Rotary youth award - Tisa Gandhi

Tisa Gandhi is this year’s Rotary Club of Waco Youth Citizenship Award winner, the first Connally High School student to win the honor.

Connally High School valedictorian Tisa Gandhi said that while her drive to excel explains a high school resume crammed with activities and accomplishments, the fulfillment she found in serving others has shaped her career goals.

The combination of the two explain in large part her selection as this year’s Rotary Club Youth Citizenship Award winner, an annual award sponsored by the Rotary Club of Waco and the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Not only did Gandhi graduate with the school’s top GPA, take AP classes in calculus, biology and Spanish IV with 30 hours in dual credit classes through McLennan Community College, but she also won awards in UIL computer applications competitions, speech and One Act Play. She held student government offices, captained Connally’s color guard, tutored fellow students and played softball, volleyball and basketball as an underclassman.

“I think I have done every single club at school,” she said with a laugh.

Oh, and she speaks four languages including Hindi and Gujarati and is studying three more. And she volunteers at a Bellmead nursing home and manages the Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Waco.

It was service to others, however, that she found she enjoyed and has shaped her career choice to go into medicine, starting as a health and society major on a pre-med track at the University of Texas at Austin this fall.

“That’s why we’re here: to serve others,” Gandhi said in a recent interview.

For Jennifer Decker, director of Upward Bound for Education Service Center Regional 12, Gandhi’s willingness to work and help others made her a standout.

“She’s really dedicated and gives 110%,” Decker said. “She’s the poster child for community service.”

Gandhi received the top scholarship of $4,000 with four finalists each winning $2,000 scholarships: Sophia Swenke of Waco High School, Callum Longenecker of Midway High School, Carrigan Collinsworth of Robinson High School and Hallie King of West High School.

Much of Gandhi’s drive comes from her family background, the Connally senior said. The 18-year-old daughter of Waco hoteliers, the Los Angeles-born Gandhi is the only one in her family born in the United States, with her mother Sejal, father Umeshkumar, stepsister Shyama, and stepbrother Saurya all born in India. Her mother fled an arranged marriage to come to the United States and started a new life with her children, meeting and marrying Umeshkumar while in Los Angeles, Gandhi said.

Her older siblings were instrumental in pushing Gandhi to achieve. Shyama helped her become fluent in her parents’ Gujaranit and Hindi languages through watching captioned Bollywood movies, she said. And her parents continually stressed not only the importance of education, but reminded her of advantages she enjoyed growing up in the United States.

For the past year she has worked at Tropical Smoothie Cafe. It was not for spending money, but for college and work experience, she said, noting that when she started, she did not know how to mop.

She knows now, and as manager knows how to train others. After a year of work, she is close to her $10,000 goal of savings for college. Coupled with scholarships, some of which she earned as Connally’s valedictorian, she has more than a year’s worth of college costs already covered. True to form, she thanks her parents for their sacrifices.

“My parents worked so hard to give me this chance,” she said.

Gandhi’s experiences as a volunteer for the Really Big Fishing Event for Very Special People, helping fellow students through the college preparatory program Upward Bound and Sundays spent socializing with senior residents at The Atrium broadened her world and showed how service to others could be satisfying.

After a day of working with people with disabilities, Gandhi came home in tears, she recalled. “I said, ‘I’m so selfish.’ My mother told me, ‘Don’t pity them but take something from them. You will be better morally overall,’” the high school senior said.

Gandhi’s family visits to India have sharpened her sense to give back to others, and she plans a career in medicine to earn enough to help support health care clinics and mission trips in underserved areas in India and Africa.

Rotary Club official RoseMary Rafuse chaired the 11-person committee that made this year’s Youth Citizenship Awards selections, narrowing a field of 25 seniors to five finalists interviewed this year via a Zoom teleconference rather than in-person as in past years.

“Tisa was a very poised young lady who met the (Rotary) motto ‘Service Above Self’ the best of the candidates,” Rafuse said, also acknowledging the high level of achievement and service by all the scholarship contestants.”These kids probably don’t sleep. They don’t have time to. … We had 25 outstanding high school seniors. That sends the best message of all.”

Scholarship winners are usually announced at a lunch, but coronavirus precautions canceled this year’s event, Rafuse said.

Gandhi said she appreciates winning the scholarship, but she was impressed as well that the trophy accompanying the honor had her full name, Tisa Umeshkumar Gandhi, spelled correctly.

“My middle name is my father’s first name and my name is always misspelled or mispronounced,” she said with a laugh. “It made me so happy.”

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