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13 Who Defeated Adversity Earn New York Times College Scholarships

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The New York Times College Scholarship winners for 2015 on Wednesday. Front row, from left: Selena Bermeo, Likita Griffith, Carlos Ycaza-Zurita, Kawkab Abid, Mah Noor, Paige Pagan and Fatima Khan. Back row, from left: David Kela, Daniel Blanc, Michael Borrello, Oumou Zakaria, Shaafi Sabir and Jachai Omotayo.

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Earl Wilson/The New York Times

It was one of those perfect blue-sky days when Mah Noor stepped from the subway station on her way home to her apartment in Queens and spotted the familiar-looking man, sitting on a bench in the shadow of a tree, who appeared mentally ill.

It took a few moments for her to realize the man was her father. So begins an essay by Ms. Noor, now 18, submitted as an application to the New York Times College Scholarship program, which has been supporting high-achieving students from poor families in New York City’s five boroughs since 1999. The program has graduated more than 250 scholars over the years.

Neatly dressed and vibrating with enthusiasm, Ms. Noor sat in The Times’s office on Wednesday afternoon, one of 13 winners of the scholarships, which provide mentoring, internships at The New York Times Company and financial help for college. Her father’s illness had had a major impact on her life, she said — until she discovered that she could decide how it would affect her: “I realized maybe I have to take what’s happening in my life and turn it into what’s positive, participating, and expanding my horizons.”

Ms. Noor, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, catapulted herself into the model United Nations program, ranked third in her class of over 700 students at Hillcrest High School, and became a docent at the New York Aquarium, where she teaches children about horseshoe crabs. (“They have 12 legs and 14 eyes,” she said.) She wants to become a heart surgeon, or a pharmacist, but mostly a model for her family, untying the Gordian knot of illness.

“I want to show my parents that breaking through these things isn’t a bad thing,” she said. “I’m growing as a person.”

Paige Pagan, 18, volunteers at a nursing home. At her own home in the Bronx she helps her mother, who has debilitating fibromyalgia, and cares for her father, who has cirrhosis. She found her strength as a ballerina, but with two parents unable to work, she felt ashamed of her shabby dance clothes at first. Today she dances with confidence, Ms. Pagan said.

“It clicked for me, I’m meant to be in the limelight,” she said. “Whether I’m an underdog or not, I can do the same things you can do.” She wants to be a doctor, or perhaps a journalist covering medical breakthroughs.

Ms. Pagan’s mantra echoes the 17-year-old Fatima Khan’s take on life, one gleaned in the lunchroom of Bronx Metropolitan High School, where girls bullied her, she said, because she has Asperger’s syndrome. When a group of girls shunned her at a lunch table, forcing her to sit somewhere else, Ms. Khan became best friends with the student she sat next to. She has made honor roll since sixth grade and is a member of the National Honors Society.

People with her condition have a tendency to fixate on a subject, she recognizes, and Ms. Khan has honed her passion for Super Mario video games into a goal to design a game herself, and make digital products that bring people joy. “If something bad happens to you, you should do the best you can, to make everything positive for yourself,” she said.

Esoteric pursuits are Shaafi Sabir’s lifeblood, but archery, steam trains and pocket watches are rarely discussed on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he grew up, his life splintered by a violent mugging on his doorstep when he was 14. Hobbies, study and new passions have helped him recover. Now he is 18, and college and building airplanes are his goal, but above all, he hopes college will be a chance at last, he said, to find people with the same interests as his (“which goes a long way when you’re a nerd”).

Carlos Ycaza-Zurita, 18, wakes at 2 a.m. almost seven days a week and delivers newspapers with his mother on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before school, picking up the slack left after his father abandoned the family. But no matter how exhausted he is, he is always wide awake in math class, his passion.

In Togo, where she is from, Oumou Zakaria’s father had several wives, whom she said he mistreated, eventually infecting her mother with H.I.V. His disdain for women has made Ms. Zakaria, 18, strive to become a doctor to help stem her homeland’s high infant and childbirth mortality rate — and to prove her father wrong. “He’s challenging me,” she said on Wednesday. “I want to tell him that girls are the same as boys. Maybe better.”

Selena Bermeo, 17, now loves to scoop flavored ice from a pushcart for little children on Sundays, but she once felt shame that peddling ices was what her father and mother, immigrants from Ecuador, did for a living, and shame about what she and her family did before to get by: pick cans from the trash. The struggle has made her strong. “I’m really proud of what they do now,” said Ms. Bermeo, who wants to be a teacher, “They are just working to give us a little life.”

The scholars are linked by their refusal to be confined by their financial struggles, and without exception, each desires to give back.

They want to be doctors, like Likita Griffith, 17, who is also a gifted writer, creating stories about witnessing mothers lose children to gun violence in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and vowing to not repeat the cycle. Or artists and architects, like Daniel Blanc, 18, who draws feather-fluffed owls in graphite with the skill of a young Audubon, spends his free time tutoring and dreams of designing municipal buildings that make cities and people’s lives better.

Or engineers, like Kawkab Abid, 17, who watched his rural home village, Meherpur, in Bangladesh get washed away by a typhoon, and now devours computer science at his high school in Queens, seeking the skills to help communities build back stronger.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, Michael Borrello, 18, lost his house in Howard Beach, Queens; it was a minor storm compared with losing his father unexpectedly shortly before. The instability made him grab life with gusto, taking up skateboarding, boxing and mixed martial arts and delving into model business classes at school in Manhattan. “It’s horrifying to me to have my family kind of break apart,” he said. “I always do my best to show that I’m strong, to keep them strong.”

Leaving school each afternoon, most students dread homework, but for Jachai Omotayo, 17, his fears included whether he would have food that night, and if he would be living in the same place he left that morning, having spent the past 10 years bouncing through homeless shelters. He devoured self-help books, Zen Buddhism and meditation to cope with the chaos, volunteering and raising money for charity.

David Kela, 17, and his family were also homeless after fleeing conflict in the Ivory Coast. Today the honor roll student, who is also a cashier at a Marshall’s on Staten Island, where he lives, plans to be a petroleum engineer.

“We didn’t think we could go that far,“ he said of his family. “We now have hope for the future.”

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