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Two UMass students overcome obstacles to win full-ride scholarships

(Judith-Gibson Okunieff/Collegian)

The University of Massachusetts will welcome two immigrant students in the fall, each with a four-year, full-ride scholarship and an incredible story.

At just 13 years old, Sayed Shah came up with a solution when his home district in Pakistan lost access to electricity. Using the skills he learned in his math and science classes, he created a light run by a water-powered electric motor, ensuring his family would not have to eat dinner in the dark.

Cuishan (known to friends as Hannah) Mei came to Boston at 12 years old from the Guangdong Province in China. Though she has always had a passion for chemistry, when her grandfather was diagnosed with a brain tumor about a year ago and died shortly thereafter, she felt more of an incentive to study medicine.

“It can be painful and it happens so fast,” Mei said. “It has inspired me to focus on some drug or discovery.”

The Vertex Science Leaders Scholarship is awarded to two students planning on pursuing an education in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) at a UMass campus of their choice.

Twenty-year-old Shah and 18-year-old Mei both chose UMass Amherst—Shah planning to study computer engineering and Mei, biochemistry.

“I couldn’t go to UMass Amherst without this scholarship,” said Shah, who is looking forward to the freedom of campus life and embarking on new opportunities.

“Sayed and Hannah have demonstrated great initiative and determination in the face of extraordinary personal challenges, and I’m proud to welcome them to the University of Massachusetts,” said UMass President Martin T. Meehan in Vertex’s press release from July 17. “UMass is committed to giving hardworking students access to a transformative education and preparing them to thrive in the Commonwealth’s innovation economy.”

According to UMass spokesperson Patrick Callahan, the scholarship program was created in 2013 by the University of Massachusetts school system, Boston Public Schools and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. To apply, students must have a minimum of a 3.25 GPA and be interested in pursuing STEM studies.

“This scholarship program highlights one of the University’s strengths: its outstanding STEM-related programs,” Callahan said.

“It also demonstrates how high-quality education in the life sciences is supported by one of the top biotechnology companies in Massachusetts. The combination helps create a strong and technically-advanced Massachusetts economy,” he added.

Vertex solidified its commitment to STEM education in 2012, launching a $1.5 million partnership with Boston Public Schools, according to a company press release from 2016. The commitment has given more than 1,000 students the opportunity to intern for the company, join a science fair mentorship program and introduce learning lab spaces for Boston Public School students.

Shah and Mei are interning at Vertex this summer in Cambridge, applying their respective passions and problem-solving skills to contribute to Vertex’s mission of transforming medicine for people with life-threatening diseases.

After coming to Boston, Shah and Mei struggled to adjust to an unfamiliar language. Last Spring, Mei graduated from the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, and Shah from Boston International Newcomers Academy, a Boston Public high school whose core mission is to serve new immigrant adolescent English language learners and their families.

On her struggles adjusting, Mei said, “I felt lonely a lot of the time. I spent a lot of the time with my parents when I first came here. [But] I started to meet people at a summer E.S. program for students who don’t speak English as their first language.”

“This partnership with Vertex is a true example of one that provides students college- and career-ready skills in the innovation sector,” said Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang in Vertex’s July 17 press release. “Not only is Vertex helping foster our future leaders, they are embracing the multi-cultural lenses that Sayed and Hannah bring to the table.”

According to Vertex spokesperson Heather Nichols, the four-year scholarships were awarded to the two students because of their inspiring applications. The winners were chosen by a Vertex panel which included a UMass representative.

“The applicants’ past experiences displayed a deep commitment to use STEM careers to better the world,” Nichols said.

Caeli Chesin can be reached at


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