Head of the Class: Townsend Harris students win scholarships for projects

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Junior Katherine Shi, who attends Townsend Harris in Flushing, was presented with the $17,500 first prize last Thursday in the Quality of Life scholarship competition, administered by the Working in Support of Education organization, or WISE, and sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Senior Jessica Wang received the $25,000 top prize for the poetry division of the Bertelsmann Foundation's World of Expression scholarship program.

The Quality of Life program requires students to design a creative proposal to help improve the living environment of New York City citizens.

Shi, one of more than 400 applicants, began work on a proposal in October to create student leadership teams in local high schools that would transport unused cafeteria food to local soup kitchens and outreach centers through a partnership with the City Harvest program.

Her proposal would have "an impact on the hungry as well as on the students by empowering them to make a change," Shi said. "I think that is the highest form of education."

Shi will continue to develop her proposal in hopes of creating a program to implement it before starting college. She has mailed letters to principals all over the city and has scheduled a press conference with Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) later this summer to gain support for her proposal.

"I think this has given me the ability to implement my proposal. People would probably say that if you win the contest, that would give you the authority to carry out your proposal," Shi said.

Wang, who will study creative writing next year at Emerson College, received her scholarship for excelling in a different kind of innovation. Her poem, "To Be Continued," places her family history in the form of a movie in reference to the poem "Beginning with 1914," by Lisel Mueller.

"Like the Mueller poem, it sets my family's life in a film and shows the transition from my grandparents to my parents to me," Wang said. "The poem shows how my family's history has shaped me."

This year marks a significant increase in the size of the Bertelsmann Scholarships, and had Wang won last year, she would have received just $10,000. This year's competition received more than 2,000 applications from high school seniors in a number of musical and creative expression categories, and according to the Bertelsmann Foundation, 65 percent of New York City schools were involved.

"I was really surprised to win because it was a citywide competition," Wang said. "I didn't believe it at first. I didn't believe the amount."

From Forest Hills High School, seniors Nansi Xu, Tatyana Sholomova and Lyudmila Pinkhasova won $2,000 each for their Quality of Life proposal to provide more healthful options for children at fast-food restaurants. Their proposal placed third in the WISE competition.

The trio's proposal suggested that McDonald's offer a Happy Meal containing a grilled chicken sandwich or veggie burger instead of the usual hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets. In addition, students said the Happy Meal should include a seasonal fruit such as an apple or a container of yogurt with fruit.

When the trio surveyed about 75 parents at the Forest Hills Community House and YMCA in Forest Hills, they found that only 5 percent thought the food in the kids' meals they bought at McDonald's was healthy, and 78 percent said they would pay more for a healthier option.

Sholomova said when she and her two partners contacted McDonald's to tell them about their proposal, a representative of the company told them the restaurant was trying out a more healthful option in the UK. In the trial restaurants, people have the option of replacing french fries with grapes or apples when buying a combo meal.

"If it's in the UK, then it could definitely be implemented here," Sholomova said.

Two other Forest Hills High School seniors, Alexsandra Rodriguez and Jessica Melnicoff, won Palm Pilots for their Quality of Life proposal to place mats at the edges of public swimming pools so that the visually impaired would know where the water was.

"(Working on the proposal) prepared us. We know how to write papers, how to do PowerPoint presentations," Rodriguez said. "We had to work weekends, spring break, nights, but it was OK. Our teacher would bring in doughnuts and bagels."

In the Bertelsmann competition, Forest Hills senior Yelena Dondik, who played leading roles in her school's productions of "Guys and Dolls," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Taming of the Shrew" won the second-place $10,000 prize for her original script about a girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Dondik said she began writing scripts in junior high when she took a class in drama where students had to put together original productions.

Dondik said she hopes to continue with theater in the fall at Brown University.

Reach reporters Dan Trudeau and Tien-Shun Lee by email at, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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