4 Central Pa. Scholarship Winners
Photos by Haley Harned
What do academic scholarship winners have in common, besides being super-students?“I like to sleep,” says Elizabethtown College’s Nelli Orozco.Blake Rondon, entering Messiah College in the fall, says he “will be able to get as much sleep as I want to this summer.” Naseem Zomorodi, of Penn State Harrisburg, chokes up when talking about her parents, with an apology, “I’m sorry, I’m so sleep-deprived.” Adam Sulayman’s biggest adjustment on entering Harrisburg University was “definitely my sleep schedule. For the morning classes, I had to actually get up and not hit the snooze button.” The Harrisburg region’s higher-education options seem to expand every year. For these four students, those opportunities blossomed into generous scholarships attesting to their academic prowess and empowering them to pursue their dreams – with or without sleep.
First in her family to graduate from high school and first to graduate from college – it’s a familiar American success story. But how often do those first-in-their-families win a Fulbright Scholarship?
Nelli Orozco graduates from Elizabethtown College this spring, with the Class of 2017. The daughter of immigrants from Mexico didn’t enjoy speaking Spanish when she was growing up. But she took college Spanish to improve communications with her parents, and her appreciation deepened for the language and the culture.
“It’s a language that’s really growing,” she says. “It’s important for people to learn more than one language because communication creates mutual understanding.”
She spent her junior year in Spain – in beautiful, historic Valladolid. She took courses in Spanish, volunteered teaching English at an immigration center, taught English in an elementary school and did freelance tutoring for two families with “a set of triplets and a 12-year-old girl.”
Early in her college career, she heard the director of prestigious scholarships explain the Fulbright, the awards for global study, teaching and research opportunities, and it hovered in the back of her mind. Application was an arduous process of “so many essays and so many drafts.” She will be teaching English in Spain again, “because they want students to get exposed to the American accent.”
It will be her first time living on her own, not with her family, a host family or in a college dorm, but she is ready for it. Her taste for new experiences is what took her to Elizabethtown and its bucolic campus in the first place. Once there, the school gave her confidence.
“I really believe in myself now,” she says, with her typical ebullience. “I’m my biggest advocate.”
Orozco’s dad, Austreberto, is a supervisor at a mushroom plant. Mom Ymelda is a chicken-factory line worker. The college experience was unknown to them, but they have been their middle daughter’s primary support network.
Orozco’s on-campus jobs have included mentoring other “heritage students” who are the firsts in their families to attend college. She also worked for the Office of International Students and hopes, someday, to do similar work somewhere, welcoming the world to a U.S. college campus.
As a student-teacher, she has worked with teachers in the Manheim Township School District. One opened her eyes to the hard work and dedication of elementary teachers. The other instilled the importance of relationship-building.
“Students don’t care what you have to say until they know that you care,” she says.
After her Fulbright year in Spain, she will teach Spanish for two years in Connecticut with Teach for America, the program promoting classroom excellence in underserved areas, which was her backup for Fulbright, she says.
Her message for future students?
“It’s OK to dream big.” After all, it works for her.
“Work really hard, because you can achieve anything you set your mind to,” she says. “Take advantage of every opportunity presented to you, because there’s so much you can do in the world. It’s so big and beautiful, so go out and explore everything, because you never know what you’ll fall into and what you’ll love.”
And then she giggles. “I’m so cheesy.”
Blake Rondon knew in fourth grade that he wanted to be a pediatrician or general practitioner. Maybe someday, he’ll help treat the poor or the homeless, because “at the end of the day, you deserve to feel good and not have a sickness infecting you.”
“I just want to be able to help those people who aren’t fortunate enough to have the same grasp or foothold in life that I have,” he says.
Rondon, of Dillsburg, graduates from Northern High School, Class of 2017, and enters Messiah College in the fall with the Lloyd and Lois Martin Multicultural Scholarship, a full, four-year scholarship awarded for academic achievement, service and a demonstrated commitment to promoting racial and ethnic diversity and reconciliation.
Rondon’s high-school years were busy – track and field, student council, National Honor Society, swimming, volleyball, president of his class. For marching band and wind ensemble, he played trumpet. He plays the ukulele for fun.
Community service threads through it all – helping organize the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life or raising funds for the homecoming dance.
“When you have people who don’t have the same opportunities,” he says, “the least you can do is put out a hand to help.”
He set his sights on nearby Messiah College for its record of 80 percent acceptance of pre-med students into medical schools. Plus, “it’s such a small campus, it feels like I’m not even in the state anymore when I’m in here. It’s so sheltered, you can’t even tell that you’re five or six minutes from your house.”
Rondon credits his “awesome parents,” Bryan and Lynn Rondon, for their support.
“They provide everything I need, as long as I do my work and get good grades. Now I’m here, and they couldn’t be happier for me.”
When he graduates from Northern, his parents will be on his mind, “100 percent – I’ll remember everything they did for me.” The scholarship helps him “make my own path,” without the need for parental contributions. It is also, he says, “a big sign from God that I should be here.”
He’s grateful for the support of Messiah College officials. Vice President for Enrollment Management John Chopka “made me feel relaxed.” Admissions Counselor Molly Janczyk guided him through the scholarship application (and admitted to crying when she heard he won the Martin Scholarship).
Family trips to Peru, home of his father’s family, “remind me how fortunate I am to be here,” he says. “It’s a beautiful country, but there are places that are poverty-stricken, and some people are really sick, which also inspired me to go into medicine.”
