Francis Lewis HS senior wins $100,000 college scholarship

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Francis Lewis HS senior Viola Wu emigrated from China eight years ago, not knowing a word of English.

“The first year I didn’t know anything,” Wu, 19, said about when her family moved to Staten Island in 2003. “Everyone around me was Caucasian, so I was forced to learn English and speak English. When I moved to this country, the first thing in my mind was I need to master English because you can’t do anything if you don’t know English.”

Wu took English as a Second Language classes for two years and last week she found out she was one of four people in the country to win the prestigious $100,000 Proton Energy Scholarship.

Wu, who now lives with her family in Fresh Meadows, was summoned to the principal’s office last Thursday.

“I was thinking that maybe it was [for] student of the month,” she said.

But then Francis Lewis HS Principal Musa Ali Shama put her on the phone with the president of the scholarship.

“I was like, ‘Really?’ and then he said, ‘Yes,’ and I forgot what he said because my brain went blank,” Wu said. “Did this really happen to me? It was a miracle. I was really surprised. When I applied, I never thought I would get it.”

Wu was required to write two essays — one about her passion about science and the other about why she thought she deserved the scholarship — and submit three teacher recommendations to qualify for the $100,000 scholarship.

Wu said she is considering using the scholarship money to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology upstate and major in chemical engineering, but she may reconsider her plans, saying winning the $100,000 taught her a valuable lesson.

“After this, everything’s possible as long as you try,” she said, noting she decided on not applying to Ivy League schools because she believed they were too competitive.

Wu said her parents — her mother works in a Chinese restaurant and her father is a furniture deliveryman — were shocked when she told them she had won the scholarship.

“They can’t believe it,” Wu said. “They were like, ‘What? Can you repeat that?’ They thought they heard wrong. I repeated it and they were crying,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about college tuition now.”

Wu, who participates in the science research program at Francis Lewis and is a captain of the fencing team, attributed her success to the way her parents raised her.

“Coming from a Chinese family, our philosophy is to become educated and do good in school so you have a good future later on in life,” she said. “You need to be successful because your parents are working so hard you need to pay them back.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4573.

Updated 10:49 am, October 12, 2011
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