An East Chapel Hill High School student has been named a U.S. Presidential Scholar, one of just 160 students so honored across the country.
Jay Pande, 17, was selected by The White House Commission on Presidential Scholars based on his academic success, artistic excellence, essays, school evaluations and transcripts. He also had to demonstrate community service, leadership, and commitment to high ideals in his life.
“Jay provides inspiration to everyone in his life,” Superintendent Tom Forcella said in a statement. “He continually pursues excellence, overcoming all obstacles on his path to success. We are a better community for having Jay as a part of it.”
Poonam Pande said the recognition is validation for all the work her son has done and for what he’s had to overcome to get to this point.
“Jay works very hard, and we hold him to high standards,” she said. “With a disability, it’s always a challenge. But for him to have this recognition is a huge relief because finally someone saw what his abilities are and all his hard work.”
Born with cerebral palsy, Pande has had to learn how to adjust his expectations to match his abilities for much of his life.
When he wanted to learn to play an instrument competitively, he, his mother and father, Girish Pande, all decided rehearsals would be too taxing. While many high school students spend time hanging out with friends, Pande’s afternoons are filled with doctor’s appointments and hour-long physical therapy to keep his body as limber as possible.
So Pande turned his love for music and how it can reach people into a music composition club he founded during his sophomore year. He now teaches other students how to compose using a website called Noteflight.
Although cerebral palsy is a part of his identity, Pande says he never wanted it to define him.
“I never wanted to limit myself because of my disability,” he said. “I wanted to be able to do the same things as my peers.”
When Pande wanted to start taking Advanced Placement courses, he approached it with the same kind of can-do attitude, his mother said.
“Jay has never once complained despite each obstacle he has had to overcome,” said Katy Lipkus, Pande’s high school counselor. “He has pursued every challenge and found a way to adapt and play to his strengths.”
Lipkus said she often marvels at how Pande accomplishes so much “when the odds seem against him.”
Lipkus pointed to Pande’s winning the student of the year award from The Arc, an organization serving people with disabilities, as well as his volunteering at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, his membership on the Science Olympiad, and his past performance on the National French Exam in which he received silver and bronze awards.
“There are students that let things stand in their way – not Jay,” Lipkus said. “To Jay, each day is an adventure and a chance to learn.”
Poonam Pande said sometimes strangers will even approach their family when her son is doing his physical therapy at the gym.
“They’ll come up and tell him that he’s inspired them to exercise more,” she said.
For Pande, being a U.S. Presidential Scholar is “a big honor.”
Although more than 5,600 candidates qualified for the 2016 awards, only 160 ultimately received the distinction.
Pande said he is looking forward to connecting with people as a result of the honor, including during a June visit to Washington, D.C., for all U.S. Presidential Scholars.
He hopes those connections, as well as his education in computer science at Duke University (where he’ll start in the fall), will enable him to create apps that will help other people with disabilities, and all people in general.
“That has been a dream of mine: to help improve the quality of life for other people,” he said.