Emory’s newest Woodruff Scholars pair intellect with leadership to benefit their communities | Emory University

The 23 incoming Emory Woodruff Scholars arrived this fall on Emory University’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses with experience running businesses, leading local and statewide volunteer efforts, and publishing independent research.

As the latest cohort of Emory’s signature Robert W. Woodruff Scholarship, they plan to continue that tradition of fusing their intellectual drive and leadership skills to engage with ever-broader communities.

“We are thrilled to welcome this brilliant group of students,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “They bring their talents to our campuses and embody the legacy of Robert W. Woodruff, who shaped Emory and the city of Atlanta with a vision like no other.”

The Woodruff Scholars program has sought the most talented students with a demonstrated commitment to real-world impact since 1981.

Woodruff, the former president of the Coca-Cola Company, made the then-largest gift to a university with a $105 million donation to Emory in 1979. Part of the gift created his signature scholarship — covering the full cost of tuition, room, board and mandatory fees for four years of undergraduate education — to draw Ivy League-bound students to Emory instead.

The program has since recognized 868 students for their extraordinary academic accomplishments and servant leadership. That includes awards added through the years, such as scholarships recognizing talents in debate and music and the Martin Luther King Jr. – Robert W. Woodruff Scholarship for exceptional students from Atlanta Public Schools.

The program, which provides students with access to unique programming and opportunities for independent research and networking, also includes George W. Jenkins Scholars. Named for the founder of Publix, the scholarships are awarded to high-achieving students from states in the grocery chain’s footprint. 

This year, the Atlanta campus welcomes 19 Emory College Woodruff Scholars to the Class of 2027, including two MLK Scholars and two Jenkins Scholars. Four scholars will attend their first two years on Emory’s original campus in Oxford, Georgia, located about 38 miles east of Atlanta.

Entering a tight-knit community at Oxford College

The four students starting at Oxford College reflect Emory’s commitment to a liberal arts education, through interests as varied as the health sciences and public service.

Niko Sample-Kietrys is among the Woodruff Scholars starting there.

After playing on his high school’s varsity basketball team and serving as the Carolinas District Governor of Key Club International, Sample-Kietrys was looking for a college experience that would allow him to expand his interests.

He plans to begin by sampling courses in math and the social sciences. Sample-Kietrys, who has more than 100 volumes of different comic strips, has also signed up for a first-year seminar focused on comedy being offered through the theater department.

“It’s a unique option you don’t really see anywhere else,” Sample-Kietrys says. “I’m excited for the opportunity to explore.”

Oxford College Dean Badia Ahad notes that the scholars will be welcomed to a close-knit campus where the focus is on building a solid liberal arts foundation through small classes, mentoring relationships with faculty, engaged and practice-based learning and innovative programs.

“They will join a community that values intellectual curiosity, creativity, a commitment to service and academic excellence — all skills and values that got them here. We look forward to the positive energy they will bring to Oxford and to helping them continue to grow and thrive,” says Ahad, who notes that the four Oxford Woodruff Scholars come from all corners of the U.S.

Chasing a diverse education at Emory College

The Atlanta campus Woodruff Scholars include two international students, from Brazil and Pakistan. Ten of the 19 are from the Southeast, including seven from Georgia.

Emory College Dean Barbara Krauthamer says the cohort is a vibrant addition of leaders who will make their mark in the classroom and on campus.

“On behalf of everyone in the College, I am excited to welcome these exceptionally talented students who are as eager to engage in learning and discovery as they are to advancing servant leadership and engagement with our community,” Krauthamer says. “How they choose to realize their potential will be as diverse as the scholars themselves.”

Emory appealed to Woodruff Debate Scholar Coralynn Yang, first speaker at the Tournament of Champions and Barkley Forum for High Schools tournament in policy debate, for that diversity of thought.

Yang, who conducted ecological research in her native California, is interested in the wealth of interdisciplinary programs at Emory, including combining her interest in policy issues with statistics. She also will be active with the Barkley Forum, Emory’s renowned debate program. 

“Debate’s highly competitive yet collaborative discussion-based format has enabled me to critically analyze complex policy issues from environmental regulation to foreign policy from multiple sociopolitical perspectives with peers who have a diversity of academic and personal interests,” Yang says. “Emory’s emphasis on interdisciplinary thought and the application of academic principles to large-scale problem-solving uniquely interests me.” 

Woodruff Scholar Liam Quan had visited Emory to see their sister, Caroline, a senior creative writing major, before deciding to apply. They expected to jump at the chance for college to allow them to move away from their South Carolina hometown.

“I’ve never felt comfortable where I live, for a multitude of reasons and pretty much all of my identities,” says Quan, whose father was among the last Vietnamese citizens to escape from the fall of Saigon.

