NEW PORT RICHEY — In the eighth grade, Shree Sundaresh wrote a letter to her future self. She discusses her clothing and style preferences, including a treasured jacket her mother found especially annoying. She mentions her devotion to Harry Potter books and a hope that one day an alternative fuel source will stare down rising gas prices.
It was a class assignment she quickly forgot about.
Now, as the 18-year-old wraps up high school and prepares to head to Stanford University in a few months, the two-page, typed note has resurfaced. Her teacher sent it back, along with congratulations and well wishes.
The letter isn't just amusing — she no longer wears the jacket, but her mom likes to remind her to take it with her when she goes out — but prophetic. It ends with Shree describing her pride in watching her older brother, Shyam, receiving multiple awards as he left high school. She expresses hope that she, too, will end her high school years on such a high note.
Shree, 18, is Pasco County's Outstanding Senior and valedictorian of Gulf High School's International Baccalaureate (IB) program. She's graduating with a 4.7 grade point average. Other accomplishments include being a National Merit finalist, winner of the Bausch & Lomb Science Award and a "Sobresaliente" (outstanding) recipient in the state Spanish competition. She's president of the school's Spanish Honor Society, a member of the Math, English and National Honor Societies, the debate club and a People-to-People Student Ambassador.
Outside of school, Shree is an accomplished pianist, classical Indian dancer and fundraiser. She's netted superior ratings from the National Federation of Music Clubs and first place in the Emeric Lazar Piano Competition. She's served on the New Port Richey Library's teen advisory council. A Girl Scout since age 5, Shree has earned the Silver Award, the highest achievement possible for a Cadet.
She did a three-hour solo of the classical Indian Bharatanatyam dance two years ago to raise a little more than $3,000 for the Good Samaritan Health Clinic — a feat that later brought her an Anne Frank Humanitarian Award. She also teamed with a classmate last year to raise more than $900 to help Japanese tsunami victims.
All of the awards and accolades have created quite the collection of trophies. They are not easy to find, though, in the home Shree shares with her parents, K.V. and Suma, and grandmother, Padma. Shyam and her other older brother, Ram, are away at college.
The trophy case rests against a wall inside a small alcove that features a large religious shrine.
"This is where the trophies go, back to God," said Suma Sundaresh. "God gets the thanks."
Shree prefers not to make a big deal out of her accomplishments. Her push for excellence has never been about glory or being better than anyone else.
"For so long, it was all about getting into the best school I could," she said. "Now, having the kind of support I have from my family and friends, I can narrow my focus and do what I really care about."
That includes being a normal teenager. She likes to hang out with friends, at the local coffee shop or at her home. She still has a thing for Harry Potter and enjoys riding her bike along the beach. She plays tennis. When she and her friends are feeling especially rambunctious, they break out their giant water guns for "Super Soaker Sessions."
She'll most likely follow her father into medicine. Shree isn't sure what she wants to specialize in yet, but neuroscience is a strong possibility. So is research. Psychology seems interesting, too. Her plan is to take a lot of different courses and see what she likes best. Stanford became her school of choice after attending a five-week program for gifted youth there last summer.
"I really liked the atmosphere; it was really friendly and diverse. It didn't seem like everyone was just out to compete, but to work together," she said. "And the opportunities for research are amazing."
She also took note of the abundance of Indian culture in and around the campus. With both parents from India, Shree has grown up immersed in her heritage. Her mother introduced her to Indian dancing at an early age. Shree still remembers the first dance she performed in public, at age 5. It told the story of a little bird. She's been dancing since.
Many of her performances are on YouTube. At the Stanford summer program, she taught her classmates a Bollywood dance – a mix of modern and folk dance styles popular in Indian movies – for a talent show.
Shree's mom also got her into piano lessons at an early age. She noticed her daughter gravitating to the keyboard her brothers were learning to play. She didn't pound on it to make noise, as most toddlers would, but really attempted to play it, her mother recalls.
"It's how I kept her busy while I did my activities," said Suma Sundaresh, smiling. "When she started lessons, we had to put a booster seat on the piano bench."
Girl Scouts gets credit for instilling a love of volunteering, Shree said. She vividly recalls the feeling that came from taking handmade Valentine's Day cards to residents of a nursing home.
"They were so happy, their faces just lit up when we came in; the staff, too. They were all so appreciative," she said. "We did a lot of those visits, to hospitals, too. It helped us see the difference we can make for other people."
Shree describes all of her teachers as "amazing," but singles out her biology teacher, Daniel Uchacz, for making a deep and lasting impression. When his wife became pregnant, Uchacz incorporated the impending birth of their son into class lessons. He shared ultrasound pictures and the first video of Filip, now 6 months old and known as the "IB Bio Child."
"He taught us a lot about life outside the classroom," Shree said.
Uchacz believes it's important for teachers to show students how their classroom lessons apply to the real world. Knowing students like Shree get it makes him grateful. He wishes he could clone her.
"It isn't just that she has a beautiful mind," Uchacz said. "She's one of the most modest, humble individuals I've ever met. She's always willing to help, to be part of a team.
"She's going to be a great asset to this country one day."