Shawn Zamani immigrated to the United States from Iran in 2012, when he was 16. He knew little English when he began at his Tampa, Florida, high school.
“One of the biggest challenges was quickly adapting to my new environment, and everything that came with it, while moving forward with my plans,” he said. “While it was a difficult transition, I believe that moving to America has been a deeply transformative experience in my life.”
Shawn’s family came in pursuit of opportunities, and he has found a wealth of those. Shawn was named to the All-USA Academic Team and a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholar in 2016, and he is now beginning graduate school at the University of Cambridge in England as a 2019 Gates Cambridge Scholar.
“Many mentors have helped me along this journey, and I take every opportunity to give back and serve as a mentor,” he said.
Finding a Place to Start
As Shawn wrapped up his first year of high school in America, he knew he wanted to go to college. He just wasn’t sure that college was accessible to him, given his low-income background and responsibilities at home.
Shawn’s father had attended Hillsborough Community College (HCC) when he first moved to Tampa, so Shawn and his sister visited the school. He immediately decided it was the best place for him to begin.
“There is a stigma around attending community college, but I saw a campus packed with some of the most dedicated, hard-working, and responsible students,” he said. “HCC offered a great community, education, and the opportunity to be exposed to folks from all walks of life.”
At HCC, Shawn worked as a science and math tutor; attended multiple conferences, leading teams of students and presenting work; and joined Phi Theta Kappa. He was also a College Ambassador and helped more than 100 freshmen enroll in the honors college.
Shawn said the rigor of the honors classes, the diversity of the student body, and the support from his classmates and mentors made him who he is today. His time at HCC opened doors he never thought possible, such as the All-USA Academic Team and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.
“I would not be here if it wasn’t because of my family, friends, and mentors,” he said. “I also would not have graduated from a top research institution and be on my way to such a distinguished university without HCC.”
Stepping onto the National (Scholarship) Stage
The All-USA Academic Team is sponsored by Follett Higher Education Group, with additional support from the American Association of Community Colleges and Phi Theta Kappa. Only 20 students nationwide are selected for the $5,000 scholarship.
“I instantly felt a deep obligation to help future HCC students apply for this scholarship,” Shawn said. “As time passed and I reflected more on what it meant to be part of the Academic Team, I realized that, in part, my selection to the team was an acknowledgment that I was on the right track with my ideas, values, and mission.”
Shawn also helps HCC students apply for the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which awards up to $40,000 a year for up to three years. He was the first HCC student to receive the scholarship, and he has given a presentation on the program to HCC students each fall ever since. The college recently had its fourth Jack Kent Cooke Scholar.
“An authentic story helps, but it’s only part of the picture,” he said. “A vision that you firmly believe in, along with a good idea of how to get there, is needed too. The application experience will be different from student to student, so my best advice is to take time and deeply reflect on your life.”
The scholarships went beyond removing financial barriers; they also freed Shawn up to conduct research, hold internships, and participate in extracurricular activities. The tight-knit community of Cooke Scholars helped him navigate his school as a transfer student, and two other Cooke Scholars are helping him transition to the University of Cambridge.
“Being a Cooke Scholar has catalyzed my role as an advocate for community colleges,” he said. “Being a Scholar means that I have the tools to carry forward with my mission and continue to support students who are in a similar position as I was.”
Getting a Global Education
After HCC, Shawn transferred to the University of South Florida (USF), where he served first as an HIV/AIDS counselor and later as director of public health at the USF Health BRIDGE Clinic, a free and student-run clinic on campus. In 2017 he joined a team of researchers to assess the tobacco-free policy on campus and had his work published. He also began working as a research intern at USF’s Moffitt Cancer Center.
In the summer of 2018, Shawn was selected as an Amgen Scholar for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He conducted epidemiological research on head and neck, esophageal, and stomach cancers at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland. Upon returning to Tampa, he was hired as a research assistant at Moffitt’s Department of Cancer Epidemiology. He was also president of the Undergraduate Public Health Society.
While at the National Cancer Institute, Shawn learned that several of his mentors had connections to one of the leading research centers for esophageal cancer, located at the University of Cambridge. This, along with searches for graduate school programs, led him to the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“I wanted to experience a global education that goes beyond the traditional graduate school experience,” he said. “As global issues like cancer get increasingly complex, they need interdisciplinary and global solutions. Both Cambridge and the Gates program were great fits for my background and goals.”
Shawn was one of only 34 students from the United States named a 2019 Gates Cambridge Scholar. He will be studying the distribution and causes of esophageal cancer as he works toward a Ph.D. in medical science and epidemiology.
“Gates Cambridge Scholars are deeply committed to improving the lives of others,” he said. “Being selected as a Scholar gives me the opportunity to work on complex global issues with many future leaders at a distinguished institution.”
Sharing the Secret to Success
Shawn has advice for students plotting out their own education trajectory. Find a program that’s a good fit all around — for the student, the scholarship, the program of study, and the institution. Keep the bigger picture in mind, be flexible, be open to opportunity, and don’t be afraid to take a non-linear path.
Establish an academic or research connection prior to applying for opportunities, and find mentors early and often.
With each success, Shawn is eager — even impatient — to give back and help others. He has big ideas, a desire to serve, and a love of discovery, and he is committed to mentoring others so they can find their own successes.
“I find it extremely gratifying to help folks succeed, discover something new, or live a better life,” he said. “It’s like being stuck in a positive-feedback loop where the more I do, the more I want to help others, and their success drives me to do more. And I am perfectly comfortable in this loop.”
The All-USA Academic Team application is now available. The deadline is 5 p.m. CT on Friday, October 25.
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is also now accepting applications for its Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, November 20.