Northwest College

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From A Brazilian Slum to Georgetown

Posted by: Trapper Athletics — January 4, 2018

By ILENE OLSON Tribune Staff Writer
Courtesy of the Powell Tribune

NWC Alum Tells Her Story

During her last semester at Northwest College, in spring 2012, Layana De Souza of Brazil took 27 credits so she’d be able to graduate. That heavy load came in the middle of women’s basketball season, when she also served as captain of the Lady Trappers. 

The previous semester, Souza took 21.5 hours — also well above the 12 credit hours considered to be a full-time class load. 

An audience of NWC athletes and international students gasped in amazement upon hearing about Souza’s accomplishments during her presentation at the NWC Foundation’s Nelson House earlier this month. 

When Souza came to Northwest, she couldn’t speak English at all, so much of her first year was spent studying English as a second language. Those classes don’t count toward graduation, so that meant she had to double down as a sophomore to be able to graduate. 

Despite those huge challenges, Souza earned an associate degree in general education with a 3.6 grade point average and graduated after her second year. 

“I honestly don’t know how I survived,” she said. “I really wanted to graduate — that’s why I came here. ... I just tried to do my best.” 

Doing her best has netted some other impressive results as well. In 2014, Souza earned her bachelor’s degree in sports administration from Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, where she also played basketball and served as team captain. 

After her required classes were completed at Lees-McRae, she continued to challenge herself. 

“I took an anatomy class just for fun,” Souza said, prompting another cry of amazement from the audience. 

She graduated with a GPA of 3.85 and became a member of Phi Theta Kappa and Sigma Beta Delta honor societies. 

After returning to Brazil, Souza went to work for THG Sports in Rio de Janeiro. When THG closed its doors in Rio a short time later, she was invited to go with the company to work for three months in Berlin. 

She returned to Brazil again in late 2015, and she went to work for the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, as the sports information coordinator for basketball. 

“It was amazing working at the Olympics, being around all those awesome athletes,” she said. “But we had to work our butts off during those two weeks. We basically got three hours of sleep per night. ... It was not easy, but it was rewarding.” 

This year, Souza is attending Georgetown University, working toward a master’s degree in sports industry management. She was one of 33 Brazilian students to win a coveted scholarship through Fundaçäo Estudar — an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for university graduates “to dream big and transform Brazil.”

Souza’s chances to dream big, and make those dreams come true, have come through unusual twists and turns in her life after an inauspicious beginning. 

Souza grew up in Rocinha, a slum in the Rio area with a population of approximately 100,000 people, all living in an area about 1 square kilometer (250 acres) in size. 

“I lived there with my single mom and my younger sister,” she said. “I don’t know much about my dad. He gave me his last name, but he was not really present in my life.” 

When she was 12 years old, Souza began playing basketball with an organization called Vemser. 

“The president [Rafael Zaremba] was my coach as well, and he kind of became my dad. ... I spent more time with him than anywhere else. We practiced together, had games together.” 

Zaremba was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, she said. 

When Souza turned 18, Zaremba asked her what she wanted to do: Did she want to continue to play basketball in Brazil, or did she want to go to the United States “and play basketball in the best country?” 

“I told him, ‘Yeah, I want to go to the United States, to study and play basketball there.’”

At that time in 2010, Northwest College’s volleyball coach was Flavia Sequiera, also from Brazil.

“She heard about me somehow and talked to [basketball] coach [Janis] Beal, and she [Beal] saw my video,” Souza said. 

When Beal expressed interest, Zaremba and Souza visited Northwest College, and Souza signed on with the Lady Trappers. 

After Souza arrived in Powell, coach Beal approached Doug and Lisa Harsh about becoming her host family. The coach added, almost as an afterthought, “By the way, she doesn’t speak any English,” Lisa Harsh recalled. 

They met for the first time at a local restaurant. 

“Luckily, her coach [Zaremba] came with her, and he helped bridge that gap,” Lisa Harsh said. “We still keep in touch with him.”

Over the next two years, a close relationship grew between Souza and the Harsh family. In another unusual twist, the Harshes moved to North Carolina about the same time that Souza went to Lees-McRae, and their relationship continued. 

“We were able to go to some of her games there,” Lisa Harsh said. 

After Souza returned to Brazil, and the Harshes returned to Powell, they continued to stay in touch via Facebook and email. 

Souza applied to Georgetown in late 2015 while back in Brazil. 

Georgetown accepted her as a graduate student, but that left one very big question: How could she possibly pay the very expensive tuition? 

“They didn’t have any type of a scholarship that I could apply for,” she said. 

Then, one night while she was working at the Olympics, 

“I was just walking to the bus station, and a random guy just stopped by my side” and asked for directions to the bus stop. 

Souza invited the man to walk along with her and they began to talk during the 20-minute trip. 

“He asked me what I was going to do after the Olympics. I told him, ‘I don’t know yet, but I got accepted to do my master’s degree, but I still need to figure out how I’m going to pay for school.’” 

The man asked if Souza had heard about an organization that gave scholarships to attend prestigious schools in the United States; he explained that the goal was for students to learn in the U.S., then come back to Brazil to make positive changes — and he encouraged Souza to apply. 

When the man gave Souza his number, “I was like, ‘Mmmm, OK, he’s trying to flirt with me.’ It was like 10 p.m., and a random guy. So I got his number, then I went back home, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to pay attention to this. I’m just going to ignore it.’ But I just could not ignore it.” 

Souza researched the organization online and found Fundaçäo Estudar was legitimate. But the information indicated the scholarships were meant to be used at Harvard and other prestigious universities for degrees in science, business administration and other core fields of study. 

“So I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get a scholarship for sports industry management. There’s just no way. It doesn’t fit,’” Souza said. 

Still, she couldn’t let it go and she applied. After a long, seven-step selection process, Souza was notified that she was one of Fundaçäo Estudar’s scholarship recipients. 

“Eighty-five thousand people applied for the scholarship, and only 33 got selected,” she said, to more gasps of astonishment from the audience. 

Souza said she has a hard time believing her good fortune. 

“A random guy walking at night, going to a bus stop. What are the chances?” she wondered. 

Souza received $15,000 in June, and she’ll get another $15,000 next summer — about half the cost to attend Georgetown for two years. 

“They don’t want to give you a full tuition. They want you to work for it as well,” she said of the Fundaçäo Estudar organization. 

Souza decided to use the scholarship money for her tuition this fall. She began at Georgetown in September. She’s been working three jobs to save up enough money to pay her tuition for the spring semester, which begins in January. 

“Right now, I’m working my butt off,” she said. 

But Souza’s not concerned about tuition for the spring 2019 semester. While the Georgetown master’s degree program typically takes two years to complete, “I’m planning to graduate in 1 1/2,” she said. 

The Harshes, Northwest College and Powell played important roles in Souza’s life, she said. 

“I was able to find some people here who actually helped me get where I am today, so I need to come back to see them,” she said. 

The Harshes were delighted to be with her again, and they arranged for Souza’s presentation at the Nelson House. 

Doug Harsh said he and Lisa enjoyed hosting Souza and other students from Brazil.

“They’re giving, caring, lovely and have good work ethics,” he said. “They don’t take anything for granted.

 They’ve fought for everything they get, and they deserve it.”