ST. PETERSBURG — To her family, Salina Som, a senior at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, is the embodiment of an Apsara, a powerful Cambodian goddess that dances across paintings and sculptures in her relatives’ homes and the doodles she draws in her college lab books.
The 17-year-old’s life revolves around her large Cambodian family, many of whom were her neighbors on the Pinellas Park street where she grew up.
But on Tuesday, Salina will be on her own as she walks across Tropicana Field with 1,200 other St. Petersburg College students to receive not only a high school diploma, but also an Associate of Arts degree and a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full scholarship to any accredited university in the United States.
More than 52,000 students across the country applied for the 1,000 Gates scholarships given annually to minority students. The grant can be extended to master’s and doctoral studies, and includes leadership training and professional-development courses.
Salina begins studying chemistry and pharmaceutical engineering this fall at the University of Florida. She will become the first person in her immediate family to go to college, and one of a few with an education beyond first or second grade.
Her father, Savonn Som, is celebrating his 10th year as a janitor at SPC. When he considers how far his family has come since they fled Cambodia in the mid-1980s, tears well in his eyes and his broken English takes on a hushed, haunted tone.
A child soldier, Savonn’s parents died when he was 4. Most of his life was spent working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, on farms with little to no food or clean water in hopes of keeping his sisters and extended family alive during a period of war and communist rule known as the Cambodian Holocaust.
In the mid-1980s, Som escaped the country on foot with his sisters and a nephew to camps in Thailand and around the Cambodian border. They spent about a year on the move, risking death from military patrols and land mines to arrive in America as refugees.
When he moved to the United States, he had never seen a car or snow or an American, for that matter.
“We had no medicine, no water, no food, nothing, and the memories are really bad,” Savonn said.
“In Cambodia I only had two years and three months of school before the communists came and there was no school anymore,” he said. “I tell my daughters, my English is poor and I have to work really, really hard for less money. I don’t want them to work as hard as me. I want them to go to school and learn to do something that makes them happy and get money for it. I’m just so proud.”
Yet a father’s simple wish for his daughters weighs heavily on Salina, her three sisters and her half brother. Their parents work often, her mother speaks little English and her father rarely was able to help with homework. Salina learned early to become self-sufficient — helping her younger sisters with homework, and in her spare time reading about organic chemistry, the history of pharmaceuticals and the evolution of drug discovery.
She is president of her school multicultural club, a member of National Honor Society and Phi Theta Kappa college honor society, and has worked on multiple leadership seminars and volunteer projects. She also takes time to cook traditional dishes with her mother and serves as translator between her English-speaking sisters and parents.
“Knowing what they went through kind of puts a load on you to achieve,” Salina said. “Their dreams become your dreams, so anything they couldn’t fulfill in life is up to you to fulfill it for them. I’m partially driven by the weight of being the oldest and my parents’ drive for me to excel academically. But science and schooling are also things I truly love to do.”
Salina’s face lights up as she talks about synthesizing her first drug, the common form of aspirin. And though her family can barely keep up with her explanations of the distillation and crystallization process, their faces light up, too.
Some day she wants to open an orphanage and tackle the vitamin E deficiency that plagues many developing countries like Cambodia, where rice is the dietary staple. Because their diet lacks beta keratin, many suffer from night blindness and other medical complications, she said, and there are efforts to introduce the vitamin into rice crops.
Like so many accomplishments in her family’s life, Salina’s could easily be overshadowed by tragedy. In the midst of her graduation and scholarship announcement, her aunt died at 64. Yet the timing of Salina’s accomplishment is “beyond coincidence,” said another aunt, Von Som.
“This proves we can’t give up,” Von said. “Though we’re mourning a loss, we have a great reason to celebrate. It’s very powerful to see our younger nieces and nephews carrying on our cultures and traditions, and Salina has really changed our family’s future with this honor. Family is the foundation of everything. No matter where you are and where you’re going, you take that time out to support and celebrate each other. We’re very lucky to have each other.”