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Barnes Scholarship winners overcame adversity

They're headed to Cornell, Duke and the University of Florida. They want to be doctors, engineers and marine biologists. The winners and finalists for the 2011 Barnes Scholarships sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times Fund have logged in a number of different and noteworthy achievements as high school students. Still, as they head to college they share one common trait: perseverance in the face of adversity. Their successes will be celebrated at a luncheon Tuesday at the Marriott Resort in St. Petersburg. Here are their stories:

Winner: Fedner Lauture

School: St. Petersburg High, Pinellas

GPA: 4.5

Plans to attend: Duke University

Area of interest: medicine

"In college, I want to do the things I could not have done as a child. I want to learn how to ski and play tennis, I want to study, in depth, subjects that interest me like mythology and Shakespeare, and I want to explore my passion for musical theater and dance."

My story: Ever since I was a child, my mother told me never let others define me by the color of my skin and that as the son of Haitian immigrants I had to work harder than everybody to prove that I was more than a minority or a demographic. These words have followed me throughout my life and have made me into the strong Haitian American I am today.

I went to an elementary school with a majority of white students … I had a teacher who treated me differently. In fact, I remember crying because another student slammed the door shut on my hand and actually getting in trouble because my crying, according to her, was a disturbance to the class. I never understood why she treated me differently. ... She did not see me as a student but as a black kid who caused problems in her class. Her racism was one of the very first obstacles in my life.

In middle school, it was a huge shock to go from a predominantly white school to a predominantly black school. Other African-American students considered me "white" because I never wore my pants below my waist or spoke as if I never looked at a grammar book and … they shunned, bullied, and harassed me. …

I have greatly overcome the obstacle of stereotypes in my life. I am now the student body president of St. Petersburg High School and to achieve this goal I had to appeal to all of the students. I did not limit myself or let prejudices define me. By continuing to be myself, I won the election. Life is full of obstacles and I welcome every single one because I know that I can overcome them.

Winner: Tuba Sahiti

School: Northeast High, Pinellas

GPA: 4.77

Plans to attend: Harvard or Columbia

Area of interest: international relations

"I hope to work for the U.S. State Department, NATO, or the U.N. so that I can promote peace and goodwill across and within borders."

Winner: Kelsey McDonald

School: Alonso High, Hillsborough

GPA: 6.04

Plans to attend: Yale or Princeton universities

Area(s) of interest: pharmacology

"My career goal is to become a ground-breaking pharmacological researcher. I want to help develop new medicines and treatments that will help people to live longer and better lives."

My story: Although neither of my parents completed more than just a few semesters of college, there was never a question in our home that I would go to college. Unfortunately, midway through my freshman year, my parents informed me that they may no longer have the money to send me to college. The next year, after the economic crash of September 2008, they confirmed it, in tears.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

It became my responsibility to earn a college scholarship. The amazing teachers and administrators at Alonso High School became true partners in my education. My mother found used standardized test-prep books on eBay since we couldn't afford expensive tutors or test-prep courses. A lack of money was replaced by teamwork and an unrelenting work ethic.

With the support of my parents and Alonso High School, I've been able to alter what would have been a certainly bleak future. I am a Barnes Scholarship winner, a National Merit Finalist, an AP Scholar with honor, and will qualify for Florida's Academic Bright Futures Scholarship.

I will become a groundbreaking scientist ... and ... I will pay it forward.

Winner: Roberto Villalba

School: Gaither High, Hillsborough

GPA: 6.24

Plans to attend: Cornell University

Area(s) of interest: computer science, mechanical engineering

"I plan to ride the wave of 'Robotic Innovation.' It is at the front of this wave that I will achieve one of my deepest desires, to give my name a solid place in history and to leave behind something for society; something that will benefit mankind. And even if I can't leave behind a whole flight of stairs, then a single stepping-stone will suffice."

My story: Seeing my mom struggle has been the best experience to prepare me for the real world, yet it has also been the most difficult part of my life to overcome. Life started off in Cuba, where a third-world status was not enough, so in addition, a tyrant prevented all of us from ever achieving anything. My mom knew this very well and through hard work she was eventually able to put both of us in the land of opportunities, though that title did not apply to her. The biggest barrier, the language.

I soon began my first day of school without being able to understand anything that had went on during the lessons. I got home with tears in my eyes. My mom then sat down with me and explained how much luckier I was than she. She explained why we had come to America and that the most important thing was education. The next day I practiced my English by saying "yes" to whomever I spoke to.

As soon as my mom was granted a worker's permit, she began to work at different places, but it was very hard for her to get a job. In an attempt to find a job, we moved several times and each time I was forced to start from zero in whichever school I was put in. She finally found a steady job working at a factory, but the hours were horrible. I was barely able to see my mom during this period of our lives but I knew it hurt her much more than it did me.

It was then that I saw how cruel things could be for those who do not get an education. I often saw her cry and she would always tell me, "Study! Study hard!" I knew quite well that she was doing all that for me and I told myself I would never let it be in vain.

