The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 21, 2001
May 21, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 35


Reaching the Summit

Meet three graduating seniors who found their way despite rough paths

By Leslie Rice Masterman

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

If their faces shine, it's because they have worked hard to get to this moment. Along the way to Thursday's graduation, some of the members of the class of 2001 have overcome great obstacles, some have tapped into strength they didn't know they had, and some have discovered they have passions they had never known before they arrived at Hopkins four years ago. Here are the stories of just three.

Tonya Walker, public health major, Freeport, N.Y.

The oldest of three daughters of a single mother who struggled to stay employed, Tonya Walker was left in charge of taking care of her younger sisters when she was 7. She was 8 when she saw 2-year-old Tasha drop unconscious to the floor while they were playing. She and her mother rushed Tasha to the hospital, and Tonya waited in the visitors' lounge, holding their 5-year-old sister's hand and crying because she was convinced that her baby sister was dead and she was somehow responsible. Hours later, a doctor told her Tasha would be fine. She had something called juvenile diabetes. Tasha looked at this doctor with awe; she believed that he had resurrected her baby sister. From that moment on, she was determined she would become a doctor.

Tonya Walker spent her childhood caring for her sisters and in high school took on sports and work along with academics. This week she graduates with honors and heads to med school.

That decision never changed, although some of her reasons did. Tonya's mother, a Jamaican immigrant, was only 16 when she became pregnant the first time. On her own with three young girls, decent-paying, stable jobs did not come or stay easily for her. The family went through numerous evictions and moves, living mostly in public housing in New York City. While her mother was working, Tonya took care of the girls. By 12, she was boarding buses with Tasha to keep doctor's appointments. She even signed the paperwork. At home, she would administer Tasha's insulin injections and monitor her food intake and her daily glucose and ketone levels. During hospital stays, Tonya was often the family member who discussed her sister's care with doctors and nurses.

"Most of those doctors were underpaid and resentful that they worked with low-income people, and many of them treated us like we were subhuman," Tonya recalls. "It just made me want to work more than ever in underserved populations like the one I grew up in. Because of that, I've always wanted to be the kind of doctor that treats all my patients with respect, treats them as my equals."

During high school, she continued being a surrogate mom while running track, playing tennis, holding a job and studying until 2 a.m. She graduated third in her class at Freeport High School and was accepted into every college where she applied.

On Thursday, Tonya graduates from Hopkins with honors. She has been accepted at every medical school to which she applied and has narrowed her choices to Hopkins and Cornell, in New York City. It's a hard decision, she says, because she's drawn to Hopkins' joint program in medicine and public health but would like to be close to her family, particularly her mother, who is pregnant with her fourth child.

Sarah Parola, biomedical engineering major, Ventura County, Calif.

For Sarah Parola, commencement will be bittersweet. During the second half of her college experience she suffered two different leg injuries, both requiring surgeries and months of hospital stays and rehabilitation. But she never got behind in her work, despite the huge workload required for a biomedical engineering degree. And though she has every right to experience an enormous sense of satisfaction when she is handed her diploma, she knows she also will experience a great feeling of sadness because the best friend she made at Hopkins will not be there.

Sarah Parola

She met Jamie Wiest her sophomore year, when she spilled a Diet Coke on him during one of her classes. With his outgoing manner and ready sense of humor, the two made a connection right off.

"When I first met him, I thought he was this scary football type because he was so big, but I quickly learned he was this gentle giant. Everybody loved him. He was so funny. We used to do everything together--we studied together, we got through these impossibly hard classes together. I liked to play piano, and he was a gifted pianist, so I would often go over to his apartment and practice. We had so much in common, we became close friends. We told each other everything."

A star soccer player, Sarah by sophomore year was winning awards and breaking records at Hopkins. During the first week of her junior soccer season, Sarah blew her knee out in the middle of a game. Two weeks after reconstruction surgery, her knee became infected. For a month she was in and out of the hospital, and administering IV drips to herself every day. It was a long recovery, but by spring, she was running again.

But her toughest time lay ahead. That summer, Jamie died of an overdose from the drug ecstacy at a rave club in New York City. Sarah was devastated. She had been preparing for her MCATs but found she could no longer concentrate and put aside thoughts of being a doctor. When school started, it was even harder, because Jamie wasn't there.

About a month into soccer season, she ran into the goalie during a game and a suffered two severe breaks in her leg. She was in a full leg cast for eight weeks; during the first several, she was in constant pain and bed-ridden.

"Luckily, my boyfriend was very supportive and really took care of me," she recalled. "But I was still lying there in bed, in pain, for weeks. I was still grieving for Jamie. It was a very depressing time. On top of being sad, there was a lot of anger. It was such a stupid way to die. That was not at all what Jamie was about. All my memories of him--drugs don't relate to any of them. I still can't believed that it happened."

To get through it, Sarah kept her sanity by focusing on milestones: getting a half cast, getting a walking cast, being able to use her leg again. Eventually, getting around, and life in general, got easier.

This week she's hitting a high note. She's graduating as a biomedical engineer with a 3.5 average and has accepted a job as a researcher at Merck & Company.

