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Education

Service, technology on minds of Hillsborough's top graduating seniors


Published:   |   Updated: June 8, 2013 at 05:33 PM

TAMPA - Top students in Hillsborough's class of 2013 may soon be learning and working on every continent.

Many already study abroad, visit family, vacation and trek to remote lands on humanitarian missions. They are connected through blood, friendships, altruism and technology.

"It made me rethink my perspective," said Ian Griffin Ludden, a top scholar at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico. He built latrines and laid concrete floors in the Dominican Republic with his church group the summer after his freshman year.

When Ludden chose a college, an Engineers Without Borders group that works in the Dominican Republic was a selling point for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.

Studies confirm that the millennial generation born between 1981 and 2003 is matching goals with values. Some 71 percent of millennials worldwide expect and want to do an overseas work assignment, a 2011 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows. It also confirms surveys showing personal learning and development trump financial rewards.

Each year the Tampa Tribune recognizes graduating seniors at the top of their class and invites them to submit an essay to compete for R.F. "Red" Pittman college scholarships. This year, the seniors were asked to identify the world's greatest challenge and to project how their future plans directly or indirectly relate to it.

The subjects of health, poverty, preservation of natural resources, human rights and communication dominate the essays. A thread throughout is a desire to travel and do humanitarian work.

"Our world's greatest challenge is establishing accessible, clean energy," wrote Ludden, one of the many students pledging help solve worldwide problems. "As a computer or electrical engineer, I plan to contribute to solutions for the global energy crisis."

Another scholar, Edward Marfa, from Tampa's Leto High School, wrote that it is up to his generation to find solutions to problems ranging from the world economy to starvation, summing it up with, "By helping others, we help ourselves."

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Of this year's four scholarship winners, three were born outside the United States and three aspire to be doctors. Many of the 220 scholars who submitted essays plan careers in medicine and engineering. A number are first or second generation in this country.

Scholarship winner Ana Ibis Calderon Alonso was born in Cuba. She came to the United States with her parents in 1999 when she was four. A senior at Tampa Bay Technical High School's medical magnet program, Calderon Alonso volunteered summers at two hospitals and has targeted the Children Beyond Our Borders club at the University of Florida. The club is one of 32 sustainability clubs on campus - a trend for colleges.

"I'm a kid from another country," said Calderon Alonso, who aspires to be a pediatrician. "I know how it would feel not to have an opportunity."

Another scholarship winner headed to medical school is Boya Wang. Born in China, she lived with her grandparents from age 1 to 4 then joined her parents, who had emigrated to the United States.

Wang was in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes during most of elementary school, but by high school she was accepted into the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Tampa's King High School.

Her family struggles, she said, but not as people do in her native country.

"With our standard of living, we should definitely help people not as lucky as we are," said Wang, who tutors and works in a sub shop to pay her own expenses.

With grants, Wang will attend the University of North Carolina to major in biomedical science and minor in public health.

The third scholarship winner planning to become a doctor is Tristen Townsend, a graduate of Durant High in Plant City. Her single-parent mother of three is a registered nurse.

Townsend, who turns 17 in July, will attend the University of Florida. Although she hasn't traveled overseas, she said her view of the world has been expanded by technology and a number of foreign exchange students at her school.

Students from the Czech Republic, Korea and China are friends, Townsend said. "It's pretty cool to get to know them. It opens up your perspective."

Townsend focused in her essay on the dangers of modern food production and obesity, lamenting that people are not using technology to its fullest potential.

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The pros and cons of technology were common themes in this year's essays.

Students said they see technology replacing human interaction while communication and interpersonal skills are lost.

"Society is becoming desensitized," wrote Judy Park, a scholar from Alonso High in Tampa. "Now that society is becoming emotionally callous, we begin to lose touch of the humanistic aspects that may very well save us."

A few scholars said they watch little if any television and spend less time than most teens on social networking.

The fourth scholarship winner, Yuliya Kozina, is one of those.

