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Students, parents, alumni and members of the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation gathered Thursday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, honoring the resilience of students and Rosa Parks in the same breath.

Of the 240 Michigan high school senior applicants, 40 were chosen for exhibiting promise as leaders committed to social justice, foundation president and former Rosa Parks scholar Kim Trent said at the luncheon.

Twenty-eight of the scholars graduated from schools in the Metro Detroit area, and 29 plan on attending Michigan colleges and universities in the fall.

Keynote speaker and lawyer Robert Thomas shared his life story to encourage the honorees to remain resilient.

From age 5 to 14, he bounced among foster homes and people he called “mom,” briefly moving in with his alcoholic biological mother and then his alcoholic biological father before emancipating himself at 15. By his senior year, he ended up homeless.

“It’s not a sob story,” Thomas said. “Look, life is going to be hard. It’s been hard for some of us already. And it’s going to be harder on later in life too. You have to be resilient, you have to bounce back.”

Emphasizing the role of two mentors in his teen and young adult life, Thomas showed the students he bounced back: graduating from Detroit Northwestern High School, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and working in nuclear defense in Washington, D.C., before moving back to Detroit to pursue law.

“It’s funny how God works,” Thomas said, followed by a chorus of “mhm-hmms” from the audience.

He exhorted the students never to feel sorry for themselves and their circumstances because they have goals they were designed to achieve.

“Who are we not to impact the lives that we’re supposed to impact, to waste a talent and gift that God gives us?” he asked.

Three recipients — Habibul Islam, Michael Sims and Emma Turkmani — were selected to read their essays from their applications. In their compositions, students were asked to discuss a defining social injustice of their generation and how they would address it.

Turkmani, a graduate of North Farmington High School, plans on majoring in mechanical engineering at Michigan State University.

She addressed gender and race-based discrimination in the field, turning for inspiration to Parks and three other African-American women whose critical work for NASA during the first lunar launch went unnoticed for years, and became the subject of a recent movie, “Hidden Figures.”

“I am a woman,” Turkmani said. “I am a minority. Like Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, I will be in a male-dominated field, but I refuse to let myself and others like me become hidden figures. I will not confuse meek with weak.”

jkroeker@detroitnews.com

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