Three Columbia high school seniors gave a thumbs-up instead of a signature during a virtual signing ceremony Thursday as they received full college scholarships and a spot in a Columbia classroom after that.

Malek Ben-Ayed of Rock Bridge High School, Lainie Lewis of Battle High School and Athena Wheeler of Hickman High School were praised for their dedication through the pandemic.

“You worked so hard for this moment, so take all the joy you can and bask in it,” said Tyus Monroe, a junior at Columbia College and one of the first CoMo Ed recipients in 2017.

The CoMo Ed scholarship is part of Columbia Public Schools’ “Growing Our Own Teachers” program, a pipeline to draw teachers from diverse backgrounds into the district. Select students win full rides to college and guaranteed teaching positions in the district after they finish.

Columbia College, Stephens College, MU and Central Methodist University participate in the program. Lewis and Wheeler will attend Columbia College, while Ben-Ayed will attend Stephens College.

“This scholarship is not a consolation prize won because of a quota you will fulfill,” Monroe said. “It is from you burning the candle at both ends, giving 100% all of the time.”

The presidents of Columbia and Stephens colleges congratulated and welcomed the students.

“We’re very excited to have you join our family,” Columbia College President Scott Dalrymple said. “It’s going to be a harder year, frankly, for you because of what’s going on in the world.”

Stephens President Dianne Lynch told Ben-Ayed her door is always open. “I will be waiting to see you, because I can’t see you right now,” Lynch said.

Nicolle Adair, supervisor of the CoMo Ed program, said she would love to have each of the recipients as her children’s teacher.

Adair saidLewis was “completely capable and confident, as if she had been doing it for years.” She called Wheeler “so positive” and admired Ben-Ayed’s focus of making a difference in the classroom.

The “Growing Our Own Teachers” program is the result of efforts in 2015 to draw local, effective and culturally competent teachers to Columbia schools, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said. This is the fourth year of the CoMo Ed scholarship program.

“I want to say with the biggest, warmest virtual hug, ‘Welcome,’” Monroe said.

  • Education reporter, spring 2020 Studying magazine journalism Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

  • Elizabeth Brixey is a city editor at the Columbia Missourian. She oversees coverage of education. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and

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