By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
When Measha Ferguson-Smith was told as a little girl that she could do or be anything she wanted, she believed it.
So here she is today -- one day after graduating from Quincy School High -- and the 18-year-old Quincy native is on the cusp of doing something many others would only dream of doing.
She is heading to Stanford University this fall on a full-ride scholarship that will pay her tuition, housing, meals, books and fees for the next four years.
Ferguson-Smith accomplished this feat thanks to her academic prowess, personality and willpower in applying for a scholarship to the one university she wanted to attend more than any other.
She couldn't be more excited.
"Stanford was always my dream school, my top choice," she said. "I know that I will miss everyone here. But I'm just looking forward to a new start, a new environment, new people, an intellectual environment that is vibrant, and a place where everyone is excited about learning."
Ferguson-Smith received her scholarship through QuestBridge, an organization that connects the world's brightest low-income students with America's best universities.
Ferguson-Smith discovered QuestBridge during her sophomore year of high school and was intrigued because the organization was seeking sharp students who might not otherwise apply to some of the nation's top colleges. A recent study found most of America's top low-income students don't even apply to the best institutions. Instead, most stay close to home at state universities or community colleges.
QuestBridge has a partnership with 35 elite universities looking to attract bright students from low- or middle-income homes. These include such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Yale, Vassar, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, USC, Stanford and the University of Chicago.
Ferguson-Smith, a straight-A student, made contact with QuestBridge and got involved with a campus-visitation program during her junior year. She chose to visit the University of Notre Dame -- one of the 35 partner schools -- and spent a week and a half experiencing a top-flight university. That just whetted her appetite for more.
When she finally filled out her QuestBridge scholarship application and listed several universities in order of preference, Ferguson-Smith put Stanford -- her dream school -- at the top of the list.
Ferguson-Smith received a call last November from a Stanford alum who was given the happy duty of informing her she was being awarded a full ride for four years.
Her father, Mike Smith of Quincy, said he was delighted for his daughter. But he wasn't surprised to see her earn an academic scholarship to a top university.
"I have always had great expectations for Measha," he said. "She just happens to always exceed them."
Smith said he and Measha's mother, Marla Ferguson, "set a certain standard in our home" that was a guiding force for Measha and her older sister, Macy Ferguson-Smith, a senior at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo.
"From kindergarten to now, Measha has never made a B on her final report card in her life. I don't know many people like her," Smith said.
Measha said her parents were strong role models, and they inspired her to strive for a solid education. Smith and Ferguson are both college graduates with master's degrees.
"College has always been my goal," Ferguson-Smith said. "Until I was probably 12 years old, I didn't realize that some people didn't think of going to college after they graduated from high school."
Ferguson-Smith's parents also encouraged both daughters to try their best at everything.
"That's what I've always told them: Don't let anything stop you -- to go for it," said Smith, who is retired from Quincy University, where he worked as development director for WQUB Radio for many years. Marla Ferguson was executive director of Quanada, Quincy's shelter for victims of domestic abuse, for about 20 years She now is a social worker in Hannibal, Mo.
Ferguson-Smith said her parents taught her and her sister to believe in themselves. She said her mother in particular showed them by her work at Quanada how to be a confident leader.
"There are children of color in this town who don't know that those types of things are possible because they don't see it," Ferguson-Smith said.
"We were just taught, basically, to be little Marlas. When you walk into a room -- I don't care if you're 12 years old -- you stick your hand out, you stand up straight and tall, you introduce yourself, you speak clearly. It was just an entirely different mind set having parents who also really and truly believed that we could do and be anything we wanted to. It wasn't a dream or a wish. It was real."
Ferguson-Smith said she hasn't decided what she will major in at college.
"I have a love for sociology and getting into people's thoughts and why they do the things that they do," she said.
"That really intrigues me -- and trying to be a change agent and trying to open other people's minds and allowing them to see that we're really all so similar," she said. "I'm trusting Stanford to guide me to something. But I just need to be part of change in my generation. I know that much."