Scholarship winners beat tough beginnings

The four all overcame early-life disadvantages.

Published March 16, 2006

"The thirst for knowledge is never quenched," wrote one of the 2006 Barnes Scholarship winners in her application essay. It is that commitment to learning that characterizes the four winners of the 2006 Barnes Scholarships, announced today by the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc.

The winners are Erin Braden Hendricks of Armwood High School in Hillsborough County, Gregory Horn of H.B. Plant High School in Hillsborough County, Zorana Kojic of Palm Harbor University High School in Pinellas County and Abbey Surrena of Springstead High School in Hernando County.

These two boys and two girls were selected from among 10 finalists interviewed at the newspaper's St. Petersburg office in February. A total of 278 students from public and private high schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties had applied.

The scholarships were created in 1999 to help college-bound teens who had overcome significant obstacles in their lives while remaining committed to academic achievement and community involvement. They were renamed in 2004 to honor former Times chairman and CEO Andrew Barnes upon his retirement.

It was Barnes who had encouraged the establishment of the scholarships.

For each winner, the scholarship is worth as much as $60,000 over four years at an accredited U.S. college or university. This year, the Barnes program will provide more than $230,000 in financial aid to college students. The fund has been providing scholarships to college students since 1953.

"The selection of these scholarship winners is one of the highlights of every year," said Paul C. Tash, chairman, CEO and editor of the Times and president of the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc.

"You can't help but feel good about the future when you see such talented and resilient young people. It's our real pleasure to help boost them along life's path toward big things."

Family strife and upheaval affected the childhoods of three of the Barnes winners. Braden Hendricks, 18, and Gregory Horn, 17, were in elementary school when they watched their parents' marriages sour. Ultimately, they ended in divorce. Braden was 12, Greg was 13. The financial impact on their lives was immediate.

Braden Hendricks

Braden went to live with his mother and moved four times in 18 months to households that did not champion his educational goals. Eventually, Braden's paternal grandparents took him in, providing the emotional, financial and educational support that he needed. His grandfather also taught him to play golf, which has become an important part of his life.

"Golf taught me to be a better person," Braden said in his scholarship interview. "It's the process of learning the finesse of the game: Don't rush the execution. . . . Think. . . . Plan. . . . Be confident. . . . All of this filtered into my character as a person."

When Braden was in the seventh grade, his father got custody, and they moved to southern Illinois and then to Florida. Although he has a law degree, his father has worked odd jobs so he could spend time with his son. "He wanted to make sure I came out right," Braden wrote in his application. "Living with my dad has been the best, but we've never really had a lot of money." Braden has a part-time job to help make ends meet.

Braden is 14th in his class of 384 at Armwood and has received straight A's throughout high school. He is a National Merit Scholarship commended scholar, a Golden Key Scholar and Florida Academic Scholar. He has played on Armwood's golf team for three years and been captain for two years. He is a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, debate team, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Mu Alpha Theta, Interact and X-Press, the student literary magazine. He has tutored students in math, science and English and has volunteered in public library and county parks programs.

Braden wants to be a writer and has applied to universities with strong liberal arts programs, including Duke, Harvard and Yale.

Gregory Horn

For Greg, divorce brought financial struggles, but it also brought a more peaceful home environment. With his sister at college in New York, Greg and his mother lived in an apartment in South Tampa. Because it was severely damaged by flooding during Hurricane Jeanne in September 2004, they had to move out. Greg wanted to remain at Plant High School, so he moved in with a friend's family. His mother, who has health problems, moved to Pinellas County to live with friends. She and Greg see each other on the weekends.

Through it all, Greg has stayed focused on his goal of being the best he can be. "I set out to continue doing my best, whether that be in school work or as being a good man," he wrote in his application. "Mostly I work, taking each day in stride, allowing things to get just a little easier as time passes."

Greg is valedictorian of his class of 430 at Plant and a National Merit Scholarship commended scholar. He is a Key Scholar and vice president of the National Honor Society, and he has worked as a tutor. He will attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he plans to study psychology and political science.

