Rachael Moss felt like she was coaching an Olympian.
It was a bit unusual for an English teacher.
But it's how Moss, who teaches ninth-grade English and journalism at Neshannock High School, describes helping Tiffany Fulkerson prepare essays for college scholarships.
"It was like coaching an Olympic athlete. She's the Kristi Yamaguchi of college essays," recalled Moss who worked from home during the recent school year because of health conditions that made her more susceptible to COVID-19. "I actually looked forward to reading her essays. Really, I only needed to check her commas."
Moss's coaching, combined with the 2021 graduate's writing and community service, paid off.
Like Yamaguchi, Fulkerson earned gold, being chosen as one of four inaugural Spirit of Community Scholarship winners by Duquesne University.
Awarded to incoming first-year students, the full-tuition scholarship was given to those "passionate about community engagement and social justice," according to Dr. Jessica Mann, assistant vice president of community engagement at Duquesne.
The initial cohort of four students was chosen based on two essays, grades, need and a resume that "showed how they spent their time, what their interests and activities were and how that involved their commitment to their community," Mann said, calling the selection process "incredibly challenging."
"We wanted those who were willing to blaze the trail and serve as anchors in the community and models for other students," she added.
Spirit of Community students are required to complete 100 hours of service each semester as well as attend classes and seminars on community engagement and social justice. During their second and third years in the program, the students develop campus events focusing on engagement and social justice and, in their senior year, a capstone project involves the completion of a community-based program.
"We did worry that we might intimidate them, but the response was overwhelming," Mann said, adding that faculty and advisors will support the students throughout the process.
Moss, a Duquesne alumna, has no doubt her former student will continue to succeed.
"Tiffany understands altruism. She can put herself in other's shoes and she was able to channel that in her essay," Moss said. "I may be biased, but she wasn't saccharine, she was able to put into words that 'I understand what it's like to need help.'
"Before she even begins her college career, she's been faced adversity that most of us don't face until we're in our 50s and 60s," Moss said, referring to the death of Fulkerson's mother, Maria Lombardo, in December 2019. "With all the cards she's been dealt, she remains concerned about others. It was time this kid had a win."
But the daughter of Joe Fulkerson considers helping others a win.
"I think a lot of teenagers do (community service) because they need it to graduate, but once you see how you can help, it becomes something you like to do, something you want to do," said Fulkerson, who attended the former St. Vitus School through eighth grade and did most of her volunteer work at the Catholic parish as well as at the City Rescue Mission and through Neshannock's Rotary Interact group.
"I don't think a lot of people know how to help out in the community. It doesn't have to be something where you get your hands dirty, it can be simple like helping out at a food bank or working with kids. It's anything you can do to brighten other people's lives," Fulkerson said, crediting her mom with instilling in her a passion for caring about others.
"(Her death) taught me a lot about myself and how to be strong," she said. "My mom gave me the best values and everything I've done is because of her."
She also credits Moss with being a "pillar of support in my life. Along with my mom, she's been the greatest influence in my life so far," Fulkerson said, adding, "Really, all of the (Neshannock) teachers were so amazing, the way they treated us when my mom passed away."
While Fulkerson enters Duquesne with an undeclared major, she's focusing her studies on journalism and political science.
"I'm thinking political broadcasting like Christiane Amanpour or maybe going to law school," said Fulkerson whose family also includes two older siblings, Jeffrey Lombardo and Natalie Lombardo, as well as a younger sister, Olivia Fulkerson.
"I'm looking forward to fall. I'm such a school person," she continued. "I've got classes in political science and public speaking, which I love. I know, I'm the weirdest kid ever."