Enaura-Celia Aka never stepped foot on a golf course before the summer after her freshman year in high school. Now, she’s using her experience as a caddie to get a full-ride to Penn State University.
“I had zero clue of what caddying was or golf,” said Aka, 17, who lives in Lansdowne.
Aka is one of three girls from Cristo Rey High School in North Philadelphia who were recently awarded full four-year scholarships to Penn State as a result of their work carrying golf bags and, as they found out, doing so much more.
The awards, which entitle Aka, Kayla Marrero and Treasure Owens to tuition and housing at Penn State’s main campus, are valued at $120,000 each.
Since 1930, the Western Golf Association’s Evans Scholars Foundation has awarded scholarships to more than 11,000 caddies. Right now, more than 1,000 are currently enrolled, many staying at specialty caddie houses on campus.
The recipients are selected based on financial need, grades, character and, of course, a strong caddie record. It’s funded by contributions from 32,500 golfers around the country and proceeds from the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship, which is run by WGA.
Since 2012, the association has operated the Caddie Academy, a program where high schoolers with little-to-no golf experience are flown to Illinois to learn how to caddy.
Aka, Marrero and Owens were nominated for the program as freshmen by their teachers. Each summer, they spent seven weeks at Skokie Country Club outside of Chicago.
“I decided to take that leap of faith,” Aka said. “It was scary because I’m going to Illinois. I’ve never been there. I’m going alone without family.”
Prior to enrolling in the Caddie Academy, Marrero didn’t like golf, at least not from what she saw on TV.
“My freshman year was the first time actually I experienced golf,” said Marrero, 17, of West Philly. “After a while, I’m like, oh wait, this is pretty cool.”
Nearly every day, they woke up at 6 a.m. and prepared to usher golfers. Marrero learned caddying involves carrying a player’s bags, cleaning the golf ball, giving golfers tips on the course and holding the pin when they get to the green.
Kara Stack, who manages the program, said WGA formed it to address a shortage of female caddies. It also wanted to bring in girls who lived far from courses and didn’t have access to the sport.
Caddie Academy started with a dozen girls from the Chicago area and has expanded to include 90 to 100 annually. There’s now a program for boys and, in 2017, a branch of the program was formed in Philadelphia.
Stack said she and her staff look for participants to work hard, be friendly and have a willingness to learn.
“Caddying is a tough job,” she said. “You’re out on the golf course for like 5 miles carrying a golf bag. You kind of have to come in with the right attitude and effort in order to be successful at it.”
Getting the Evans Scholarship is a big motivation, Stack added.
Marrero, who plans to study broadcast journalism, said she met a lot of people on the course, including a man who helped her explore the world of media. One of the golfers she caddied for even flew to Philly for her scholarship interview.
“I love the job,” she said, adding that she wants to continue caddying in college. “I love networking with people.”
Caddying puts you in contact with people who are high up in various industries and can mentor you, Aka said.
The students break out of their shells during the Caddie Academy and build relationships with the golfers, said Stack, who grew up caddying and is an Evans Scholar herself.
“Learning how to really socialize with adults is something that I personally learned when I was a young teenager,” she said. “You’re working with doctors and lawyers and people you would not interact with on a typical basis as a teenager.”
“You kind of just learn so much about how to communicate with adults and communicate in a professional setting,” Stack added.
It’s not all lugging clubs and standing in the hot sun. The girls went to a Chicago White Sox game and saw the musical “Hamilton.” Marrero, while working the Western Amateur tournament, met retired Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Tony Romo.
Aka said she was grateful to be able to form bonds with students from all over the country who participated in the Caddie Academy.
In the fall, she plans to move into the Evans Scholars house at Penn State and study chemical engineering. After that, Aka may enroll in law school and become a patent attorney; although she would just as happily become an engineer.
“I’ve been doing a lot of research, and I noticed there weren’t a lot of females that were in STEM,” she said.
“I would like to be able to use that to motivate my community, other females around me to participate in STEM if that’s their interest and not fear being in STEM knowing that they’ll probably be like the only female or the only minority there,” she added.
It wouldn’t be the first time Aka has broken barriers.