WASHINGTON, D.C. -- September 11, 2001 was the worst day of Michelle and Clifton’s lives. They lost their 11-year-old daughter Asia, who was onboard Flight 77. But, determined to uphold Asia’s legacy, they turned tragedy into triumph by honoring her dream of attending college.
Just like any parent, when describing their beautiful daughter Asia, Clifton and Michelle Cottom both light up.
"Someone coined it, the little girl with the infectious grin. She had a beautiful smile and she was always smiling," Michelle recalled. "She was just into everything. She walked fast, learned fast, everything."
"Asia was not standing still for nothing," said Clifton.
Dance, choir, science, math, soccer and cheerleading, Asia loved learning and doing just about everything.
“She was just full of joy,” said Paula Sanders, a family friend and Asia’s former reading tutor.
So, it was no surprise when she won a National Geographic essay contest for D.C. public school fifth and sixth graders. Her prize was an educational trip to the Channel Islands in California.
“I took her to the airport on September 11. Dropped her off. Said my goodbyes,” recalled Clifton.
On his drive to work, Clifton listened to the radio when he heard two planes had hit the Twin Towers. Then, a plane hit the Pentagon.
“I told two of my co-workers, ‘That’s my daughter’s plane,’” said Clifton.
Michelle was in a meeting when her secretary told them to turn on the television.
“That was when I was like, ‘Wait a minute… my daughter is on a plane,” recalled Michelle.
Losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. But for Clifton and Michelle, their loss was extraordinarily public. Everyone remembers where they were on September 11. The tragedy is replayed on television every year. This made the grieving process particularly difficult.
“Because it was so public and so tragic, everybody was falling apart,” Michelle said of her family, friends and community. “Just trying to keep them and help them have faith and try to understand something that we didn’t understand either… I think that it took probably years for me to actually start grieving. A lot of years.”
But through darkness, there was light. People wanted to help.
The Cottoms received hundreds of letters from around the world. The mailman would come to their home and dump his entire bag. They weren’t just letters of condolences; they also included donations. Most were in denominations of 11, Asia's age.
“We would get envelopes from little kids with eleven cents in it,” said Michelle.
They ended up receiving thousands and thousands of dollars, and Michelle was initially overwhelmed.
“What am I going to do with money? What am I going to do? It’s not going to bring Asia back,” Michelle remembered saying.
Her friend suggested starting a memorial scholarship in Asia’s honor.
The Asia SiVon Cottom Memorial Scholarship Fund
Even as a child, Asia talked about going to college.
“She would’ve gone to college, I can tell you that,” said Asia’s tutor, Paula.
By creating a scholarship for other kids, Michelle and Clifton could symbolically send Asia to college.
“For me to watch students grow was my way of being able to send Asia to college. Over and over and over again,” said Michelle. “Through the foundation is how we healed a little bit too.”
Seventeen years after that tragic day, the Asia Sivon Memorial Scholarship Fund has given over $260,000 to 96 students who shared Asia’s interests in science, math, engineering and technology.
The foundation’s first scholar was particularly special because she had her own connection with Asia.
"To know that Asia wasn't able to go to college... she would have gone, I can tell you that! But just to see how many students have been able to come through and get the education," said Paula. "All in the memory of this young little girl that was born and raised in D.C. who had just big dreams and goals."
The scholarship is still going strong. Today, the Cottoms depends on donations from private citizens and corporations. They also hold fundraisers. In 2019, they plan on hosting their first golf tournament.
As for what Asia would think of her legacy, Michelle believes she’d be “stoked.”
“To have people going to school because of her, I think she’s up there dancing on the clouds,” said Michelle.