Finalist: Colleen Pulawski

School: Frank W. Springstead High, Hernando

GPA: 4.42

Plans to attend: Carnegie Mellon University

Area(s) of interest: theater and the arts

"My goal as a performer is to always approach my work with a curious mind and not only become a skilled actor, but a keen observer of human nature."

My story: In 2002, I found out that my mom had Parkinson's. I was 9 years old and unsure of what it all meant. The terms "dopamine," "tremors" and "neurological disorder" were foreign to me, but I could tell from the tone of the adults around me that these were serious matters. The first few months after mom's diagnosis, we didn't see much change. As more time passed, her hands shook more, neurologist appointments became more frequent, her sense of smell became severely damaged. Even at this point, however, I was still ignorant of the consequences Parkinson's brings. Then, mom couldn't handle a car, and she stopped working.

It was after these things happened that I realized the toll Parkinson's was taking on my mom. I wanted to tackle the disease head-on. I began reading her books and learning as much as I could about PD. Slowly I began to understand and cope with the disease.

Today, my mom's disease is progressing slowly. She still can't drive and doesn't work, but Parkinson's is not completely ruling her life. I understand Parkinson's now, and I am not willing to let confusion overwhelm me. The day might come when Parkinson's takes over my mom's body, but I will be ready.

Finalist: Fatima Kamara

School: Freedom High, Hillsborough

GPA: 5.57

Plans to attend: American University

Area(s) of interest: psychology, marine biology

"Working toward a career and earning a position that allows upward mobility, independence, and intellectual stimulation is one of my foremost goals."

My story: I have heard it said that the measure of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas and still retain the ability to function. My greatest strength is my ability to function and I use it to overcome my greatest obstacle, dysfunction.

Dysfunction is, by my personal definition, an absent father, a troubled sister and constant uprooting.

My final paradox is ongoing: I have nowhere I call "home," and yet I feel as though I have lived everywhere. In total, it amounts to seven houses and apartments in four cities, residency in three states and enrollment in six schools, including three elementary and two high schools. The pain from being uprooted was not superficial and held just as much weight as any other obstacle I had encountered. As hopelessness took root in my mind, I realized that the worst scenario could become the best beginning.

I have adapted to the chaos in life by developing the ability to look at things from opposing angles, simultaneously if I must. Whatever comes … I have built up a strong defense and will remain victorious.

Finalist: Bradley Sykes

School: Plant High, Hillsborough

GPA: 6.08

Plans to attend: Duke University

Area(s) of interest: economics

"My primary goal beyond high school involves character. For all the talk of free thought and future income, important though it may be, I view the entire college experience as perhaps my first legitimate opportunity to discover myself."

My story: My mother died on a Tuesday. I was 3 years old. ... Her passing has certainly left an emotional impression on me over the years, most noticeably in odd, uncalculated moments of intense loneliness, perhaps spurred by nothing more than a mother and child at the park or a heart-wrenching scene at the cinema. However, I would contend that, surprisingly, the greatest consequences of the loss of one's mother are manifested indirectly in what is left of one's upbringing.

The genuine secret to my success is something more, something substantial, something fatherly. Even in the tenderest years of development, I feel a father's every action is noticed, dare I say absorbed, into the child's character. …

Though it could never be described as easy, or even obligatory, thanks to him I never led a life of latchkey and babysitters. Every day, he would send me off to class with a wet kiss. And every day, he greeted me with the same. Only now can I read between the lines. Between those two kisses lay an ocean of weariness and sorrow. Somehow, each day he was able to shake off the crippling agony of losing his life's love and plow ahead into the duties of two parents, all the while able to summon the spirit to let me know I was loved. Always.

Finalist: Andre Revell

School: St. Petersburg High, Pinellas

GPA: 4.82

Plans to attend: University of Florida

Area(s) of interest: technology

"I feel I have the possibility of creating something all of us can develop, change, and use by going to a college of my dreams."

My story: For 13 years I go without a father and face many setbacks. Life can be really difficult. Every day can be a struggle. Going to school can be a challenge within itself: leaving home even before most of my friends wake up in order to walk 2 miles to my bus stop because I can't afford a car to drive myself to school, because I can't afford a cell phone to call someone for help, because I can't afford a new bike to ride to my bus stop.

I do not, however, look at my austere life as a failure or an excuse. This is simply my reality now, but I can afford a better life in the future. I can become stronger and expand my opportunities, even without a father.

Finalist: Benjamin Willis

School: Plant City High, Hillsborough

GPA: 6.40

Plans to attend: University of Florida

Area(s) of interest: engineering

"I want to be able to reinvent our failing infrastructure into something that can support the excess population we already have."

My story: In retrospect, my halcyon days roaming unleashed around the U.S. Army base my father was stationed on in Germany, for the better part of my first decade of life, were taken for granted. I was an Army brat … who had unfortunately been conditioned to believe that every child had a multiroomed home, video games with the newest console … and a glorious bounty under the Christmas tree.

