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Students fulfill great expectations



Worker treating trees

Outstanding students, left to right, Koushal Rao, Haniya Shareef, Sana Shareef and Nishanth Chalasani credit their parents for their academic success.

Parents’ emphasis on education bears fruit

By L. L. ANGELL

The teenage children of four successful immigrants from southern India are distinguishing themselves with their academic excellence and service to the St. Lucie community.

Their fathers are doctors who separately immigrated to the United States between 1984 and 1992. Babar Shareef met his wife Mehr in New Jersey, where she grew up. Prasad Chalasani’s wife Mydhili came here at 15 with her family. But the others met their wives when they returned briefly to India for that purpose. All four started their professional lives in the Northeast, eventually coming to Port St. Lucie, where they live just blocks apart in St. Lucie West. Two (Humayun and Babar Shareef) are brothers and two (Prasad Chalasani and Kamalakar Rao) are medical partners. All are fathers of super high-achievers who’ve been friends most of their lives.

These young people aren’t focused on being popular or the next football game. Their parents have taught them that a successful future and personal happiness depend on an excellent education and hard work.

MAN ON A MISSION

The first to arrive, Humayun Shareef, came to Brooklyn in 1984, joining his married sister. Unmarried, he had a doctorate in osteopathy and $200 in his pocket. While practicing medicine, Humayun also held down multiple jobs. After marrying his wife Naheed, the young couple moved to a basement apartment in Brooklyn and started a family.

Today, they enjoy entertaining in their spacious home in PGA Village, but Humayun still works long hours as a doctor.

“My mission was to get my younger siblings here. I worked very hard for that,” Humayun says. “Today, I tell my three kids, ‘Look where I am now. I started with nothing. If you’re not better off than me, you’ve failed.”

Just blocks away, Humayun’s younger brother, Babar Shareef, a cardiologist and his wife live with their two children, Sana, 15, and Omar, 13.

SHARED VALUES

A U.S. citizen of Indian descent, born abroad, Mehr came here at 1 month old.

“Two of our friends introduced us through friends of our mothers,” Babar says. “I was already in Florida and flew to New Jersey to meet Mehr and her family.”

“We knew we had the same values,” Mehr adds.

Drs. Kamalakar Rao and Prasad Chalasani, both Hindus, are partners in a cardiology practice in Fort Pierce. After completing their residencies, they returned to southern India for traditional marriages to Kavitha and Mydhili, respectively. Today, they live in PGA Village, too. Good friends with both Shareef families, they are raising remarkable children as well. For example, the students’ grade-point averages are between 4.7 and 5.5. All have been mentored by top scientists in St. Lucie County and won impressive research science awards while distinguishing themselves in different ways.

RECORD OF SUCCESS

Nishanth Chalasani, a senior at St. Edward’s School in Vero Beach, is politically engaged and a major organizer of community service activism for St. Lucie County youth. Sana Shareef, a sophomore and St. Edward’s, has won numerous awards as a Model U.N. debater. Sana is the founder/president of Building Bridges Club at her school, which is scheduled to start spring semester. The club aspires to bridge religious and cultural differences among students.

Koushal Rao, a senior at Lincoln Park Academy’s International Baccalaureate program, is an accomplished Boy Scout and South Florida Honor Flight Guardian. Last year, he helped raise $7,500 for the nonprofit group by organizing tennis tournaments.

Haniya Shareef, a sophomore in LPA’s International Baccalaureate program, plays on the varsity tennis team, is a leader for Odyssey of the Mind, a competition emphasizing creative thinking, and performs and choreographs traditional Indian dance.

FOCUS ON LEARNING

Their parents have embraced life in America, “the best country in the world,” while instilling a devotion to their Indian heritage.

“In India, because of poverty and a lack of resources, we see education as the surest way to succeed,” says Prasad Chalasani, Nishanth’s father. “We raise our children to remember that education is central to everything.”

“The mom is the Home Department and dad is External Affairs,” adds Nishanth’s mother, Mydhili. “We tell our children now is the time to study and learn. I’ll cook your food and do your laundry so you can learn.”

Ask Nishanth which accomplishment makes him happiest and he chooses HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth Program), a volunteer organization he’s participated in for several years.

“I attended HOBY summer before last and fell in love with it. It’s all about leadership and creating a community,” Nishanth says. “I learned so much I volunteered there this past summer, too.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Nishanth believes a leader finds solutions to real-life problems. As the founder and president of Youth Organized to Help (YOUTH), an organization promoting civic action by teenagers in Saint Lucie and Martin counties, Nishanth created a math-tutoring program at Samuel Gaines Academy, a school for inner-city kids in Fort Pierce.

“I worked with a fifth-grader who came here from Haiti after the earthquake in 2008,” says Nishanth. “He didn’t understand basic math and felt ashamed. By the end of the summer, seeing him twice a week, he was learning algebraic equations. That stuck with me.”

Together with Sana, Nishanth co-hosts a half-hour weekly radio show, Youth2Youth on WIRA/1400 AM in Fort Pierce. Nishanth’s father recalls how YOUTH started.

“Nishanth interned with Rep. Patrick Murphy and Rep. Larry Lee. That opened his eyes to problems of the underserved. We asked each other, ‘How can we help Port St. Lucie overcome poverty?’” says Chalasani.

“Sana and I invite local people making a difference, like Scott Van Duzer, who started Boy Scout Troop 727 for disadvantaged kids, and Sheriff Ken Mascara of St. Lucie County, who’s made this area so much safer,” Nishanth says.

