two aunts who are successful businesswomen. One created her own clothing line and the other runs an art business and plans events.
“The tragedy of losing my mom at such a young age changed my perspective on achieving my goals,” said Donja. “I realized I had to create and support my own dreams. My motivation to succeed and create a life for myself kept me focused. Being successful was essential for my survival.”
Donja became motivated and independent. She wanted to fulfill a dream to be the first generation in her family to go to college and make her family proud.
“Playing sports was my way of forgetting my circumstances, my loss, and constant struggles,” Donja said. “As I succeeded in sports, school and community, my teachers and community became my support. They saw my determination and made me realize I did not have to do everything on my own. Playing sports taught me to manage multiple things at once, how to face competition and network.”
Donja realized she wanted a career where she could help people be healthy and happy. She wanted to learn how to make other medical mixtures to help people improve their health.
In eighth grade, she got braces but rather than complaining, she found the experience of the visits to the orthodontist exciting. After her braces were removed in her senior year of high school, she felt a boost of confidence.
“I began to ask my orthodontist questions about what it took for her to get this job, and ever since has been infatuated with the profession,” said explained. “I realized helping others is my calling and being an orthodontist is the perfect career for me to help people be healthy and happy.”
In 2017, after years of community service experience, Donja and some friends started their own nonprofit to help others. Called Perfection Takes Time, the group’s first efforts included a back-to-school social media campaign and a 2018 prom-focused donation drive, with local dressmakers, hair stylists and make-up artists donating their talent so students in need could go to their proms. Last winter, they also organized a drive to help the homeless. This July, she and her nonprofit team are organizing their second Back to School Event to provide D.C. area students with needed resources.
Donja was encouraged to go to college by Kourtney Purham, her physics teacher and athletic coach at Dunbar High School in Washington, who sensed she needed a mentor. Purham collected donations and helped pay for Donja to visit Georgia State University in Atlanta. Donja liked the public university’s student resources, campus size and diversity, and felt that the friendly attitude of the students created an upbeat energy on campus.
Since starting college at Georgia State, she changed majors from biology to sociology to help balance her rigorous academic schedule and lower stress. She is still pursuing her dream of becoming an orthodontist, taking required math and science pre-dental courses. She works with tutors and study groups to better manage her workload and deal with setbacks, and she is part of a support group called Sister Circle. This fall, she will be working as a Resident Assistant on campus.
“Before my mother’s death, the thought of college and being at the top of my class was the least of my worries, she said. “I did not realize how important or impactful I could make my life to help others. I am a huge fan of scholarships.”
Donja first discovered the Dream Award by searching online for scholarships for D.C. area students.
“The Dream Award scholarship helped break a financial barrier,” she said. “I realized I wasn’t going to be able to pay for school my second year and the Dream Award helped me stay there and lowered my student loans by half.”
“I have set an academic goal to attain a grade point average of 3.0 or above each semester despite the difficulty of the STEM courses I am taking over the next three years.”
She plans to complete an internship each summer in either biology, dentistry or research. She is currently interning at Kindred Dental in Washington; after completing her undergraduate degree, she hopes to go back to D.C. and attend Howard University College of Dentistry or a dental school in Georgia. After that, she plans to work as a dentist until she finishes her orthodontist training.
Donja hopes to one day have her own dental clinic and offer internship opportunities to high school and college students. She also wants to grow her nonprofit to help students in Atlanta and worldwide. “When I help others, I feel good.”
“I want to thank Scholarship America and its donors for believing in my abilities and my future … and allowing me to continue my college career,” said Donja. “If I did not get this scholarship, college would not be an option. I am the first in my family to go to college and owe that all to the Dream Award scholarship.”