Essay Scholarship 2015

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 Honor 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.”

Correction: March 14, 2015

An article in some editions on Thursday about The New York Times Scholarship winners for 2015 misidentified the city in Pakistan where one recipient, Mah Noor, was born. It is Faisalabad, not Lahore.

Correction: March 19, 2015

An article in some editions last Thursday about The New York Times Scholarship winners for 2015 misstated part of the name of an organization that recognizes outstanding high school students. It is the National Honor Society, not the National Honors Society.

Continue reading the main story

Signet Classics Announces Winners of the 19th Annual Scholarship Essay Contest


New York, NY, July 2015—Signet Classics, the imprint of New American Library devoted for more than 40 years to publishing inexpensive paperback editions of more than 300 of the world’s greatest literary works, has announced the winners of the fifteenth annual Signet Classics Scholarship Essay Contest. The Grand Prize Winners, listed in alphabetical order, are:

  • Hudson Barnes Cleveland
    Hudson Barnes Cleveland is in the 12th grade at All Saints’ Episcopal School, Fort Worth, TX.
  • Maggie Foster
    Maggie Foster is in the 11th Grade at North Oldham High School, Goshen, KY.
  • Kory Huskonen
    Kory Huskonen is in the 11th Grade at Buckeye High School, Medina, OH.
  • Lucille Riddell
    Lucille Riddell is an 11th grade homeschooled student from Orem, UT.
  • Kevin H. Zheng

    Kevin H. Zheng is in the 12th grade at Parkway South High School, Manchester, MO.

Read the winning essays from previous years »

Essay Subject: Pygmalion and My Fair Lady by George Bernard Shaw

Topics for the essay contest:

  1. Henry Higgins, the leading man in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, may be considered an anti-hero, a character who acts in ways contrary to conventional literary representations of heroism. What qualities mark him as an anti-hero?
  1. When Eliza threatens to leave Henry in Act 5 of Pygmalion, Henry defends himself, saying, “I care for life, for humanity….What more can you or anyone ask?” In light of Henry’s behavior throughout the play, does this self-justification seem satisfactory? What are the pitfalls of caring for life and humanity in general, as Henry does, but neglecting to consider the needs of individuals?
  1. At the end of Pygmalion, Henry is amused when Eliza goes off to marry Freddy. In My Fair Lady, Eliza returns in a scene that suggests she and Henry have a future together. Given your understanding of Eliza and Henry, do you think one ending fits better than the other? Would it work to switch conclusions—end Pygmalion with Eliza’s return and My Fair Lady with Eliza’s departure? Why or why not? What changes did Lerner make to Shaw’s play to make his new ending plausible?
  1. At the beginning of Pygmalion, we are introduced to Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. Alfred reappears—surprisingly, almost as an afterthought—toward the conclusion of the play. In My Fair Lady, by contrast, his role is greatly expanded in additional scenes and songs. How do these additions affect your view of Alfred’s character and his life philosophy?
  1. Both plays poke fun at the middle class, most notably its emphasis on proper speech and appearance. In what other ways does the play satirize middle class values? What middle class preoccupations and interests are undermined? Do you believe members of the middle class today share attitudes illustrated in the plays? Use examples to illustrate your point.
  1. In Act 5 of Pygmalion and almost verbatim in Act 2, Scene 5 of My Fair Lady, Eliza claims Col. Pickering showed her how to act like a lady by behaving well himself: “I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me like a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.” Do you agree with Eliza’s assessment of Col. Pickering as a true gentleman? Illustrate your answer with references to his behavior throughout the play.

The Signet Classics Scholarship Essay Contest was established in 1996 to encourage greater interest in reading among high school students by offering tangible assistance to the winning students and their schools. It is open to qualifying high school juniors and seniors in the United States. “We are proud to be involved in a unique scholarship program that encourages student appreciation for the great classics,” notes Craig Burke, Vice President and Executive Director of Publicity for New American Library.

Entrants are required to submit a 2-3 page double-spaced, typewritten essay, answering one of four questions relating to the designated competition book. Essays must demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the themes in the book; clear, concise writing; and logical, well-supported arguments. Judges also consider style, content, grammar and originality. Five Grand Prize Winners are each awarded a $1,000 scholarship and a Signet Classics Library for their school (or local public library, in the case of home-schooled students), valued at $1,600.

The designated title for 2013-2014 was Beowulf translated by Burton Raffel. The book selected for the 2015-2016 Signet Classics Scholarship Essay Contest is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

For more information on the 2015-2016 contest, click here.

Entry forms and full information about the contest will also be available in high school English departments, or by writing to:

Penguin Publishing Group
Signet Classics Scholarship Essay Contest
375 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014

New American Library is a division of Penguin Publishing Group, and includes the imprints Signet, Signet Classics, Onyx, Roc and NAL Trade Paperbacks.

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