TACKLING TOMATOES

Last year, Nishanth’s science fair project won first place in microbiology at the Indian River State College Regional Science and Engineering Fair, qualifying him for the State Science Fair last April.

“I’ve been working on the resistance of different heirloom tomatoes to the tomato mosaic virus, or ToMV,” says Nishanth.

Working this summer for Rep. Kathy Castor, Nishanth noticed a fair number of politicians were previously doctors.

“I wanted to see how they combined science with politics,” Nishanth says. “That interests me.”

Haniya Shareef instantly tells you her favorite achievement.

“I was selected for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh in May,” says Haniya. “When you identify a problem, figure it out and solve it, working week after week, it becomes very close to your heart.”

Haniya tackled the Mile-a-Minute Weed. Like kudzu, the plant smothers everything in its path.

AN ORGANIC SOLUTION

“I created an organic solution that kills the weed, but doesn’t harm other plants,” Haniya says. “Doing this is very exciting!”

She was one of three St. Lucie County students selected by Intel for its 2015 international fair. Almost 2,000 students from 75 different countries participated.

“It’s beautiful how you experience everyone there — students from China, Saudi Arabia, Ireland. When the officials call your name and you run on stage, it’s amazing,” says Haniya. A ninth-grader winning third place in the botany category (as she was last year) is highly unusual. What’s more, third place was accompanied by $1,000 in prize money.

“In sixth grade, the idea of going to Intel was huge,” Haniya says. “I never dreamed I could place there.”

Haniya also plays the piano with the National Guild (winning Superiors) and the euphonium with her school band.

“It looks like a mini tuba,” Haniya says, laughing.

She enjoys performing country and western songs plus hits like Set Fire to the Rain, by the popular singer Adele, at venues throughout St. Lucie County. She choreographs and dances in the Atlantic India Association’s November event.

“In the future, I’d love to work with science, but I love music and dancing, too,” Haniya says.

GAINING PERSPECTIVE

Koushal Rao, a senior and the youngest son of Kamalakar and Kavitha Rao, looks like the perfect tennis player. A member of the varsity team, Koushal was voted Most Valuable Player last year. He’ll play next spring, too. But that’s not his proudest achievement.

“I’m happiest about the money I’ve raised for the Southeast Florida Honor Flight Escort, and to accompany a World War II veteran, Vernon Ross, to Washington, D.C. That put everything in perspective for me,” says Koushal. “Mr. Ross, who’s 87, told me how it feels not knowing if you’re going to live or die. That really moved me.”

The program transports veterans to Washington to visit memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifices.

“Last year I helped organize a three-time charity tennis tournament at the PGA Golf and Tennis Club, raising $7,500 for the Honor Flight. I’m doing it again this year,” Koushal says, with a smile.

Koushal was chosen as a St. Lucie competitor for the Intel International Science Engineering Fair in May, like Haniya. His Intel awards include a first place in Medicine and Health Sciences for developing a unique way to prevent a H7 pandemic. He recently received a cash prize of $10,000.

For the past year and a half, Koushal has worked as a paid lab intern at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and as a researcher at the University of Florida Hayslip Biological Control Research and Containment Laboratory.

Koushal calls time management “super important.” He’s applying for early admission at Harvard and considering Stanford University in California.

THE SANA ASTEROID

At 15, Sana Shareef is highly accomplished in two separate areas — biology and history. Sana was selected to represent Indian River County in Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair in May, winning second place in the zoology category. Along with the honor and cash prize of $3,000, Sana received a special MIT award naming an asteroid “Sana” after her. “It’s on an outer belt of the galaxy so we don’t think it will crash into us,” her father says with a laugh.

Working under the mentorship of Dr. Stephen La Pointe, a research entomologist for the USDA in Fort Pierce, Sana’s winning project addressed the destructive Sri Lankan weevil. “The weevils eat avocados, citrus and peaches,” says Sana. “We wanted to study them and prevent their destroying such important crops.”

Sana’s parents and younger brother, Omar, 13, caught weevils together, scooping them into bottles. They built 20 tents (weevil-houses) in the backyard. Working with La Pointe, Sana figured out that weevils like peaches best.

“Knowing the structure of their DNA leads to so much knowledge. I have a passion for science and know how much it means to my dad. Being able to start a discussion in science is important, too. That’s what I’ve learned with the Model U.N.,” Sana says.

A MODEL DIPLOMAT

She takes down the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Award from a shelf. The award is for diplomatic finesse.

“Sana was invited to the Model U.N. in the eighth grade,” says her mother.

Sana performs traditional Indian dance in the Atlantic India Association and plays the clarinet. She recently completed an intense course in Arabic.

“The different things I’m pursuing are what I want to do. I like a challenge,” Sana says.

PARENTS INSPIRE THEM

When asked how they’ve accomplished so much at such an early age, all four students credit their parents.

“I’d be nothing without my parents,” says Haniya Shareef. “They’re the reason I am who I am.”

Koushal is also grateful to his brothers, Kathan, 20, an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York, and Kahrik, 26, now finishing medical school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, calling them his ongoing advisers.

“And my parents are there for me in every way,” Koushal says.

“My parents have high expectations, but that inspires me to fulfill them,” says Nishanth.

“When we go through family photos, it’s always Omar and me with books, sitting in our parents’ laps. There is a constant emphasis on reading and learning,” Sana says. When it comes to the parents’ wishes for their children, Mehr Shareef speaks for all in saying, “I want them to pursue their passions and give them their best. Whatever profession, they should serve humanity however they can and I want them to be happy. Success doesn’t bring happiness. Happiness brings success.”