FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — JUNE 18, 2014
By Steve Marschke
From the Class of 2014 at River City High School, one pair of graduates in particular stands out for where they’re going next.
Kevin Burkes is on the path to the U.S. Air Force Academy and a potential commission as an officer and possible fighter pilot, while classmate Sufia Mehmood is headed to Harvard on a full-ride scholarship.
Sufia, still 17 years old for a few more months, talks about her upcoming college years with both laughter and some trepidation. She earned a GPA of well over 4.0 in high school. But wasn’t aware of anyone else from her school who has ever earned a spot at Harvard, and this girl from Broderick didn’t think she had a chance either.
“I had never even thought of applying to an Ivy League school,” explained Sufia. “I come from a school with a high drop-out rate. I kind of applied to a couple of Ivy League schools just on a bet.”
“Myself and a couple of other friends just applied, never expecting to get in,” she added. “I visited Harvard only once, because it’s so far away. I went to Princeton, I went to Yale, I went to Harvard. I actually liked the atmosphere of Harvard better – not because the other schools weren’t amazing as well, just because I thought Harvard was a better fit for me because of the atmosphere. It’s not urban. It’s in Cambridge, not (nearby) Boston.”
Harvard receives applications from a lot of the world’s top students. It accepts only five percent of them, she said. But Sufia was stunned to get not only an admission letter, but an offer of a “full ride.”
“If I did not get the scholarship, I would not be able to go at all,” she said.
In addition to the Harvard scholarship, the graduating senior received another $100,000 or so in other scholarships — much of which she will defer to later, to help out with medical school.
The money included $40,000 from the national organization of Elks lodges (the top prize after first winning a local Elks chapter contest), $20,000 from the Dell computer corporation and more.
Sufia’s high school years were filled with classwork along with membership in math and science clubs, scholarship organizations and a student volunteer club.
Is she more of a math and science person, then?
“I am,” answered Sufia. “I have to say I prefer it over English.”
Going into college, she has declared a major of neurobiology.
“I want to become a pediatric oncologist (children’s cancer doctor),” she reports. “I am most interested in brain science.”
Sufia played competitive tennis her freshman year at RCHS, and then switched to recreational play. She’s been a hospital volunteer, too.
“I’ve been at the UCD Medical Center the past two years – I’ve been in the trauma center, E.R., oncology department. I go where they need me. They’ll have me go to the blood bank, or I can feed patients or help with IDs or bandage-changing.”
Sufia has three younger brothers. She also said that a lot of people for helping her on her journey through RCHS, including her parents.
“My family has definitely been supportive,” said Sufia. “Mrs. (Susan) Smith has been my 10th and 12th grade teacher and also my AVID teacher the past four years,” she said, singling out one member of the faculty. “All the teachers and counselors have definitely helped me. I strongly believe that each person makes an impact, no matter how small.”
Sufia trades Broderick for New England in August.
Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts – just across the river from Boston. Sufia said she is excited, as well as a bit nervous, about her new school, its climate and its culture.
For graduating senior Kevin Burkes, it’s one step towards fulfillment of a long-time dream. After building a record on the football field and in the classroom at River City High School, and receiving a nomination from Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Burkes is on his way to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It’s a rare thing for a River City Raider to make it to one of the nation’s military academies.
“Since I was a young kid, that was my dream school to go to,” he told the News-Ledger. “I have always been interested in planes, and always wanted to fly. The Air Force Academy was a place my dad showed me as a boy. And I always wanted to join something greater than myself.”
Kevin lives in Southport with his dad and stepmom. He has four brothers and one sister.
Does he come from a military line?
“In my family, I have an uncle who served in the Air Force,” Kevin responded. “My dad served in the Marines, my grandfather served in the Army and my great-grandfather served in the Navy. I’m the first in my family to go to a service academy.”
Kevin, 18, played several different sports during his high school career. An outside linebacker for the school’s football team, he expects to play ball for the Air Force – where he will try especially hard to beat the Naval Academy from Annapolis, Maryland, and the Army Academy from West Point, New York.
Kevin graduated with a 3.75 grade point average, as well as a record of participation in several extracurricular activities.
“I was part of the Interact Club (a volunteer service group) my sophomore and junior years,” he said, “and part of the National Honor Society.”
He was also a member of the Air Force JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), which has a program on the River City campus.
Kevin gives credit to the school principal and many others for helping him succeed at RCHS.
“Definitely, my principal, Ms. (Katie) Nemer has been there supporting me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to name all the teachers who helped – most of the teachers have been with me in class, spending time and supporting me if I was struggling.”
Successful academy graduates earn an officer’s commission as well as a college degree. In return for their schooling and training, graduates are required to serve either six years in active duty (for non-pilots) or ten (for pilots), in addition to time as a reserve officer.
“Hopefully, I will have a career as a fighter pilot,” said Kevin, citing one of the most-coveted after Air Force jobs.
Before entering the Academy, he will spend a year in a an academy prep school. Then he will join the Academy’s class of 2019.
Military academies are famous for being especially hard on freshman cadets, with plenty of tough hazing by upperclassmen. At Colorado Springs, for example, freshmen cadets may not wear their backpacks on campus – they must carry them at arm’s length. In the dining hall, they must sit on the front third of their chair, and may chew the food only a regulation number of times before swallowing.
And an ornery senior may choose to make their life difficult by, for example, commanding the newer cadet to “drop and give me twenty pushups.”
“They can pretty much do that at any time,” said Kevin. But he has received some friendly advice from fellow RCHS alumnus Trevor Langford, now heading into his senior year at the Air Force Academy.
“He says freshman year is going to be the hardest year. He says to know that it’s all just a game, it’s not personal, and to just take it one step at a time.”
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