Ava Nicholls says the main theme of her college essay was, “If you want something bad enough, you have to make sacrifices.” By way of example, she shared her adoption story. She lived in Ethiopia until age 5, where her family lived in poverty without access to clean water and electricity. Her birth parents put her up for adoption for a chance at a better life.

Nicholls is full of gratitude for her American family who raised her in Exeter, N.H., where she’s developed a love of gardening with her mom and dad. She communicates with her family in Ethiopia through letter writing. Nicholls has two Newfoundlands that she adores.“They look like big brown bears,” she says. She named them Buna and Shayi, which in Amharic (a widely used language in Ethiopia) means coffee and tea. She likes to find small connections to her birthplace.

Amid her gratitude, she says, there can still be struggles. As the only Black student in a large public high school, she understands the feeling of not belonging. She was a standout on the field hockey and lacrosse teams, but her most valued extracurricular activity was serving as a Hawk (the name of her school’s mascot) Guide. “I gave tours and helped welcome incoming students. I wanted to help them feel like they belong,” she says. 

Nicholls’ interest in inclusion and belonging led her to choose a social work major at . “I think I’d like to focus on children and family issues, maybe work in the foster care system,” she says. “My life experience has taught me empathy.”

She toured many schools on her college search, and says that when she visited last April, “I could see myself on the campus. I liked all the green space, but I really liked that it was in a major city. I want to experience that diversity.” 

Nicholls’ grades earned her a merit scholarship. She enjoyed her English classes the most. “I had a favorite teacher who taught us that when you are reading and discussing books, there is not one right answer. He encouraged different points of view,” she says. “That’s something that excites me about being a college student — hearing different perspectives.”