Most high school seniors, on hearing that they qualified for a generous college scholarship, would take the money and run.

Not Ashley Forte.

Forte is a top student at Durham’s Southern High School and she’s applying to some pricey schools next year–MIT and Duke among them. But the scholarship she recently learned about through an online service called FastWeb came with one all-too-visible string attached: funding by the Lorillard Tobacco Company.

FastWeb notified Forte last month that she’d be a likely candidate for one of the cigarette company’s $10,000 Teen H.I.P. (Teens Helping Influence People) scholarships for youth leaders who don’t smoke. Her two-year stint with the Durham-based Question Why Youth Empowerment Center is undoubtedly what made the online match.

As one of the center’s teen staff members, Forte has gone from the halls of the General Assembly to the corridors of middle and high schools around the state, speaking out about the dangers of smoking, the marketing tactics of tobacco companies and the need for more funding for prevention. Just last week she convinced the Site-Based Management Committee at her school to make Southern a 100 percent smoke-free institution.

Her advocacy work is the reason Forte didn’t want the scholarship. “How can I keep doing the work I’m doing knowing who is paying for it?” she asks.

It’s a decision that Lorillard will never know about, since the online service is confidential. Still, for the teens and adults she works with, Forte’s stance is inspirational–another reminder of why she’s such an effective fighter in the battle to reduce teen smoking.

“I don’t meet that many teenagers who are so committed to an issue that they are willing to make a personal sacrifice, like Ashley did,” says Ann Houston, director of public education and communication for the state Health Department’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch. “A lot of adults could learn a lesson from that.”

Kim Reese, a Question Why co-worker who’s a junior at Durham’s Hillside High, agrees. “Ashley’s not your average girl,” she says. “She’s very nonchalant about what people might think of her. Her self-esteem is high. She’s just always had that kind of courage when it comes to speaking out.”

Seated at a table in her high school’s spacious media center, Forte doesn’t look the part of an activist who’s gone head to head with government and school board officials. She’s dressed unassumingly in dark jeans and a band jacket (she’s been a drum major for the Symphonic Soul of the South since her freshman year at Southern) and when she smiles, she has a way of ducking her head that makes her seem shy.

Yet, when Forte answers a question, she’s direct and to the point. Her dark-eyed gaze is steady and there are none of the typical teenage doubts clouding her expression.

Her interest in teen smoking began in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, when she saw one of the first “Truth Campaign” TV commercials funded by the national tobacco settlement. “I went to the Web site they listed and they had a place where you could apply for the first-ever Truth Summit in Seattle,” says Forte, now 17. “My parents were like, “Hmmm. You want us to believe this?’ Then the plane tickets came in the mail.”

Forte was one of about a dozen North Carolina teenagers chosen to attend the summit, a gigantic motivational retreat for stop-smoking advocates. There, she met Jim Martin, the state’s advisor on preventing teen tobacco use, as well as youth leaders from Florida who helped create the Truth Campaign.

At the training, Forte was struck by a tape of a tobacco company executive who was interviewed about why he doesn’t smoke. “‘I reserve that for the poor, the black and the stupid,’” she recalls him saying. “That really pulled me in. This is something they are doing to my community. When I came back to Durham, I was like, ‘Oh man. I want to do something. I really want to do something.’”

Martin steered her to the people organizing Question Why and its youth-led smoking prevention programs. Soon, Forte was working 10 and sometimes many more hours a week, organizing smoke-out celebrations, peer training sessions and protests from Asheville to Wilmington.

Humor is one of the weapons in Forte’s public speaking arsenal. Doing her homework is another.

“I usually have an outline when I’m going to speak,” she says. “I always get the room set up and find out the number of people who’ll be there and their age.”

Her message is straightforward: Smoking is the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and it’s being pushed by an industry that markets its products to youth.

It’s not just her peers who’ve been impressed by Forte’s powers of persuasion. Her speech at a rally in Raleigh last spring about the paltry share of state tobacco-settlement dollars going to prevention, led one key elected leader to warn her to “be careful not to step on anybody’s toes.”

While she’s an ardent advocate in public, Forte also knows how to relax and have fun. She loves music and the marching band. She’s close to her family. (Her dad, Ben, works at IBM, mom, Joyce teaches deaf children and sister, Krystal, is an education major at North Carolina Central University.) And she’s well-liked at school and in teen leadership circles.

Has she ever even been tempted to smoke? “Nah,” says Forte. “It’s never been one of those things I’ve tried.”

She’s not embarrassed by her choice either. “That’s a misconception about peer pressure,” she says. “People say kids smoke because of peers, but I think it’s more like stress and a legacy–if your parents or someone in your family does it.”

In college, Forte plans to study chemical engineering and hopes to get a job doing research with a big corporation–while continuing her advocacy work. (She notes that the tobacco company whistleblower in the movie The Insider was a graduate of MIT, where she’s applied).

With teen smoking rates in North Carolina now above 36 percent, state health leaders say Forte will be missed on the front lines. But she has no doubt someone capable will appear to take her place.

“I know I can’t be a teen activist forever,” Forte says, with a smile. “There are a lot more teens out there doing positive stuff than adults think.” EndBlock