Alzberta Nei's only knowledge about caddying or golf was from Caddyshack.
Then she was chosen to participate in the Western Golf Association's Caddie Academy, and now — four years later — Nei is still caddying in the northern suburbs of Chicago. The Philadelphia native and Cristo Rey High graduate will be attending Penn State on a full four-year scholarship starting in the fall.
Her path, as unlikely as it seems, is one that more than a handful of minority female students at Cristo Rey — a private Catholic school on North Broad Street for low-income students — have followed, or are attempting to follow, in hopes of fulfilling their otherwise uncertain college aspirations. Nei and former classmate Brooklyn Gabriel both received the scholarship, which is sponsored by the Evans Scholars Foundation, this past year. Six other seniors- and juniors-to-be at Cristo Rey are among the 90 participating this summer with eyes on the same scholarship.
"I didn't know whether or not I could afford to go school," Nei said. "When I first got [the news], I was really starstruck — I was like, 'Oh my God, this is really the moment I've been waiting for for the past four years; this is what I've worked so hard for.'"
The Caddie Academy attracts high school girls from across the country who apply to be housed and to caddy in the Chicago area for three consecutive summers and then receive an opportunity to apply for an Evans scholarship. The WGA began the program in 2012 after realizing a stark lack of racial and gender diversity among its Evans scholars, said director of education Mike Maher. Its efforts have led to tangible changes — women and people of color both composed more than 30 percent of scholarship recipients this past year.
The WGA soon developed such close ties to the Philadelphia area that it partnered with the Golf Association of Philadelphia's J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust — which has awarded smaller scholarships to Philadelphia caddies for decades — to form a Platt Evans full-ride scholarship and then launch an "Eastern" academy this year. This new academy is giving more female students from Cristo Rey caddying experience at the nearby Whitemarsh Valley and Aronimink clubs. And Aronimink is set to host in September the PGA Tour's BMW Championship, a FedEx Cup playoff event that donates all proceeds to the Evans Scholars Foundation.
Still, most participants at both locations begin with only college in mind and little to no golf knowledge.
"When you live in the middle of Philadelphia, golf is not something that you talk about with your friends," said Alyssa Mora-Mickens, a Cristo Rey senior-to-be in her third year of caddying. "My first summer, it was really difficult for me to talk to people about anything. Being put in a position where there was no other option … really allowed me to grow with my people skills."
In addition to learning to read greens and select irons, participants learn interpersonal communication and time management skills, plus receive SAT/ACT tutoring on the side, Maher said.
But significant hurdles remain, including pervasive discrimination from golf-club members toward females and minorities, which numerous participants said they had experienced. Mora-Mickens felt "very off" about the social atmosphere at first — "I had grown up all my life not feeling like my ethnicity or my gender was a problem until I got there," she said — but forced herself to push through it and prove her caddying chops.
Most stick to the program because of the possibility of earning a full ride to Penn State, rather than because of career aspirations in the caddying field, even once they're acclimated to the profession. That singular motivation nevertheless proves to be more than enough for them to leave their families behind and head to the unknown fairways of Illinois each summer.
During Nei's first summer in the academy, her mother died while she was gone. Yet Nei returned the following summer. Three years later, she has fulfilled her mother's goal for her: to make it to college.
Clearly, the appeal of golf, caddying, and an accessible route to a full scholarship can overcome just about anything.