One is the daughter of immigrants. One was adopted into a large and loving family when she was 2 days old. One has grown up in the home of friends of her father, who have raised her as their own daughter. And one has achieved high academic honors while helping his mother make ends meet.
Despite all the hurdles life has placed in front of them, they kept their sights on the goal of higher education. And their dedication has resulted in their being selected winners of the 2004 St. Petersburg Times Scholarship.
The four students are Shakira Carter of Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Ashley Kuhn of Hernando High School, Jian Zheng of Pinellas Park High School and Joshua Reed of Largo High School. They were chosen from among 10 finalists interviewed at the newspaper's St. Petersburg office in February.
Established in 1999, the St. Petersburg Times Scholarships are funded through the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc., which has assisted students financially since 1953. The scholarships target high school seniors with academic promise who have overcome significant obstacles in their lives and who demonstrate financial need. This year's winners were selected from a field of 323 applicants from the Times' five-county circulation area. Each will receive as much as $60,000 toward college expenses over the next four years.
The six runnersup are Adam Bennett of Plant City High School in Hillsborough County, Jesse Berger of Citrus High School in Citrus County, Lee Ho and Meghan Karns of St. Petersburg High School in Pinellas County, Bruce James of Armwood High School in Hillsborough County, and Sarah Roman of Ridgewood High School in Pasco County. Each runnerup will receive a one-time scholarship of $1,000.
"Helping young people take hold of their lives is a great satisfaction for all of us at the paper who have participated in this annual selection, rivaled only by watching the success of winners from earlier years," said Andrew Barnes, Times chairman and CEO. "I only wish we could double the number."
From their earliest years, these four students knew life would not be easy.
Jian Zheng was born in China in 1985, 18 months after her brother. She survived despite China's one-child policy and preference for male babies. Her mother paid a bribe to a local official so Jian's life could be spared.
Jian's parents emigrated to the United States when Jian was a toddler, leaving her in the care of a grandmother. When Jian was 5, her grandmother was killed by an intruder who broke into their home; Jian found her body. After her grandmother's death, Jian went to live with other relatives in China.
When Jian was 10, she joined her parents in Pennsylvania. She couldn't speak English, but she could do math better than her fourth-grade classmates, which made her feel that she could fit in. Jian continues to excel at math and hopes to turn that gift into a career in medicine or biomedical engineering.
Jian is the backbone of her family. Her parents count on her as their translator and to be a role model for her younger sister. While her father would prefer that she stay close to home for college, Jian dreams of attending Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
She ranks 11th in her class of 293 at Pinellas Park High School and has a 3.84 grade point average. She is a member of the National Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, the Science Honor Society and the math honor society, Mu Alpha Theta. She has volunteered at Northside Hospital and Heart Institute since summer 2002, and she has been on the dean's list and honor roll throughout high school.
Shakira Carter, 18, started at Berkeley Prep in sixth grade on a full scholarship, one of two African-Americans in that private school. The other was Tiara Dungy, daughter of former Bucs coach Tony Dungy.
Shakira received the scholarship to Berkeley Prep because of the potential that a fifth-grade teacher saw in her. Shakira lives with her guardians in Tampa. They are friends of her father, whom Shakira hasn't seen in many years. Her mother lives in New Jersey and has not been in contact with her.
Shakira struggled at first academically, but she persevered and has maintained a GPA of 3.32 out of 4.0 in high school and has made the dean's list and headmaster's list. She also has done community service with Special Olympics for the past four years.
She became involved in theater during her freshman year and has been on stage in school productions since then. Last summer, she attended a theater workshop at Northwestern University and hopes to major in theater and psychology there.
Ashley Kuhn, 17, was adopted as an infant into a family that has welcomed many children into its arms. She has grown up in a rural Hernando County family that has nine children, including four who are adopted, and her parents have fostered more than 1,000 children in 22 years. The family also breeds basset hounds.
Ashley said all the commotion helped make her who she is today: a nonconformist who prefers to lead rather than follow. She excels at French and English at Hernando High School and has managed the high school wrestling team for four years. She also works part time at an Italian restaurant near Brooksville.
She ranks 22th in her class of 250 and has a GPA of 3.9 out of 4. She is in the National Honor Society, the Beta Club, French Club and National French Honor Society. She hopes to attend New York University to major in mass communications.
Joshua Reed, 18, and his mother moved to Florida from Michigan before the start of his freshman year. His grades dipped initially because of the stress of the move. But by the end of that school year, Joshua had discovered cross country and the 21st Century Learning Center & Teaching Arts Academy magnet at Largo High School. That's when he hit his stride academically, he said. The National Merit Scholarship finalist ranks 13th in his class of 347 and missed a perfect score on the SAT by one question.
He plays guitar and piano in his church's band, and he participates on Largo High's academic team and the Interact Club. He works part time at a restaurant near Indian Rocks Beach, as Joshua's father has said he will not help with college expenses. Joshua plans to attend the University of Rochester to study educational psychology.
The winners and finalists will be honored at a luncheon May 11 at the A La Carte Event Pavilion in Tampa. Guest speaker will be Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nelly N. Khouzam.
Each year, four students from the Tampa Bay area are chosen as St. Petersburg Times Scholarship winners. Applications will be available in August in high school guidance offices, by mail from the director of the St. Petersburg Times Fund, and on the Times Web site (www.sptimes.com/scholarships)
Sixteen students are receiving financial assistance through the St. Petersburg Times Scholarship. Two will graduate from college in May.