This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Sabab Bhuiyan, 20, and Jasmine Tran, 19, were each presented the Gustave G. Amsterdam Leadership Award from the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation earlier this month. Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen made the presentation to the Philadelphia college freshmen of the awards, each of which includes a $5,000 scholarship. The winners were honored at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s annual Mayoral Luncheon at the Pennsylvania Convention Center
Bhuiyan and Tran were selected from among the winners of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation’s Leaders and Achievers scholarships, which recognize “high school seniors who demonstrate outstanding community service, exceptional academic performance and strong leadership skills.” The Gustave Amsterdam Award, named after a Comcast Corp. founding board member and Philadelphia native, is awarded to Leaders and Achievers Scholarship winners who attended high school in Philadelphia and are continuing their education at a college or university in the city.
In 2016, Bhuiyan immigrated from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Philadelphia and began his sophomore year at Northeast High School. In Bangladesh, he had attended Scholastica, a private English language school, from elementary school through his freshman year of high school. Although his parents only graduated high school, they were determined that he pursue higher education, making sacrifices to afford Scholastica and enforcing the use of English in the home rather than their mother tongue, Bangla.
However, when his uncle was granted a green card and he and his mother eventually emigrated to the United States to live with him, Bhuiyan found that he still had to overcome limited expectations of his background and abilities.
“When I first came to Northeast, they didn’t understand how different my education was,” Bhuiyan recalled. The administration wanted to put him in ESL classes, but he protested and demonstrated that he was fluent in English. They also placed him in Algebra 1, even though he was prepared for precalculus.
“You know how you find ‘x’ in algebra. I just remember the day [the teacher] was teaching that and I was laughing.” Bhuiyan was not laughing at the other students for struggling. But he had already grasped basic algebra concepts like this years ago and recalls thinking, “Why am I here?”
Bhuiyan’s algebra teacher, who he remembers only as Mr. Q, noticed Bhuiyan’s giggling in the back of the classroom during the first week of classes. Instead of writing him off as a disinterested slacker, Mr. Q talked with him after class. He understood that Bhuiyan was too advanced for his class and pushed him to talk to the head of the Northeast’s aerospace magnet program, Chris Frank, and to his counselor about being enrolled in more advanced classes.
Bhuiyan remembers with a laugh that Mr. Q told him not to mention his name when making this request. “He was usually very funny, but he was serious about me moving up.”
Frank was supportive of him being accepted to the magnet, which is a highly selective college preparatory program focused on math and sciences. Bhuiyan described Frank as “a constant pillar of support.”
With Frank’s backing, Bhuiyan talked with his guidance counselor, Robert Belz, who moved him into all honors classes that semester. Bhuiyan eventually began to take International Baccalaureate courses and graduated with an IB Diploma through the magnet program.
With the 10 other students in IB Diploma Programme, Bhuiyan began to build a community and get involved in service projects.
“When I first went there, I was intimidated because everyone was so smart and the classes were so hard, but I’m really glad I stuck it out, thanks to Mr. Frank and all the other IB teachers. The whole IB community is really amazing. They really gave me a sense of belonging.”
Bhuiyan is now a freshman at Drexel University planning to major in management information systems and minor in computer science. He says, “That’s the type of impact I want to have: to make people’s lives better through technology.”
He won a Liberty Scholarship through Drexel that covers his full tuition and plans to use the Gus Amsterdam Award to help with living expenses. He credits his success to the educators who believed in him, especially Frank. “He’s always been there for me. He is the reason I am here today.”
Reflecting on the difficulties of self-advocacy as an immigrant, Bruiyan says, “Most of my friends who came from Bangladesh also had trouble explaining that they needed to be challenged.”
Having teachers who were willing to listen and a supportive community in the Philadelphia public school system allowed him to flourish.
“Northeast is really diverse,” he said. “Even though [many of the other students] weren’t immigrants that just moved here like me, there was common ground, and people could relate to my struggles.”
Jasmine Tran has also felt the pressure that comes from immigration. She was born and raised in South Philadelphia, but her parents immigrated from Vietnam before she was born in hopes of providing a better life for their future children.
Tran attended Southwark Elementary School and Girard Academic Music Program for middle and high school. Before attending GAMP, Tran did not have an extensive background in music or performance. Her mother had been close with a guidance counselor at Southwark who recommended the program, which is known for its small class size and high academic standards, in addition to its music specialization. The program appealed to Tran and her mom, and they decided to take a chance.
Tran had only been playing the violin for a year at Southwark when she auditioned for GAMP. She recalls: “I was very nervous because it was my first time auditioning for anything.”
The violin hadn’t even been her first choice. “I wanted to play the flute at first, but at Southwark, they said there weren’t any more spots, so they asked me if I wanted to play an alternate instrument and I just randomly chose the violin. But I’ve stuck with it.”
She played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for her audition and recalls that “I chose that song because it was very easy.” The instructor told her she played well and she was accepted.
Although she enjoyed playing the violin at GAMP, her focus was largely on academics and raising her SAT scores. Describing her parents’ mentality, she says, “It’s in our culture and in our family. They came over to America so their future children could have better lives. They have the mindset that, in America, if you have the opportunity to get an education, you should utilize the education that you receive.”
Tran is now a freshman at Temple University and plans to become a physician’s assistant, following in the footsteps of her older cousins, who work in the medical field as dentists, doctors, and nurses.
In addition to academics, Tran found a passion for giving back to her community. She became involved with Viet Lead through a friend in high school and enjoyed learning about and spreading awareness regarding issues like gentrification that are affecting her community. Because she was very shy growing up, volunteering has also helped her grow personally.
“I just learned how to be more social with people and how to be engaged with the people around me and how to build friendships,” she said.
She also volunteered at MANNA throughout high school, making healthy meals for community members in need. She says, “I fell in love with it and stuck with it as my number one volunteering place to go to.” At Temple, as a community service co-chair of her Pre-Physician Assistant organization, she has brought volunteers back with her to MANNA.
Tran is happy with her decision to stay in Philadelphia for college.
“I think I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I would go to Temple,” she said. She appreciates the diversity and how large the school is compared to GAMP. However, she says, “I wanted to stay mainly because of my parents. I feel like I should be there for my parents, at least for right now.”
As an only child, Tran said, her relationship with her parents “definitely made me want to work harder. I don’t really understand how my parents feel about this because I’m not them, but I have enough knowledge to know that what they are doing is best for me. I understand that they are immigrants and they want a better life for me. I shouldn’t take that for granted.
“I want to work hard to respect their wishes and work hard to pay them back for everything they have done for me.”