"I feel good about getting through these last two years," she said. "It was hard, but I really wanted to get my bachelor's degree. It was something I started, and I wanted to finish it. I'm glad I never let myself quit. Still, commencement will be hard for me. I always thought that would be something Jamie and I would do together. It really hurts that he won't be there."

Howard Turner III, mechanical engineering major, Nashville, Tenn.

Howard Turner III came very close to leaving Hopkins his freshman year. Before coming here, he had always been something of a golden child. Though his family never had much money, his life was rich, filled with good people and gospel music. No matter where they lived, his mother, Cynthia, was involved in a church choir. She had Howard and his younger sister, Amelia, singing at early ages.

"There was always music at our house," he says.

Howard Turner III

When he was in fifth grade, his mother, a single parent, moved the family to Fisk University in Nashville, where she took a job as director of a women's dormitory. There, Howard was lavished with attention.

"All the girls would take care of us, and I had the student's lounge as a playground," he says. "The guys there taught me to play pool, and many of them served as male role models for me. Growing up on a college campus was just a really cool thing. In the summer, the dorms were empty, and my friends and I would just run up and down the halls dribbling our basketballs. And sometimes at night I would climb up onto the roof to think. You could see the whole city of Nashville from there."

High school wasn't much different. He didn't have to work particularly hard to get good grades, he said, and he was involved in countless clubs and teams. His friends were all wildly popular, he said, and weekends were filled with parties and dancing. Senior year, he decided he wanted to be an engineer, so he applied to Hopkins. He was accepted and received a good financial aid package.

When he arrived on the Homewood campus, he found life less than golden. He found it hard to know where he fit in, hard to keep up with some of the rigorous engineering courses and hard to find the right focus.

"I just wanted to go to parties and go dancing," he said. "I knew I wasn't doing well, but I had a pretty breezy attitude toward everything."

During Christmas break, he was notified that he had been placed on academic probation. Suddenly, he decided he needed to change if he was going to get through college. That vacation, he returned to his spirituality, which he said he had neglected during his teenage years.

When he came back to campus, he was different. He became serious about school, and gradually his grades improved. He also began singing in the gospel choir. A year later, he was its director. "I began writing songs and really enjoying preparing them for our concerts," he says. "When we'd be singing, I would just let go of all my cares. It was so much fun. And I made friends that have become very strong over the years."

He also started getting involved in the Dunbar Baldwin Hughes Theater Company on campus and found that he loved the stage as well.

Right before opening night of the production of Good Time V, Howard was studying in a lab when one of his roommates came in. Their apartment had caught on fire, his friend said. No one was hurt, but everything they owned had been destroyed.

"It was right during finals, right before opening night, and yet I didn't freak about it," he recalled. "I think my focus was just really on track at the time. I was doing well in school, I was involved in my church, I had built a strong foundation by then. As it turned out, everyone was just really great. People donated clothes to us, the school gave us a room at The Colonnade until we found a new place, people who we didn't even know helped us out. Things turned out fine."

Now, as he graduates, Howard reaps the fruits of his labors. Two weeks ago, he starred in the DBH drama Seven Guitars to a full house and rave reviews, and his gospel choir's CD, U.R.Y.I.A.M., came out last week.

But now he is struggling with new choices. He's about to start a job as an engineer for Whiting Turner Contracting Company, where he worked last summer, but he also wants to act and is planning to take a couple of drama classes in the fall. "And then in the spring I'm thinking of trying to make a go of it as an actor. It would definitely be a leap and a long shot, and it's a decision that weighs heavily with me. But my heart's desire is to perform, so I think I need to give it a try."

Major Scholarships, Fellowships,
Grants and Awards

Rhodes Scholarship
To provide two or three years' all-expenses-paid study at Oxford University in England.
Westley Moore

Florence "Meg" Long Walsh/Second Decade Society Leadership Award
To provide a graduating senior with a stipend of $20,000 for a postgraduate year of travel and independent study abroad.
Jodie Misiak (China)

Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts at The Johns Hopkins University
A $1,500 prize awarded annually to the graduating senior or fourth-year medical student who has demonstrated excellence in the arts while studying at Hopkins. This year it was awarded to a student theater company rather than an individual.
The Barnstormers

To support a well-defined project of research in any one of over 70 foreign countries. Stipend covers normal expenses and air fare. Two graduate students received Fulbrights.
Jacob Moore (Trinidad/Tobago)
Jeremy Pope (Nigeria)

President's Commendation for Achievement in the Arts at The Johns Hopkins University
A commendation honoring two graduating seniors who have contributed to the arts at Homewood.
Elizabeth Paige Austin
Vadim Michael Schick

To support graduate study or research in Germany. The stipend meets normal expenses and air fare.
Michael Gruver

The Rome Prize
To provide a graduate student residency of six months to two years at the American Academy of Rome plus stipend.
Shilpa Prasad

National Security Educational Program
Funding for an undergraduate for a year of intensive language study abroad.
Sheila Isanaka

Goldwater Award
Scholarship award for one to two years for undergraduates in science, math or engineering.
Steven M. Silverman
Jing Zeng