Surprise phone call: MIT-bound student wins $36K scholarship

MIT-bound student wins $36,000 scholarship

Farita Tasnim already knew Tuesday would be a special day, but a surprise phone call made it momentous.

The Columbus High School senior was preparing to join her 13 teammates for their trip to St. Louis, where they will compete in a robotics world championship. But first, principal Marvin Crumbs asked her to join him in guidance director Jane Strunk's office.

They were supposed to discuss attending Monday's STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Recognition) banquet in Atlanta, where Farita will be one of 12 region winners contending for the state award from the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Farita joked, "I was kind of scared he was going to get mad at me for something."

No, she wasn't in trouble, but she was in shock when Strunk said she had a phone call, handed her the receiver and the voice on the other end of the line told her she won a $36,000 scholarship.

Farita gushed, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Thank you!"

She is one of only three high school seniors in the nation to win this year's scholarship from Proton OnSite, which received 1,893 applications representing 47 states, said company spokesman Lee Jones. Proton Onsite is a Connecticut-based technology firm that builds and develops hydrogen energy and innovative gas solutions.

Jones explained why Farita was selected.

"The independent panel of judges for the scholarship thought her academic and extracurricular record was exemplary and worthy of a scholarship," he said. "They also noted her desire to one day develop new, clean energy technologies."

To be eligible for the scholarship, U.S. high school seniors must show they want to pursue a career in science or technology. The criteria the judges use include grades, household income, activities, community involvement, volunteering, independent study, hobbies and three recommendations.

Proton OnSite owner Tom Sullivan, who also is chairman and founder of the Virginia-based hardwood flooring company Lumber Liquidators, started the scholarship in 2010. Since then, the program has granted a total of more than $2 million to 25 students. Sullivan funds the scholarships through his foundation. He informs the recipients with a surprise phone call to their school.

At the end of Tuesday's phone call, Sullivan told Farita, "I hope to read about all the great discoveries you'll make."

She is on her way.

For her senior project, Farita built a device that harvests ocean wave energy. She was able to generate enough power to charge a cellphone or a high-capacity battery. She also created an app to measure the data from her device.

Farita has a 4.542 weighted grade-point average and scored 2,380 on the SAT. She plans to double-major in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her career, she is thinking about specializing in low-power and self-sufficient electronics.

"So much of the world has to be powered on electricity we generate through fossil fuels, and that's an extremely unclean form of energy," she said. "Also, for example, so much energy storage happens in batteries, which is awful because, especially in batteries that are not rechargeable, you have to throw them away, and it fills up landfills and it just becomes waste.

"So if you have electronics that are self-sufficient, that power themselves, then, like for example, through difference in temperature or through some motion, it can generate some energy and power itself, then essentially you can have systems that don't even require electricity."

Farita credits her mentors: Keith Warren, an engineering consultant in Auburn specializing in inertial instruments, micro gyros and accelerometers; and Luther Richardson, a Columbus High physics teacher and director of the Columbus Space Program, which includes the robotics team that Farita co-captains.

"They have had such a profound impact on me," she said. "I could not have done any of this without them."

That's why she pays it forward by volunteering at Girls Inc., where she started a robotics program and tutors students in math.

"The industry of engineering and technology has been so dominated by males," she said, "and more and more we're seeing girls getting excited in these fields. Who's inspiring them? It's really important to see female role models."

Which aptly describes her, the principal and guidance director said.

"Farita, ever since she set foot on campus, she's been focused," Crumbs said. " She has something she wants to do, and she makes it happen."

"She is highly focused, and yet she is approachable," Strunk said. " She's quick to smile. She has good people skills."

And that will be Farita's main message when she delivers her valedictory speech at Columbus High's graduation.

"No matter how much work you have, always choose people before problem sets," she said, echoing the words of wisdom she learned last summer at MIT, where she was among the 83 high school students from around the world selected for the Research Science Institute. "To really value and cherish the people in your life and care for them, that's most fulfilling."

Her father, Mallik Ahmed, is a research and development engineer at Char-Broil. Her mother, Fatima Sultana, takes care of her younger siblings at home.

"But she does have a degree in electrical engineering," Farita said with a smile.

Farita put the scholarship's impact in perspective. Attending MIT will cost an estimated $60,000 per year, and her family's contribution is expected to be $40,000 to $50,000 per year. So adding the $36,000 from Proton OnSite to the $21,000 she will receive this summer for interning at Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., "I can pay for one year," she said with a laugh.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter


Click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com to watch a video of the surprise phone call informing Farita Tasnim that she won the scholarship.