Abbey Surrena

Abbey Surrena, 18, grew up in such an abusive environment that, when she was 12, state officials removed her and her younger siblings from the home. She went to live with a foster family in Ocala; her siblings were placed with families in Jacksonville. Recently, she was adopted by a family in Spring Hill. Although she has stayed in touch with her siblings, she has no contact with her birth mother or father, who is in prison.

Abbey is fifth in her class of 315 students at Springstead High School. She is a member of the National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Beta Club. She also was a member of Springstead's varsity volleyball team for four years and team captain this year. She played varsity softball when she was a freshman. Abbey has volunteered at Spring Hill Regional Hospital and has been involved in Relay for Life. She plans to attend the University of Tampa to study art therapy.

"It wasn't easy, but I worked hard to get where I am," Abbey wrote. "I have been given so many opportunities to increase my understanding, to better myself. The thirst for knowledge is never quenched; if I don't have a classic in my hand or a difficult class to challenge me, I feel as if valuable time is just wasted. If there is one thing that I have learned, it's that only I have a say in who I am and in who I become."

Zorana Kojic

The Pinellas County winner, Zorana Kojic, was 5 when civil war in the former Yugoslavia changed her family's life. Her father was drafted into military service in 1992 and was severely injured. Zorana and her mother were forced out of their home and escaped to Germany. Her father later joined them, and they stayed in Germany for five years before coming to the United States.

When Zorana started school here, she couldn't speak English. "I remember specifically my first day of school in America. The teacher had me stand next to her in front of the class, saying who knows what, and then she said my name and some kids started to snicker," she wrote. "However, through hard work and perseverance, I was able to learn English in six months and become an honors student."

She speaks four languages now - Serbo-Croatian, German, English and Spanish.

"With the ever-decreasing size of today's modern world, the distance between foreigners appears to diminish and the need for multilingual intellectuals is ever increasing. Therefore, I believe that I would make a significant impact as a student of today and a leader of tomorrow," she wrote.

Zorana is in the top 1 percent of the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School. She has been a member of the varsity swim team for four years. She is a member of the National Honor Society, the Drama Club, Junior Civitan Club and Mu Alpha Theta. She has volunteered at Clearwater Marine Aquarium for three years and is writing her IB extended essay on biodiversity and the marine ecosystems in Clearwater Harbor. She also has taken part in summer science and math programs at the University of South Florida. Zorana hopes to attend the University of Chicago to study biomedical science.

The runnersup

The six runnersup for the Barnes Scholarship will each receive a one-time award of $1,000. They are Thaimi Fina, Hillsborough High School, Hillsborough County; Chaz Fortner, a St. Petersburg resident who attends the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine; Antoine Jackson, Plant City High School, Hillsborough County; Alberto Luperon, Blake High School, Hillsborough County; Tiffany Tseng, Palm Harbor University High School, Pinellas County; and Sanel Velic, Robinson High School, Hillsborough County.

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The winners and finalists will be honored at a luncheon May 2 at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Pinellas Park. The guest speaker will be the honorable Virginia M. Hernandez Covington, U.S. district court judge for the Middle District of Florida.

Fifteen students are receiving financial assistance through the Barnes Scholarship. They are enrolled at Duke University, Tulane University, Princeton University, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, Washington University, the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, Eckerd College, American University, Franciscan University, the University of Rochester, Case Western Reserve University and Ohio State University. Three will graduate this year, joining the nine who have already graduated.


Each fall, high school seniors throughout the Times' circulation area are invited to apply for the Barnes Scholarship. Applications for the 2007 award will be available in August in high school guidance offices, by mail and on the Times Web site, www.tampabay.com/scholarships The application deadline is in October.

For more information about scholarships through the St. Petersburg Times Fund, contact Nancy Waclawek, director, at (727) 893-8780 or visit the Web site.