Rondon doesn’t plan to pursue a specialty in medicine. It may be a lucrative business, “but I want to be able to diagnose people. That way, they can get the help they need.”
Going forward he hopes “to be the best I can be. I plan to focus on my studies, and become a doctor – a really good doctor who people can trust.”
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
When Adam Sulayman learned about all the majors offered at Harrisburg University (HU), computer science caught his attention. He is, he admits, “the computer geek in my family.”
“They come to me with all their questions,” he says. “I like how computers work, especially coding.”
The 2016 graduate of Cedar Cliff High School in the West Shore School District enjoyed the diversity of people there and belonged to video game club and the German National Honor Society. He loves German culture and hopes to study abroad in Germany during his college years.
At HU, he won a full Trustees’ Scholarship. Earning it requires a high-school GPA of at least 3.8. Renewing it annually demands maintaining a 3.5 in college.
“There’s no slacking off,” Sulayman knows.
He’s learning a computer-coding language called Python that’s “fun, and also rewarding.”
College requires “prioritizing my time more, spending less time doing other stuff like playing video games or watching TV and spending more time studying.”
When he’s not studying, he likes to go for walks at a small park near his home.
“It’s relaxing. It helps me put my mind away from studying. I like to get lost in the outdoors and nature.”
He lives at home, in Lemoyne, with his parents, grandmother and 11-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister. His siblings “try to understand” his need to study in peace. He encourages them to study and not put off their schoolwork. He loves his grandmother’s style and her skill in making foods from her native Vietnam, like fa and banh mi.
Maybe someday, his parents will return to California, where they lived before moving to Central Pennsylvania, but Sulayman might want to stay here, he says, “because I like the people here, and the atmosphere.”
He discovered HU when high-school classmates were discussing their college options, and a friend told him about the STEM-oriented school across the river. He knows he came to the right place. He loves HU for its professors, who “go the extra mile for you.”
“They want to help you,” he says. “They try to help you. They want you to pass. They don’t want you to fail. They’re basically like your best friend.”
His programming professor, Chad Chu – “People like to call him Chad. Keep it informal” – holds study groups for people struggling in his class.
“It’s a calm environment. He answers your questions with grace. It’s slower than his classes.”
Sulayman’s learning style is a “lecture type of person,” combined with hands-on work. His parents were so proud of his earning the Trustees’ Scholarship that they bought him a 2017 Honda Accord.
His parents have given him “their hopes.” Both went to college but left in order to raise him.
“I’m going to be the first person in my family to hopefully graduate college, so all eyes are on me. It’s hopeful. I want to make them proud, since they’ve gone so far for me. I want to pay it back for them.”
Penn State Harrisburg
Future medical student Naseem Zomorodi discovered she was on the right career path when she encountered a man having a seizure in a Penn State Harrisburg hallway. She ran to get her phone, called 911 and returned to the man’s side.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything but the person, helping the person,” she recalls. “I wasn’t stressed. I wasn’t thinking that I was scared for him. I was thinking, ‘This is what we need to do to help him.’”
Now, the member of the Penn State Class of 2017 and winner of numerous scholarships, including the Excellence in Honors Award and the Penn State Harrisburg Alumni Society Scholarship, is preparing to attend medical school in the fall.
Zomorodi grew up in Mechanicsburg. Her mom, Parvin, is a Penn State Harrisburg computer science and math teacher, and her dad, Ahmad, is a business owner.
She started college at Penn State Harrisburg for the ability to transfer credits elsewhere if she wanted. She stayed for four years as activities and career opportunities continually opened before her. She enjoys mentoring other students, to help them get the same kind of education that she values so highly.
The child of parents who left Iran during the Iranian Revolution is also a Global Ambassador, helping organize multicultural events on a campus where students come from more than 40 countries. Her group helped hang the colorful flags that greet visitors in the main building foyer.
Creating cultural-awareness opportunities “allows people to step out of their comfort zone and interact with people from backgrounds they would have never considered,” she says.
As she ponders her choice of medical schools, she can already point to a wealth of research, initially inspired as a research assistant in biofuels for Penn State Harrisburg professor Dr. Sairam V. Rudrabhatla. She has conducted research at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where she also joined the Emergency Medicine Research Associate Program. There, she shadowed ER doctors and pre-screened patients for their suitability for research projects. In one test involving surgery for lower-abdominal pain, she asked young patients to jump up and down three times.
“I never found anybody for that study, but I wish I had,” she says with a laugh.
When she told one of her professors, Dr. Michael J. Chorney, of an idea for giving an oral presentation to help her overcome her fear of public speaking, he provided full support.
She presented to a large audience on “the magnitude of T-cell activation in mice that had been immunized with cancer cells – essentially, very preliminary research toward development of a potential cancer vaccine.” The next spring, she presented on the same topic at a California research conference.
Because she loves working with people, she hopes someday to blend research with clinical experience, and she’ll only be happy if she’s working with underserved populations. A study tour of Peru opened her eyes to “the disparities in access to health care,” and she dreams of working someday with Doctors Without Borders.
Her parents, “the kindest people I know,” inspired her to work hard and do good in the world.
“They’ve instilled the importance of an education in me. Because of them, I know that my education is what is going to allow me to make a positive impact on the lives of other people. My parents are everything to me.”