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2014 Barnes Scholarship honors high-achieving students who overcame obstacles

For some, navigating through a stew of troubles builds strength and fuels a drive for success.

This year's Barnes Scholarship winners epitomize this zeal.

Every year since 1999, the Tampa Bay Times has helped high-achieving students who have overcome significant obstacles through the scholarship named for Andrew Barnes, former chairman and CEO of Times Publishing Co.

High school seniors in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are eligible to apply. This year's winners include two each from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. They are eligible to receive up to $15,000 per year for four years at a U.S. college or university.

Winners and finalists will be honored at a luncheon on April 15 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. The guest speaker, Zachary Taylor, is a 2007 graduate of Tampa Bay Technical High School, who is now working in San Francisco.

Here are the stories of this year's recipients.

Zaria Teal, 18, grew up with her mother and an older sister. Her father has been in and out of jail "for my entire life," Zaria said. Things were sometimes tough financially, but they got worse when Zaria was in her freshman year of high school, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease has since progressed to stage 4.

In an essay, she described her constant fear in high school that her mother would die. Through chemotherapy, radiation treatment and hair loss, she has been at her mother's side.

"I have been on the roller coaster of emotions that deal with: diagnosis, remission, relapse, remission, and relapse again," Zaria wrote. "I have stayed with her when she was put into Hospice three different times for weeks, and I was with her when she found out the cancer had spread to her liver and then to her bones."

Yet through it all, Zaria and her mother and sister grew closer. They made time for fun adventures. Cancer reminds them to relish their time together.

At Palm Harbor University High School, Zaria is in the International Baccalaureate program and has an unweighted GPA of 3.91. She was a member of the track team and volunteers at the YMCA after-school program at Ozona Elementary School. Zaria has been accepted at the University of Florida. She wants to work in public relations helping people create unique images for themselves and maybe one day make her own clothing brand.

Brianna Shilling, 17, and her dad are close. Leaving him for college as he copes with multiple sclerosis "will be tough," she said. But she knows he raised her to be her own person.

As a young girl, Brianna was the subject of a long and divisive custody battle. When it was over, she and her father moved from Colorado to Florida. For her 13th birthday, he got her a Yorkshire terrier that she named Nala — still her most prized possession.

Brianna's father was an Army Ranger 20 years ago when a faulty parachute left him in the middle of nowhere in Iraq, Brianna said. He had shattered his lower back. After leaving the Army, a year after she was born, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now, he is taking steroids. His next step: chemotherapy. Despite his misfortunes, he never complains.

"He is always happy," Brianna said. "I have no memory of him ever whining."

So she, too, chooses to be happy. She loses herself in bookstores. She volunteers at A Kid's Place, a group home for abused or neglected children. She notes their smiles, their innocence. They are not aware that their lives aren't good, she said.

At Newsome High School, she has an unweighted GPA of 4.0. She has more than 500 hours of community service, including many at Brandon Regional Hospital in labor and delivery. Brianna has applied at several schools and plans to become an oncologist, practicing in Spanish-speaking countries.

Yasmin Ibarra, 18, says going off to college, a first for her family of five siblings, is scary in a good way.

Her parents are Mexican immigrants who have lived here 25 years.

Her father went to school just one day before leaving to work for his family. Her mother left school after the ninth grade. Yasmin's father works long hours as a landscaper. Sometimes his back aches. He won't be able to do the labor forever, but he doesn't really have options, Yasmin said. He had a problem with alcohol until her mother threatened to leave if he didn't stop drinking. He's been sober for a year.

Yasmin sometimes feels odd in her family of three older brothers and a younger sister. She's a conscientious, diligent learner who loves to read.

"I could probably talk about books for hours," she said.

Growing up, she didn't know her family was poor until she entered high school, where she mixed with other students and realized some of their families hired gardeners, like her father. She felt ashamed. But as years passed, she grew as a person. When she was 15, she spent a summer with relatives in Leon, Mexico. She saw vistas of mountains and rivers with people living simply. She is proud of her parents, who made the best of their few chances. Her success is their success.

She ended her essay for the scholarship with this: "I am only a shadow of the kind of woman I hope to become."

Yasmin speaks fluent Spanish and French and was a National Merit semifinalist. She is an IB student at Strawberry Crest High School, where her unweighted GPA is 3.89. She has been accepted at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she plans to design her own concentration and to study abroad.

Noor Tasnim, 18, feels a twinge of anxiety about his future plans to become a cardiologist. The men in his father's family have long suffered from heart problems. His father had a mild heart attack two years ago while working at his job in a convenience store.

What could Noor's research reveal about his own heart?

Such health worries hover over Noor's family. His mother is anemic, which causes her to be short of breath sometimes. Despite their health concerns, his parents work long hours to support their two children and Noor's grandparents, who came to live with the family four years ago. The first year, his grandmother fasted through Ramadan and stopped taking medications to control bipolar disorder. Mood swings and violent nightmares ensued. In a fit of rage, she threw pictures and broke Noor's laptop.

Noor slept outside her door at night so that she wouldn't wander off. It became a pattern. At school, he fell asleep in classes and his work began to suffer. Now, back on medication, the grandmother is doing better.

After a trip to Bangladesh, Noor made Bengali food — samosas, fried pastry filled with spiced potatoes and rice and chicken — and sold it at his uncle's grocery. He raised $500, which he sent to poor kids in Bangladesh through the JAAGO Foundation.

At St. Petersburg High School, Noor is in the IB program with an unweighted GPA of 4.0. He's the captain of the wrestling team and was voted class president in his sophomore and junior years and is currently school president. He has applied at several schools and plans to become a cardiologist and practice in Bangladesh.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.