The day my father sat my siblings and me down to tell us he was seeking a divorce… My mother gained custody. I was enrolled in my first civilian public school. I earned straight A's in all of my classes, which were honors level. I had left my friends and the memorable places, but I had also discarded my sense of privilege and unthankful reception to life's blessings overseas. I loved the feeling of a hard-earned A+, and the satisfaction it brought to my immigrant mother; to know the day- and graveyard-shift jobs she worked to support us were not in vain and her children were college-bound, that they would receive a postsecondary education not available to her when she graduated high school in war-torn revolutionary Iran.

We moved to the cheapest two-bedroom apartments in Plant City, and my two siblings, mother and I managed to survive five years in the crime-ridden area next to the railroad tracks living paycheck to paycheck. … I feel that with my college education I can weather any financial obstacles and provide my loved ones and my mother especially with security of home and other necessities.

Finalist: Richard Anderson

School: Ridgewood High, Pasco

GPA: 3.87

Plans to attend: Florida State University

Area(s) of interest: marine biology

"I developed a love for all things aquatic shortly after I moved to Florida at the ripe age of 5. ... I hope to go far in life by not only earning a high level of education, but also by helping others and helping defenseless sea creatures."

Semifinalists

Citrus County

Jeraldine Needham

Crystal River High School

GPA: 3.8

Masumi Palhof

Crystal River High School

GPA: 4.22

Amber Peacock

Lecanto High School

GPA: 4.1

Hernando County

Sarah McConnell

Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School

GPA: 4.4

Maria Garcia

Frank W. Springstead High School

GPA: 4.46

Bermarie Jerez

Frank W. Springstead High School

GPA: 4.0

Hillsborough County

Kayla Freed

Hillsborough High School

GPA: 4.99

Ashley Bracewell

Plant City High School

GPA: 3.8

Victoria Watkins

Plant City High School

GPA: 5.38

Kyle Franken

Spoto High School

GPA: 5.62

Austine Friedrich

Spoto High School

GPA: 5.01

Alisha Simpson

Tampa Bay Technical High School

GPA: 5.46

Aniek Cruz

Alonso High School

GPA: 5.1

Ashley Stephens

Alonso High School

GPA: 4.8

Sinhye Lee

Bloomingdale High School

GPA: 4.73

Khattiya Chharath

East Bay High School

GPA: 6.0

Benjamin Epps

Freedom High School

GPA: 4.86

Diandra Latibeaudiere

Freedom High School

GPA: 4.85

Jabin Jose

Middleton High School

GPA: 5.9

Stephanie Pena

Middleton High School

GPA: 4.0

Jonathan Castillo

Robinson High School

GPA: 5.32

Cody Smith

Robinson High School

GPA: 5.0

Brooke Jimenez

Sickles High School

GPA: 5.61

Anthony Medina

Strawberry Crest High School

GPA: 4.92

Mara Richman

Tampa Catholic High School

GPA: 3.93

Abraham Lozano

Wharton High School

GPA: 5.58

Manatee County

Christal Hayes

Bayshore High School

GPA: 3.38

Sabrina Torres

Bayshore High School

GPA: 4.0

Katie Granberg

Manatee High School

GPA: 3.9

Abydjana Tresalus

Manatee High School

GPA: 4.3

Pasco County

Michael Davidson

Academy at the Lakes, Pasco

GPA: 3.8

Zachary Ivanac

Gulf High School

GPA: 4.4

Ishia Perez

Gulf High School

GPA: 3.7

Joshua Gabel

J.W. Mitchell High School

GPA: 3.9

Anson Angail

Zephyrhills High School

GPA: 4.52

Bethany Smith

Zephyrhills High School

GPA: 4.03

Luis Adan

Home-schooled

GPA: 3.53

Pinellas County

Miles Marinello

Dunedin High School

GPA: 4.2

Adam Keilbach

Seminole High School

GPA: 4.0

Joshua Goff

St. Petersburg High School

GPA: 4.6

Valiece Long

Clearwater High School

GPA: 4.42

Paula Vargas

Northeast High School

GPA: 4.37

Mickael Lai

Seminole High School

GPA: 4.3

India Bowman

St. Petersburg High School

GPA: 3.69

Jasmine Wheeler

St. Petersburg High School

GPA: 4.2

Kenneth Bowers

School: St. Petersburg Collegiate High School

GPA: 4.76

Miranda Moon

School: Shorecrest Preparatory School

GPA: 3.13

Justin Zirlott

School: Center Academy High School

GPA: 4.0

Compiled by Times editorial assistant Emily Rieman

Barnes Scholarships

Established: 1999 by the St. Petersburg Times Fund, named after Andrew Barnes, retired chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times. The fund is the not-for-profit philanthropic arm of the St. Petersburg Times.

Eligible students: College-bound high school seniors who have overcome significant obstacles in their lives while remaining committed to academic achievement and community service. The 2011 winners were selected from among 10 finalists. In all, 367 students from public and private high schools in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties applied.

Awards: The winners receive up to $15,000 per year for four years at an accredited U.S. college or university. The six runnersup each receive a one-time $1,000 award. This year, the St. Petersburg Times Fund will provide nearly $131,000 in financial aid through the Barnes Scholarships.

More information: tampabay.com/scholarships.

Barnes Scholarship winners overcame adversity 04/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 7:00pm]
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