“What excites me is that Emory is not just designed to support you with all of these opportunities to do amazing things with amazing people but to give you, I think, a home base with those people,” adds Quan, who plans to take courses in African American studies, Spanish and biology while also weighing a pre-law degree.

MLK Scholar Endia James had a similar epiphany when she realized Emory’s values aligned with her belief in applying education to have an impact on the world.

It helped that she also met diverse students and faculty during a campus visit who were just as eager to discuss their passions — including connecting with fellow MLK Scholar Myla Somersall, who will be her roommate.

“As a Black woman, it can be hard to find a place to fit in, but as soon as I was welcomed at Emory, I knew it was the place for me,” says James, who plans to major in human health and Spanish for a career tackling health care inequity. “I’m eager to be around other like-minded individuals, who want to push themselves and also have fun. I want to be around different people and learn a little bit from everyone.”

Jenkins Scholar Salaam Awad was happy to stay close to her home south of Atlanta but is similarly eager to begin learning from peers as much as she does in class.

She was especially drawn to the diversity of the students, faculty and what she might study, with a plan to combine her STEM skills with an interest in international human rights.

She even has a list to get started.

“I’m interested in learning a new language,” says Awad, who speaks Arabic. “I’m interested in majoring in international studies, with a double major or a minor human health, economics or math. I’m interested in joining the badminton club and maybe theater. I feel like I will develop my skills every time I check things out.”

Meet the latest Woodruff Scholars

Atlanta campus 

Members of the Emory Scholars Class of 2027 have extensive academic achievements and cite diverse interests and a commitment to serving others. All are Woodruff Scholars unless otherwise noted.

Ramlah Amer, of Karachi, Pakistan, served as parliamentary debate captain, journalism society president, empowerment society head and head girl at her high school, where she also introduced an anti-harassment initiative. She also has competed for the Pakistan National Debate Team since 2022. After working with various human rights organizations, she hopes to study linguistics, sociology and politics at Emory, pursuing a career in policy-making and academia.

Salaam Awad, of Riverdale, Georgia, is a George W. Jenkins Scholar who has created community service projects for three years with 21st Century Leaders, where she most recently served as vice president. She has also participated in state and national speech and debate competitions in original oratory. She plans to major in international studies at Emory, then attend law school for a career in international human rights.

Kalil Bennett, of Baltimore, is a Woodruff Debate Scholar who received the academic All-American award in policy debate while being ranked in the top 15 nationally. In high school, he served as class president and president of the Black student union, led the student DEI council and was a founding member of his school’s mental health group. He plans to major in political science and African American studies at Emory, then attend law school to become a trial attorney.

Talya Castell, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was her high school’s student body vice president, president of the HOSA-Future Health Professionals and vice president of Project Period. She also served as an advocate for health equity through work with a local affordable clinic and with Planned Parenthood, where she founded a youth advocacy team. She also served on two statewide health advocacy boards. At Emory, she wants to pursue her passion for public health and social justice, with plans to become a physician.

Henrique Fernandes, of São Paulo, Brazil, founded a student-led program at his high school to help peers prepare for exams and was active in an anti-bullying initiative that supports students’ mental health. He also participated in several science fairs, developed prototypes, and published findings in a scientific journal, winning 10 medals in National Science and Math Olympiads. At Emory, he hopes to unite his passions for engineering and entrepreneurship.

Daniel Gallagher, of Baltimore, is a Woodruff Debate Scholar who founded and ran the policy debate program at his high school, eventually becoming a state champion. He also volunteered with the Baltimore Urban Debate League, written about for the student-run Journal of Interdisciplinary Public Policy, and worked for a moving and hauling business. At Emory, he hopes to major in international studies and then attend law school.

Endia James, of Atlanta, is a Martin Luther King, Jr. Woodruff Scholar who served as her high school’s student body president, school ambassador, National Honor Society secretary and Black student union parliamentarian. A state champion in pole vault, she also led programs to implement diversity in IB/AP programs, led a middle school Bible study class and ran a baking business. She plans to major in human health at Emory to further her interest in equitable health care treatment.

Disha Kumar, of Johns Creek, Georgia, served as editor of her high school’s news magazine and as captain of the mock trial team, which won a state championship and was national runner-up. A paid intern for the Atlanta Bar Association, she also worked as a legislative aide for her State House representative and serves on state and national journalism boards. She plans to study social sciences at Emory, with an eye toward law school.

Isobel Li, of Overland Park, Kansas, conducted computational research about pollution-emitting catalysts with the University of Kansas while in high school, during which time she also applied her policy debating skills and co-presidency of her school’s feminist club to advocate for climate action. Additionally, she served as a science club mentor for low-income elementary students. She plans to study environmental sciences at Emory and hopes to use computational science to develop water decontamination techniques.

