South River student awarded $20,000 scholarship

South River High School senior Caitlin Byrnes says her parents have been stressing the importance of college since she was young, and though she listened to the message, she didn't think it applied to her.

The Crofton resident would consider the family hardships — her father struggling through a myriad of illnesses since his childhood, her mother never fulfilling her dreams of going to college because of a disability — and she didn't see how college would work.

Those sentiments especially seemed relevant this year, as she's had to juggle academics with work to help support the family financially.

Still, Byrnes enrolled in the school's Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds acquire and hone skills for college. And through the program, she was recently honored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation with $20,000 as one of the winners of the Dell Scholars Program.

The Dell Foundation awards 300 scholarships annually that it offers to students "dealing with personal responsibilities at home or in their communities." Rita Gunter of Western High School in Baltimore also won an award.

"I guess I never saw [college] as a reality until this year," said Byrnes, who will be attending Washington College in Chestertown in the fall. "It was one of the scholarships I knew pertained to me specifically because it was for students who had overcome adverse circumstances, and my senior year has been definitely that. I've had to help my family out a lot my senior year; it has been hard to keep up with everything."

The Dell scholarship is now among several financial resources for Byrnes, who once considered the University of Texas at Austin and Towson, but looked at the price tags and came away with sticker shock.

"I was like, 'Wow,'" Byrnes said. "Through college, I'm basically on my own."

She said the Dell scholarship will be divided over four years, and the program will also provide other assistance to help her succeed in college. She has also won other scholarships and received aid from Washington College. The Dell scholarship includes a laptop computer and printer.

Byrnes said she believes she won the Dell scholarship because of her ability to juggle her priorities inside and outside the classroom. In addition to having an after-school job at a restaurant, she is editor of South River High's school newspaper, as well as a member of the National Honor Society and varsity soccer team.

Byrnes says she is considering either a writing career or one that involves working with youngsters.

"Caitlin is inspirational," said Josh Carroll, AVID site coordinator at South River High School. "She doesn't let anything stand in her way. It's not just ... winning the Dell scholarship, it's whether it's on a portfolio project for AVID, or whether it's for writing an article for the school newspaper. ... Whatever she decides to do, she doesn't just do it — she's not satisfied until it's her best."

Her father Philip, 57, a graduate of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., suffers from pulmonary disease as well as rheumatoid arthritis. Caitlin said his ailments have been especially difficult this year.

"He has persevered through it all," she said. "He's been ill for my entire life."

Philip Byrnes says his daughter has also persevered.

"She's shown a lot of initiative," he said. "We're not well off. She has been very supportive when things have been difficult, just trying to figure out how to pay bills on a very limited income.

"And she's put much into preparing for college on her own and getting scholarships," he added. "She's had quite a few accomplishments, and this is another one."