Penn Charter grad from Mt. Airy a Presidential Scholar

Joya Ahsan Ahmad surely made the most of her years at Penn Charter School in East Falls, and has some advice for other students who would like to do the same.

“Don’t be in the mold you think they want you to be in,” says the Mount Airy resident who just graduated and has been selected as a 2011 U.S. Presidential Scholar.

Ahmad, who was also selected as a 2011 Gates Millennium Scholar earlier this year, says one key to these achievements is to be open and honest about yourself.

In her case, there is a lot to share.

“I am obsessed with the classics!” she gushes. “I love all things Virgil, all things Cicero.” She also makes a point of reading at least one non-fiction book per week.

She writes music and poetry as well as leading the school’s a cappella group. Other interests include Latin, French and philosophy.

When she needed a sports credit in her freshman year, she joined the girls’ cross-country team and eventually became a captain, adding long hours of running to her activities as a tae kwon do instructor. But she says science is her calling.

“My real passion is medicine,” she says. She’s heading to Columbia University, to major in biomedical engineering.

Joya overflows with possibilities for her future career. She’s wanted to become a neurosurgeon ever since she learned of the widespread shortage of trauma neurosurgeons in U.S. emergency rooms.

“It’s very necessary,” she says of the specialization she envisions, galvanized by the ultimate think-on-your-feet challenge of the ER.

Another aspiration is neuroscience research to discover more about the physiological roots of conditions like dementia, anxiety disorders, depression or bipolar disorder. In her volunteer work at Kensington’s St. Francis Inn, she was particularly struck by the role of untreated or undiagnosed mental disorders in homelessness and addiction.

In an increasingly globalized world, where our connections and resources grow every day, she says it’s time to stop pushing those problems under the carpet.

“There is still such a stigma around mental disorders,” she says, hoping that future discoveries will promote a “tangible basis” for these problems, reducing the stigma and making it easier for sufferers to get help.

Ahmad’s singing and studies have taken her to Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and Rome.

Now she is preparing to add China to the list after becoming one of 15 students selected for the Presidential Scholars program’s U.S.-China Student Leaders Exchange. She leaves this month for a two-week stay with a Chinese family, and is looking forward to experiencing first-hand the homeland of martial arts.

Her travels also include yearly trips to her family’s native Bangladesh. (Her language studies include Bangla, her parents’ native tongue). At first she feared that the Presidential Scholar program would be looking for all-American “apple-pie” students who focus on U.S. pride.

“The legacy of my family is not the American Revolution, the Civil War, WWI and II,” she says. In her application, she described the reality of “having two countries” and being a patriot for each one.

But for of all her excitement over the educational and scientific possibilities of globalization and a growing international context for learning, Ahmad also recognizes that even in her hometown of Philadelphia, “different worlds” can be separated only by a five-minute ride on the subway.

The contrast between the streets of Mt. Airy and the halls of Penn Charter, and the harsh realities for many Philadelphia women at the Kensington soup kitchen where Joya continues to volunteer, fill her with a sense of urgency.

It’s an attitude that pervades all of her accomplishments, especially her cross-country training, which she calls her biggest challenge so far. “It was the most humbling experience I had in high school,” she says of starting out as “the turtle on the team,” before dedicated training enabled her to excel.

“I’m friends with the hills. I talk to them. They build character,” she laughs, describing her training runs around Penn Charter. She has a mantra when exhaustion hits: “I can do this hill.” It’s a habit that will help her launch a powerful career.

Having celebrated her graduation and awards at a party with her family and friends, Ahmad is poised for the next phase.

“Don’t hide anything,” she would advise other ambitious students. “Acknowledge all of yourself.”

The 141 U.S. Presidential Scholars include one young man and one young woman from each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and from U.S. families living abroad, as well as 15 chosen at-large and 20 Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.