I was asked to be on the Selection Committee for the James B. Kohnen Scholarship award from the Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD). I was very flattered, of course, and said yes, but I was worried about making a possibly difficult decision. I was told it would be easy because only one student applied for the $2000 scholarship. Well, yes that sounded easy, but I tend to make things more difficult than necessary.
Justin Solomon Tran, a senior at Dougherty Valley High School, was the only applicant. In fact the deadline for applications had to be extended two week to receive even one application. Fortunately Mr. Tran was a stellar applicant and met all of the requirements for the award. So it should have been an easy decision for me, but as usual I found a reason to object.
DSRSD created the scholarship to honor James B. Kohnen's service on the Board of Directors from 1992 to 2000 and to inspire young people to study fields related to water resources. The application required a 500-word essay "explaining why you have chosen to pursue a degree in the water resources field." Mr. Tran's essay didn't have anything to do with studying water resources. It is very cleverly written, but it appears to be recycled from something else.
"My only friend in the beginning of first grade was chicken fried rice. Straight from our family restaurant and packed into a thermos, every bite was enough companionship for me (I was a little on the chubby side). As I inhaled my meal every day, I couldn't help but notice the cafeteria food my classmates were poking at. I knew I was a loner at the table, but I told myself that I was better off with fantastic food and no friends than the other way around. The universe decided to prove me wrong one fateful lunch period, because I wasn't hungry for the first lunch in ages. Someone noticed I wasn't eating and asked for a bite. I was reluctant at first; chicken fried rice was my only source of happiness and I wanted it all to myself, but I gave in. Before I knew it, I was having the best lunch of my life, making friends left and right, giggling at potty words, you name it. Even if all of those friendships were superficial, I was happier with all those new friends than I ever was alone with chicken fried rice.
I didn't realize it then, but chicken fried rice played a huge role in shaping the person I am today. Not so much in the physical aspect, rather it showed me that having a thermos full of happiness to yourself isn't better than sharing it with others. I've applied this to many things that I enjoy; among them the outdoors. Camping, hiking, beaches, and anything else of the sort were a staple in my upbringing. I've never been more content than I am surrounded by good company on a campsite detached from the technological world, or on a hike down the coast watching the evening sun fade away. This is what I try to convey to a lucky horde of fifth grade students on my yearly trek to Walker Creek Outdoor School as a camp counselor. A huge reason why I love Walker Creek is the students' mandatory pledge to be 'unplugged' throughout the camp. Every year for a week, I spend every waking hour with about ten fifth graders, showing them as best I can that you don't have to be plugged in to enjoy life. Of course they don't get the full experience of the outdoors from one trip, but I like to tell myself that I've been the first domino in at least one student's discovery of an exciting world devoid of iPhones and Xboxes. It'd be nice to have the outdoors packed into a thermos all to myself, but there's nothing quite like enjoying it with a fellow human being. After all, happiness is only real when it's shared.
By pursuing a degree in Earth Science with an emphasis in Geophysics not only will I work towards solutions to the earth's seemingly everlasting environmental problem, I will be able to share happiness through preservation of the outdoors for all human beings."
If one of my University of Phoenix students submitted this as an assignment and it didn't match the requirements of the assignment, I would fail it no matter how well-written it is. So I wondered how the other Selection Committee members would feel about it.
Sue Stephenson, DSRSD Community Affairs Supervisor, called me to come to a meeting of the Selection Committee at the Elephant Bar in Dublin on May 20th. I arrived first with Sue Stephenson right behind me. At that point I didn't know who else was on the Selection Committee or how they would view the essay.
I was the representative from San Ramon. The representative from Dublin appropriately turned out to be former Mayor Janet Lockhart. Levi Fuller, DSRSD Supervisor of the Year, was the third member of the Selection Committee, representing the District.
I brought up my concern that Mr. Tran's essay looked recycled, with the last sentence added to qualify for the scholarship. Janet Lockhart agreed with me, but then said something that made my decision much easier.
"I knew Jim Kohnen for over 30 years," Mayor Lockhart said. "This is exactly the way he would have written this. He loved this roundabout way of getting to the point. It's like Justin was channeling Jim. Jim would have loved this."
Well the Scholarship is to honor Jim Kohnen, and I barely knew him. If Janet Lockhart, who knew him for 30 years says he would give the scholarship to Justin then I certainly can go along with that decision. Levi Fuller agreed too, so we could relax and have a nice lunch with our selection duties behind us.
The bigger issue with this scholarship is attracting more applicants. With $2000 up for grabs why would only one student apply? I know sewer and water are not glamorous professions, but they are very much needed and pay quite well. The Bay Area Consortium of Water and Wastewater Education (BACWWE) program is a partnership with Solano Community College to train operators for the District. Mr. Fuller is one of the instructors in this program. For more information see the DSRSD website.
I have no doubt that Mr. Tran will be successful in whatever he decides to do. I hope he will go into water resources and work at DSRSD or one of the other districts in the region. I hope more students apply for the scholarship next year, both to honor Jim Kohnen and to further their educations in a field that provides services so vital to our health and safety.