Eshan Momin, of Alpharetta, Georgia, served as his high school’s student body vice president, president of HOSA-Future Health Professionals and captain of the policy debate team (which included placing first nationally at the Barkley Forum for High Schools). A liaison on the Fulton County Superintendent’s Advisory Council, he also conducted independent research in a demography lab at Emory Rollins School of Public Health. He plans to pursue studies in interdisciplinary health policy at Emory, then attend medical school.

Neeraj Palnitkar, of Johns Creek, Georgia, is a Woodruff Music Scholar who managed his high school chorus as co-president, participated in All-State Chorus and served as co-editor of his school literary magazine. A Georgia Governor’s Honor Program alumnus with a focus in voice, he also interned with Atlanta Sports Podiatry and was published in the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine newsletter. He plans to major in biology at Emory, then attend medical school.

Anissa Patel, of Dover, Massachusetts, served as head of the student equity board, varsity basketball captain and president of the choir and acapella group in er high school. She also held campaign positions and lobbied legislators at the state and local levels while conducting public health research on air pollution with the Boston University School of Public Health. She plans to explore global environmental policy and South Asian history and culture at Emory.

Liam Quan, of Columbia, South Carolina, served as founder and president of their school’s queer straight alliance and was selected as final round chief from 11 chief justices at the National Judicial Competition. They also have lobbied U.S. Congress as a National Youth Advocate for the Y of America and have worked with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Childs for three years. They plan to study biology at Emory, with a possible eye toward law school.

Jack Rutherford, of Louisville, Kentucky, served as captain of the mock trial team and president of the Latin Honor Society while also working for a local hardware store and the city parks department throughout high school. A fan of hiking, opera and travel, he plans to pursue international relations and classical studies at Emory.

Soha Sewani, of Houston, advocated for equity, inclusion and climate action as chair of her school’s sustainability committee, president of the South Asian heritage club and member of the student diversity leadership board. She also runs an Etsy shop with her sister, selling handmade knitted and crocheted items. She plans to study health equity and neuroscience at Emory.

Myla Somersall, of Atlanta, is a Martin Luther King, Jr. Woodruff Scholar who represented her high school on the Georgia School Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, served as chapter secretary of Best Buddies International and was a public speaking finalist with the Future Business Leaders of America. She also has led community workshops and coached debate through the Veritas School of Social Sciences, written for VOX Atlanta and interned with the Atlanta Autism Center. She plans to study political science and Spanish at Emory, then attend law school for a career in human rights.

Jenny Tham, of Atlanta, is a George W. Jenkins Scholar who served as vice president of her school’s Future Business Leaders of America and activities director of student council while also serving on Georgia’s Youth Advocacy Council. At Emory, she plans to pursue a major in biology and a career working in health care.

Zoey Walsh, of Chicago, is a Woodruff Debate Scholar who, as captain of her school’s policy debate team, ranked in the top five debate partnerships in the country. Selected for a debate fellowship last year, she also has played piano in various public performances. She plans to major in biology while also studying public policy and critical literature, then attend medical school.

Coralynn Yang, of Los Angeles, is a Woodruff Debate Scholar who, as captain of her school’s policy debate team, ranked second nationally. She was also named first speaker at the Barkley Forum as the only varsity woman debater and first transgender woman captain. She has been involved in student-driven, research-based activities since high school, with a focus on applying of data and statistics to sociopolitical issues. At Emory, she plans to major in quantitative science.

Oxford Campus

Sophia Driskell, of Silverdale, Washington, played varsity basketball and served as co-president of HOSA-Future Health Professionals during high school. At Oxford, she plans to continue her study of Spanish and broaden her interest in biology and health sciences, with a goal of becoming a pediatric anesthesiologist.

Pierce McDade, of Bloomington, Illinois, has served as a public affairs intern with the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council while also being an active member in and leader of his high school’s student senate, speech and debate team, marching and jazz bands, and school diversity committee. He plans to study political science and economics at Oxford in preparation for a career in public service.

Diya Nair, of Woodbridge, New Jersey, has twice been selected for a World Food Prize Foundation internship, working in Malaysia and Peru, and interned with the nonprofit research institution WorldFish to develop a brief on the nutrient contribution of consumable seaweed. She is the founder and head of a nutrition literacy program and has served in several wellness roles with her local government. She plans to use her study at Oxford to pursue a career in global health and policy intervention.

Niko Sample-Kietrys, of Davidson, North Carolina, played basketball and served as governor of the Carolinas District of Key Club International service organization in high school. A National Merit Scholar, he plans to explore different disciplines at Oxford with an interest in U.S. politics, storytelling and mathematics.

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