It was busy in the South Philadelphia bakery on an early Autumn day in 2016. The phone was ringing incessantly. There were cakes that needed boxing, a cookie table that needed constant restocking. A convention of students, scholars, and scientists in town was fueling the surge in business.
In her uniform and apron, Anyssa El Manfaa was busily filling orders, yet finding herself drawn into the intellectual conversation around her.
A seemingly 50-something customer, whose university-age son was presenting at the convention, approached the counter and ordered a cake. As El Manfaa boxed it, they began chatting about quantum mechanics and the concept of infinity. The conversation so excited her that she almost wrapped her finger in a ribbon she was tying around the cake.
“You know what, kid?” the man told her, “if you had gone to school for this stuff … you could have a lot more conversations like this one.”
He had no idea El Manfaa lost her Moroccan father to deportation when she was 4, that she began working at age 13 to help her mother and two younger siblings, that she was bullied in school — or that she had tried college once and couldn’t handle it while juggling two jobs. All he saw was the promise in her.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a $50 bill, folded it, and slid it under her hand.
“You shouldn’t be working in a bakery. You should be in a classroom,” he told her.
She quit later that week and reenrolled at Community College of Philadelphia, this time stirred by the confidence of a stranger. Soon, El Manfaa became an honors program standout.
This spring, she was one of 61 students nationwide to receive a Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, which will largely pay for her to continue on for her bachelor’s degree.
Finishing CCP in May with her associate’s degree and 4.0 GPA, she’ll spend the summer studying critical languages in Azerbaijan and then head to Swarthmore College to major in conflict resolution and peace studies; Swarthmore also gave her a scholarship, meaning her next two years of education will be free.
Now, she wishes she could thank the man who so favorably altered her life. But she doesn’t know his name or hometown. Her only clue? She thinks his son attended the University of Pennsylvania.
“He saw past my apron and my name tag,” El Manfaa, 21, said during an interview at the community college recently. “He saw me for me.”
Born in Philadelphia, El Manfaa attended Christopher Columbus Charter School through eighth grade.
“I got bullied a lot,” she said.
Her family was strapped for cash, trying to fund immigration appeals for her father. The financial struggle took its toll and she and her mother lived in a women’s shelter for a little while.
“Do we have enough money for me to see my father? Do we have enough money for him to come back? I hated it because it was always money,” she recalled.
The last time she saw him, she was 9 and had gone to the North African country to visit. He lived in a large, crowded apartment building. She is still disturbed by the memory of seeing women in his neighborhood prostituting themselves to tourists. But she also fondly remembers sitting with her father in the desert on a dark night, as he taught her about the cosmos.
El Manfaa liked it so much that she thought she’d become an astrophysicist.
For most of high school, she was enrolled at Commonwealth Connections Academy, a cyber charter school, where she escaped bullying and loved the self-directed learning. She visited libraries to further her knowledge of quantum mechanics. And she worked: In an antiques shop. In a pet store. As a waitress in a restaurant. In a fine-art gallery. She even began painting and sold some of her work on the street.
She got her high school diploma in 2015 and enrolled at CCP.
“I failed miserably,” El Manfaa recalled.
She had taken four courses while juggling jobs and couldn’t handle it all. She thought she was done with college.
That’s when she found the job in the bakery, which offered a 401(k) retirement savings program. (She asked that the bakery’s name not be used because she didn’t want to bring undue attention to it.)
“I thought I was going to work there forever,” she said.
At the community college for the second time, she found her true path — thanks to that stranger, whose kindness her mother saw as a sign.
“She hit the ground running,” Felicia El Manfaa, 40, a hotel security officer, recalled. “That’s all it took.”
El Manfaa asked for help when she needed it and found a plethora of resources. The honors program, in its 40th year, offered her opportunities and connections and its team taught interdisciplinary classes sparked her curiosity.
“Any opportunity we offered in the honors program she was in the center of,” said Brian D. Seymour, honors program coordinator. “She was not one to treat school like a chore … but to always be intellectually curious about her work and the work of others.”
She began envisioning a career in international relations, specifically working toward global denuclearization. That interest was fueled during a CCP study abroad opportunity in Japan last year when she interviewed a Hiroshima survivor.
The day she learned she won the highly competitive Cooke scholarship — which offers up to $40,000 annually for a maximum of three years — her professors and administrators gathered. She told them it was their victory, too.
“It’s not the student alone,” she said. “It’s the teachers. It’s the resources. It’s the administrative individuals who (\[say] ‘Hey, this is here for you.’ … It’s a network that wants to see you live your best life.”
She thanked them all — all but that kind gentleman from the bakery.
“If I could see him again," she said, "I would say thank you for believing in me. Thank you for seeing past the apron.”