To say Tristan Downing got good news Friday morning is an understatement.
The 17-year-old Semiahmoo Secondary student may have been groggy when he took the phone call, but the message was clear: he had won a full-ride scholarship to study engineering at Cambridge University – an award worth more than $200,000.
“It sure woke me up,” a smiling Downing said later that day of the word delivered by Blyth Scholars chair Sam Blyth.
“I wouldn’t have gone (to Cambridge) without it.”
Downing, a Grade 12 in Semi’s International Baccalaureate program, was among three winners of the 2012 Blyth Cambridge Commonwealth Trust scholarships. Awards also went to Victoria’s Chloe Houle-Johnson and Ontario’s James Rickards.
The scholarships – typically worth about $150,000 and the largest financial awards available to Canadian students pursuing undergraduate degrees – leave winners with no expense unpaid, covering everything from airfare and tuition to pocket money.
“He doesn’t have to worry about money,” said Lynne Porpaczy, Semiahmoo’s IB Diploma co-ordinator.
“It’s just a tremendous opportunity for a student from public school to compete for an award like this.”
Downing was one of two Semi students who learned last fall that they were among 32 Canadians who had been short-listed for the scholarship. Semi’s Pradeep Venkatesh, 16, also made the list, as did as did four students from Vancouver Island, two from Vancouver and one from Maple Ridge.
Up to four scholarships are presented each year to students who “have shown academic excellence, intellectual depth, personal integrity and success beyond their studies.”
“It’s probably the most important award in Canada,” Semiahmoo principal Bea Hadikin said, describing Downing as “a most deserving student.”
To qualify, candidates had to submit a list of academic achievements, provide three letters of recommendation from teachers and a member of the community and write a 1,000-word essay exploring the discipline they wish to study.
For Downing – who transferred to Semi from Earl Marriott in Grade 11 specifically for the IB program, and is predicted to graduate with a perfect score – engineering is a means to making a difference.
“I sort of see it as a tangible way to provide help in the world… transition the world to a more sustainable future,” he said.
“Just the notion of being able to make any impact toward good is what I want to focus on.”
Porpaczy noted scholarship officials did not base their decision solely on grades. While she described Downing’s transcript as “a thing of beauty,” she said he is also “a rare blend” of artist and scientist, with a genuine interest in, and appreciation for, other areas of the world.
She is confident these traits, along with Downing’s breadth of knowledge and well-rounded character, also caught the committee’s attention.
She added he had to prepare for his interview with the selection committee while dealing with what doctors told Downing was “one of the worst” cases of conjunctivitis they’d seen.
The infection forced him to miss 1½ weeks of school and suffer from such sensitivity to light that he did his last practice interview with Porpaczy in the dark.
In addition to having academic strength, Downing is a sailing enthusiast and musician. While at Earl Marriott, he was also active in drama.
And while travelling outside of Canada to study fits with the teen’s long-held plans to go “elsewhere” for his post-secondary education, the financial side of attending Cambridge had forced him to keep that particular university at a distance – until now.
“I never really let myself seriously consider the possibility of going to Cambridge until 7 a.m. (Friday).”