Soma Sharan, a senior at Mount Madonna School (MMS) has been named as a 2011 Gates Millennium Scholar (GMS) through the nation’s largest scholarship program, the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. Sharan is one of just 1,000 students nationwide selected in 2011 for this highly-competitive award.
Sharan can use the scholarship funds to attend any accredited U.S. college or university of her choice, and the scholarship is renewable as long as she continues to meet program guidelines. This fall she will enter the University of California, Los Angeles, where she will study International Development.
“When people hear about where I come from, they are amazed by how far I’ve made it,” comments Sharan. “But when I think about my past and present, the one thing that is always on my mind is how far I want to go. Now, with the help of the Gates Foundation I will have the opportunity to give back to the world I come from and give back to the world that has saved my life, which is the single reason for where I am today.”
“It is truly a great honor to be identified as a Gates Scholar,” notes Jivanti Rutansky, Mount Madonna’s Head of Upper School, “and a tribute to Soma’s accomplishments and attributes: overcoming adversity, integrity, discernment, perseverance, leadership, athleticism, and compassion.”
“Moving from India to the U.S. in 2004 was a much harder change than I anticipated,” Sharan explains. “I was so excited to study in America that I didn’t think of what I was leaving behind. It didn’t hit me that I would miss my home until my first day in my new country. I knew it would be hard for me being away from my family but I didn’t acknowledge the other challenges I would face. These included adjusting to the education system, the new culture and simply adapting to a completely unknown world. For the first time in my life I felt very alone. I knew I was lucky: I was chosen from many for this opportunity. I vowed to participate and connect.
The education system in India is based heavily on rote memorization, as opposed to my school in the U.S., where I was challenged to think about what the teacher was saying and why. At first it seemed like I would never be able to think on my own, but through consistent effort of pushing myself beyond my perceived limits, I can finally say I have developed the capacity of creative thinking.
I did not know anything about the Gates Millennium Scholars program until a month before I decided to apply. My college counselor told me that there would be no harm in applying, and although it would be a long shot, it would be worth a try. As I waited to hear if I even made it to the finalist round, I began to lose hope and convinced myself that I would not be a Scholar. When I heard that I was a Gates Millennium Scholar, I was with my class in India preparing for an interview with U.S. Ambassador [to India] Timothy Roemer. I found my face covered in tears, as I walked out of the room because of this overwhelming news.
I do not fully understand, yet, what being a Gates Scholar means to me. However, I know it is the second best gift I have ever received. The first was growing up at Sri Ram Ashram, an orphanage in rural India (I was abandoned by my parents as a young baby). Without the Ashram I don’t even know if I would be alive today and be able to say that I am a Gates Scholar, motivating me to work hard and do something with my life.
As I look back on the application process, I regret how much confidence I lacked while writing the essays for this opportunity. Now I wish that I would have believed in myself more. This is the most important lesson I have learned from becoming a Gates Millennium Scholar – that I have to believe in myself in order for other people to believe in me. The fact that the Gates Foundation recognized that I was worthy of this immense opportunity reassures me that it doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you are willing to work hard through the toughest of times.”
Sharan will receive leadership training, mentoring, academic, social and financial support as a Gates Scholar. The Program is known for its recipients’ high graduation rates–a six-year rate of 90 percent (45 percent higher than the national graduation rates for all students) and comparable to the rates for students from high-income families.
Following completion of her undergraduate degree, if Sharan decides to pursue graduate studies in the fields of Computer Science, Education, Engineering, Library Science, Mathematics, Public Health or Science, she may be eligible for GMS fellowship funding for her education through the master’s and doctoral levels.
Established in 1999 with the goal of developing the next generation of America’s leaders, the GMSP is funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To date, more than 13,000 students have received GMS scholarships, attending more than 1,500 schools. Sharan is the third MMS student to receive this prestigious award since the program started; students Yolanda and Marita Diaz were both awarded Gates Millennium Scholarships during their first year at college.
“Congratulations Soma,” comments Neil Horikoshi, president and executive director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF). APIASF helps to evaluate Gates Program applications. “We commend you on your strong leadership, community service and academic achievements that contributed to your selection as a Gates Millennium Scholar. Your accomplishment is especially notable in context of the more than 23,000 students who applied, making this year’s the largest and most competitive group of candidates in the program’s history.”