The sixth Scholarship Plus class. Top row from left: Ibrahim, Keli, John, Thema, Desiree (front), Ambar and Zeshan.  Front row, Soma Golden Behr flanked by Melanie Brooks and Michael J. Leahy.

Photograph by Brock Stoneham

2015 Scholars

The seven members of the Scholarship Plus Class of 2015 have many differences—their first language might be English, French, Spanish or Urdu; their places of birth include the Dominican Republic, the Ivory Coast and various boroughs of New York City. All share several characteristics: They have striking records of accomplishment. They have shown great promise. And they have overcome significant obstacles.

More than anything else in life, they have wanted from a young age to do well in school, as a path toward creating better lives for themselves, their families and even their communities.

The members of the current class bring to 37 the number of students who have received scholarship funds and continuing support from us. Students in this year's class achieved outstanding records at high schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. 

In addition to their academic achievements and community service, each of the students has overcome daunting personal challenges. Members of the class have overcome family difficulties, the challenges of mastering a new language and a new culture, and numbing poverty.

Their accomplishments have earned them admission to Amherst, Boston University, Cornell, the Rochester Institute of Technology, Skidmore, Syracuse and Yale.

Here are the seven members of the Scholarship Plus Class of 2015:

Keli attended Hillcrest High School, where she ranked 25th in a class of 725. She makes a habit of overcoming obstacles. She vividly remembers the first time she was called on to speak before 100 people at a citywide Model U.N. meeting. "I had to make a decision," she recalls, "walk away and retreat to the comforting sheets of my bed at home, or overcome my fear." She spoke, and did so well that she was back again the following year, representing Hillcrest before a group of 200.

Speaking in public, however, isn't one of her worst fears. "Blood makes me squeamish," she writes. "Death terrifies me. I don't do well under timed pressure." Despite these challenges, she has completed an Emergency Medical Services course, and has become a New York State Certified First Responder.

A powerful motivation for her has been learning at a very young age to care for her sister, who has epilepsy, as their mother worked "endless shifts to pay the medical bills."

Dealing with her sister's medical condition has given Keli a goal that she writes about clearly: "I learned," she wrote, "to convert anger into passion. Passion to find a cure for a disease that hinders the lives of many. Passion to help make a difference in people's lives. This passion is fueled by my sister, who gives me hope—hope that whatever lies ahead of me won't stop me from reaching my aspirations and will only help fuel the drive I have to change the world, one patient at a time."  

That drive is taking her to Amherst College, where she will prepare for medical school.

John, writing in his application essay, used the image of an uprooted tree moved to new surroundings and struggling against long odds to survive. John's family left Colombia, where his father had worked in a government anti-drug organization, and came here in search of safety, and opportunity.  

His family shared a cramped studio apartment with his father's siblings, their children and his grandparents: 14 people in all. "Growing up with no money, no green card, and a language barrier at school," he wrote, "the only way out was perseverance."

Persevere he did, earning a stunning average of 99.36 at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, and at the same time working generously to help others. He has been one of the leaders of the Gateway Program at Cardozo, which helps students prepare for college. The head of that program describes John by saying:  "It is rare to meet such a multi-talented student;" rarer still for such an individual to have "the highest character and unparalleled work ethic."

That work ethic extended beyond school, to North Shore University Hospital, where John volunteered hundreds of hours, and where he participated in a joint program with Hofstra aimed at bringing minority students into medicine.   

John's goal is to follow his older sister, an emergency-room nurse and an inspiration for him, into that world—as a doctor. His next stop is Cornell University. Once again, he feels like "that uprooted tree." Once again, he says, he "will continue to flourish."

Ibrahim is a soccer player who has not stopped running—and keeping his goalposts in sight—since arriving here from the Ivory Coast three years ago. His parents separated shortly after he was born, and when he was eight years old his mother came to this country with two daughters in tow in search of work.

His father established a new family in Africa, and Ibrahim was placed in the care of a friend of his mother's relatives. That plan backfired badly. His temporary guardian systematically mistreated him to the point that Ibrahim almost dropped out of school in seventh grade.

He was reunited with his mother and sisters after eight years, when he immigrated to New York at the age of 16. He enrolled at the Bronx International School, a public school for recently arrived immigrant English language learners, where he earned an academic average of 94—6th of 119 in his class.

In his spare time he was captain of the school soccer team, volunteered with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and was chairman of the student council. One of his teachers praised his "level of maturity and responsibility—coupled with genuine respect for teachers and fellow students and a sincere desire to learn—rarely seen in people his age."

Now he has enrolled at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he will be majoring in Environmental Science.

Zeshan is part of a close-knit Brooklyn family of seven. His father has worked a night shift, 5 P.M. to 4 A.M., seven days a week for 26 years. Between his father's work schedule and Zeshan's school and track practice demands—he was co-captain of Brooklyn Tech's track team, the Cross Country city champions—time shared by father and son has been rare and precious.  

So it became a ritual: each Sunday at afternoon at 2:00, Zeshan woke his father, then gave him a back massage, the first part of the hour that they always spent together. Then came his father's invariable request: "Tell me a story."

"We might converse about politics, or behavioral economics, or the shortcomings of the criminal justice system," says Zeshan. Recent conversations have sometimes grown out of Zeshan's research into U.S.-Pakistan relations. That research is the subject of an unusual two-year independent research project, called the Capstone Project, overseen by the College Board.

Zeshan has made his mark at Brooklyn Tech, with a perfect 4.0 grade average. "During the 35 years I've been a teacher," wrote one of his teachers, "I can't think of anyone more deserving."

