NEW YORK — Nyasha Biggs, 17, wasn’t sure what to expect when she and the rest of her high school class were flown to Los Angeles to appear on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
“I knew she was going to give us something, but I wasn’t sure what it would be,” Biggs told CNN.
The big surprise? A full ride to college.
Biggs and the other 41 students from her senior class at the Summit Academy charter school in Brooklyn received four-year scholarships that will cover costs at any state university in New York.
The prize was the single biggest gift in the show’s history.
“We’ve never done anything this big before,” DeGeneres told the class and school administrators Cheryl Swift and Natasha Campbell, who all went to Los Angeles for the show’s taping. “We reached out to the people at Walmart and they want to give each one of you a four-year scholarship.”
The segment aired on “Ellen” last Wednesday.
The class erupted into screams and cheers after the announcement. Some told DeGeneres “thank you” and ran to hug her with tears streaming down their faces.
“I just froze when she said she was giving us the scholarship,” Biggs later told CNN. “I was extremely excited and shocked.”
The scholarships, worth $1.6 million total, were sponsored by Walmart, said “Ellen” spokeswoman Melissa Little-Padgitt.
Walmart and DeGeneres had already given the school a $25,000 gift, which was announced earlier this month on the talk show.
While DeGeneres has not visited Summit Academy, members of the “Ellen” team went to the school and also held a video call with the senior class, Campbell said.
Little-Padgitt said the donation from Walmart will cover state university costs for each student as long as the student is enrolled.
Summit Academy is based in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. Swift told DeGeneres during her first appearance on the show this month that 4% of the neighborhood’s adults hold a college degree, while about 28% of children under 16 live in poverty.
But Summit Academy is beating the odds. Campbell and Swift said 93% of the school’s graduating class went to college last year, and they’re targeting the entire class this year. Campbell said more than 80% of the senior class has been accepted into college so far.
Campbell founded Summit Academy 10 years ago after being inspired by the young people she met while working at a recreation center in Red Hook. She told CNN that the scholarships are a “fairytale come true” and the “icing on the cake” after seeing so many of his students get accepted into college.
“It was the best reward that I could have ever received — to see my scholars rewarded for their diligence and hard work,” she said.
Biggs, who wants to study biology, already has some college acceptance letters. She said paying for college was a major concern for her and her friends.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Biggs said of the scholarship offer. “I can’t believe it happened.”
The video of the Summit Academy segment on “Ellen” has been viewed 14 million times on Facebook. DeGeneres wrote in a comment on the website that the event was “one of the most incredible moments I’ve been a part of.”
Biggs said she has spent the past few days celebrating with classmates, while Campbell said the school will host an assembly to honor the senior class.
But then it’s back to work. Many of the seniors will soon take state exams.
“We don’t want them to get so excited that they lose focus on what that scholarship is for,” Campbell said.
For now, Campbell said the school is “flying high.”
“This is what the work is for,” she said. “This is the dream that I essentially sold to the Red Hook community 10 years ago.”