Born in Russia, Kozina emigrated from Moscow with her family when she was 5. They return each summer to visit family. Kozina is fluent in Russian and also studied Spanish and French in the International Baccalaureate program at Tampa's Hillsborough High School.

Researching a report for an IB class is what raised Kozina's awareness of the hidden horrors of human trafficking, inspiring her winning essay.

"When I started researching, I was shocked," she said. "Even Tampa has a problem. When I think of my suburban neighborhood, I don't see any problems."

With plans to pursue international law, Kozina wants to fight for human rights. Beside the great diversity of her classmates, Kozina's travels to European countries has shown her that, in the end, "We're so similar."

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These scholars embody the attributes of their generation, the largest and most diverse in U.S. history. They are confident, focused, open to change and have a close bond with their parents.

This generation has also changed what is likely the best known humanitarian organization in the world, said Erica Burman, director of communications for the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C.

Today's 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers and trainers in 76 countries have an average age of 28, making them primarily technology dependent Millennials.

That's a "double edged sword," Burman said. Technology gives volunteers unparalleled access to information and more security, but by remaining in constant contact with family and friends, "it's sometimes hard to become fully immersed."

"You can flip on your laptop and see, 'I'm missing this party' or stream movies or check Facebook," Burman said. Another change is that parents are much more involved, which includes visits to their children in remote locations.

It is, however, easier to adjust to two years abroad for a generation that is "much more collaborative, more pragmatic and much more connected," Burman said. "These kids have an advantage. There is a strength, a flexibility."

Those who have ventured out said that time with the poorest people on earth changes one's perspective.

"Seeing it firsthand changed it," said Charles Alver, a scholar from Tampa's Plant High School. He is headed to Harvard to study biomedical engineering.

It was nearly two years ago that Alver and his family visited a remote area north of Hanoi to deliver basic supplies and share the expertise of Alver's urologist father.

"People were doubled up inside beds," Alver said. Their own families had to care for them. "They were just sitting there with open wounds."

"One had completely shattered his leg. His mother slept under his bed. She had to prepare all the food, be there every moment."

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For three years Jamie Sullivan spent a weekend with other Jesuit High School students in Belle Glade tutoring migrant children, waxing buses and clearing trees at a monastery school.

Then last summer, a trip to Nicaragua made Belle Glade look advanced, Sullivan said. In Nicaragua, he used picks and axes to dig through rock and gravel to build foundations for modern bathrooms.

The farmers' one room houses were made of scrap metal with dirt floors. Coordinated through Amigos for Christ, the mission gave him purpose.

"I thought about if I could go back as an engineer, I could do so much more," he said. "They were incredibly grateful. They wanted to shake your hand, to hug you. You could see it in their face, in their eyes."

Sullivan plans to join a group for engineering students at Notre Dame to continue his humanitarian work.

Another scholar, Rahul Patel, volunteered at two hospitals in India while visiting family last summer. He compared it to his time volunteering at Lakeland Regional Medical Center.

"The (medical) knowledge was there, but there were no luxuries. I saw a lot of poverty. Little kids have no clothes, parents use the dirty water to clean. ... We complain so much about the little things, but it's the little things that make people's lives."

A student in the International Baccalaureate program at Strawberry Crest High School in Plant City, Patel is on his way to the University of Florida to pursue law. Traveling between two countries on opposite sides of the globe and going to school with students from dozens of countries have made Patel appreciate the diversity of the United States.

"I think our cultural and ethnic differences always made our country strong," he said. "It's what makes us the best country in the world."

Not all scholars want to travel abroad. Araceli Rodriguez, a graduate of Lennard High School in Ruskin who comes from a family of 10 children, plans to return to Wimauma where she worked in the fields with her parents, picking tomatoes and bell peppers. Rodriguez is on her way to Duke University with full scholarships to become a doctor.

"Just in my own city, there is so much poverty," Rodriguez said.

Her only regret is for her parents' sacrifices.

"It was seeing my parents struggling, struggling over money. Over all the things that go wrong," she said. "Seeing them go through pain when I was so busy - not having the time to be there for them."

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