In the fall Zeshan will enter Yale, where he will study Global Affairs, and continue focusing on the United States and Pakistan. "There needs to be a bridge,'' Zeshan wrote, "one that crosses the trust deficit and repairs the fragmented U.S.-Pakistan alliance to promote regional stability. I will be a part of this bridge."

Ambar came here from the Dominican Republic at the age of 7, speaking no English. She has come a long way since, commuting from the apartment she shares with her single mother in Woodside, Queens, to one of the city's premier high schools, Brooklyn Tech.  

There, she played basketball with a passion—as team captain sophomore year—and caught the attention of teachers for her creativity. One explained how: Where other students were likely to present the results of their research by reading from papers or clicking on Power Point presentations, Ambar might illustrate her research by presenting small plays or dialogues. In a project on psychoanalysis, for example, she created skits to demonstrate concepts of denial, projection, and transference.

That creativity was displayed repeatedly in her application to Scholarship Plus. We ask applicants to describe "significant challenges or obstacles in your life that you have overcome." Ambar wrote—memorably—about her feelings on being rejected for a scholarship. "I write this essay," she said, "because it makes me feel empowered during a process riddled with obstacles meant to keep me from my black-and-white-checkered flag of college."

In another part of the application, she displayed her independent spirit and her stylish writing. At family gatherings at Christmastime, she remembers energetic arguments about religion: "As a minor," she wrote, "you are forced to be a benchwarmer. Whatever you say will be put on hold for ten years until you actually understand whatever it is that it is being argued."  

Ambar is getting ready to come off the bench, and developing and refining her imaginative way with words at Syracuse University. She will be studying public policy at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Desiree made her mark on Manhattan Theater Lab High School as a student body leader, editor of the yearbook and as valedictorian. Then she not only said a personal goodbye to the school, she also helped turn out the lights.  

Her class was the last the school graduated. Shortly after her arrival there four years ago, the city decided to shut down the school, which served many "at risk" children. No more students were admitted, and as the last class of 60 students moved up each year, course offerings—and such "extras" as AP classes—vanished.

Desiree was described by one of her advisers as "a rare student who combines exceptional natural ability with a willingness and eagerness to learn and help others." Another called her "one of the most driven and motivated students I have ever come across."

Her willingness to give to others was also shown in the wider community. "Desiree has gone above and beyond," wrote one of her supervisors in the Relationship Abuse Prevention Program, known as RAPP,  "doing countless community service hours. She has repeatedly gone to feed the needy, giving hot meals to the elderly and playing with children directly affected by domestic violence."

Family difficulties forced Desiree to stand on her own financial feet at an early age. Writing of her 12-hour shifts at a bike rental shop near Central Park, she said, "I was already managing a business at the age of 16."  

Her own challenges have given her motivation, and a goal: She wrote of getting satisfaction from "reaching out to people so they won't feel alone." She plans to be a social worker so that she can do this professionally.   

"Being a social worker will enable me to continue this passion," she wrote. "I have learned that the obstacles in my life do not define me, they have motivated me to work harder." She will be working toward this goal as a student at Skidmore College.

Thema has vivid memories of growing up—one is of carefully sharing small portions of food with her three siblings and single mother at mealtime to save money. Another powerful childhood memory, she says, was a "horrific" neighborhood, in which she saw domestic violence, fights and shootings. Her mother, a high school graduate, taught her that "the only way to get away from the harsh reality was to succeed academically and attend college."

Thema took that lesson to heart, and applied it at Benjamin Bannekker Academy in Brooklyn, where she ranked 8th out of 214 in her class. "Thema," wrote one of her teachers, is "impeccably prepared when it comes to having her work done and eager to find out if her teachers are as well prepared as she is. She is the kind of student who brings the intellectual challenge back to classroom discourse."  

Her accomplishments, and contributions, go well beyond the classroom. She's a tutor generous with her time, captain of the soccer team and both founder and president of the school's Engineering Club.

Her passion for engineering may have started when she joined the Robotics Club as a freshman, and found herself one of only three women in a roomful of boys. She quickly found that the boys who were used to running things really didn't think that girls had much aptitude for robotics. She proved them wrong, earning titles within the club of "Researcher," "Designer" and, finally, "Captain."

One of her eventual goals is to create an afterschool STEM program so that students in communities like hers have the opportunity to expand their career options. Now she wants to take that interest in science to a college major in Electrical Engineering. Thema, one of her teachers wrote, "has a talent for achievement." She will next be demonstrating that talent at Boston University's College of Engineering.

The Teachers Who Make a Difference

Each of the scholarship winners nominated a teacher or other adviser who had been of special help over the years. As part of the class welcoming ceremony, each teacher was presented a certificate and a small honorarium. The teachers then came to the lectern and said a few words about the students and reflected on their own experiences and perspectives.

These were the Teachers Who Make a Difference: Jean Aristide, math teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, nominated by Thema Williams. Ellen Colon-Fields, coordinator/social worker at the RAPP (Relationship Abuse Prevention Program) organization at Manhattan Theater Lab School, nominated by Desiree Sim. Phoebe Eligon-Jones, Gateway Program adviser and English teacher at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, nominated by John Alvarez. Norma Feriz-Gordon, college adviser at Hillcrest High School in Queens, nominated by Keli Almonte. Timothy Ree, English teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, nominated by Ambar Paredes. Haldane Rogers, physics teacher at Brooklyn Tech, nominated by Zeshan Gondal. Malcolm Sachs, social studies/economics teacher at Bronx International High School, nominated by Ibrahim Cisse.