Strong Roots Scholarship and Essay Contest Award Winners

Having received a great many applications, we are happy to announce the recognition of our winner of the Strong Roots Scholarship, who impressively demonstrates a strong commitment to her community and a dedication to her education.

Emily Maisonet
Tina Shi
Mohammed Khalid
Bryan Lopez
Aryann Farano
Emma Pachon
Olivia Phillips is the 2016 award winner for the Michael Kiely Strong Roots Scholarship
Olivia Phillips

2023 Winner: Emily Maisonet

Emily Maisonet is a graduate student at Georgetown University, pursuing her M.S. in Global Health. Born and raised in Maryland, she developed an early fascination with the world’s diverse cultures, healthcare systems, and the profound impact of public health policies. Her educational pursuit is driven by a deep-seated commitment to improving healthcare access and outcomes in underserved communities around the world. In addition to her academic endeavors, Emily is actively engaged in clinical research at a local hospital. As a clinical research professional, she plays a pivotal role in the development and execution of clinical trials, contributing to the advancement of medical knowledge and the improvement of patient care. Emily’s career aspirations align perfectly with her educational and professional pursuits. She harbors strong ambitions to effect change in global health initiatives, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, by advocating for policy reforms that enhance healthcare inner infrastructure, accessibility, and quality. She believes that systemic change is vital to addressing the complex health challenges faced by vulnerable populations worldwide.

Reaction Statement: Emily is deeply honored to be the recipient of the 2023 Strong Roots Scholarship from the Virginia Defense Group. Winning this scholarship is not just a recognition of her academic and professional achievements but also a significant validation of her commitment to the field of global health and her aspirations to make a positive impact on the lives of those in need. Emily extends her heartfelt appreciation to the Virginia Defense Group for their generosity and belief in her potential. She acknowledges that this scholarship will enable her to further her studies, engage in impactful research, and continue pursuing her mission of promoting global health equity. With immense gratitude and determination, Emily looks forward to using this scholarship as a stepping stone toward her goal of advocating for positive change in healthcare systems worldwide.

2022 Winner: Tina Shi

Tina Shi was born and raised in Maryland. Her parents were from China, and she has always been proud of being American-born Chinese. As the oldest child in the family, Tina takes care of her two younger siblings. This made their relationship so close and strong, which also brought Tina to become a kind and caring person. In 2022, Tina attended the University of Maryland – College Park as part of the Freshmen Connection Program. Her interest in the business field has always pushed her to go out of her comfort zone, develop leadership skills, and gain professional experience. Her intended major is finance management. Beyond her education and career goals, she hopes to constantly contribute to the community, being a beneficial person to society. As the winner of the 2022 Strong Roots Scholarship, Tina wrote about how the meaning of community has changed from history to today’s world. She discussed the importance of connections and the values of the different opportunities outside.

Reaction Statement: The feelings for receiving the scholarship cannot be work-spoken. Since it was the first outside scholarship Tina received, Tina reminded herself of the importance of persistence in contributing to the community and working hard in her education and career goals. With the help of her family, Tina is even more grateful for everything she has.

2021 Winner: Mohammed Khalid

Mohammed Khalid is a cybersecurity professional and a counter extremism advocate with a demonstrated history of engaging with numerous non-profits, technical consulting, and private/civic institutions. Throughout his career, Mohammed has cherished the concept of empathy and belonging while emphasizing the humanity of individual actors. At present, Mohammed is a Master’s student in Security Informatics at the Johns Hopkins University. Mohammed received his B.S. in Information Systems from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and A.A.S. in Cybersecurity from The Community College of Baltimore County in 2021. He has previously served as an IT Lab: SSI Fellow at Carnegie Mellon, an i3 Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Mellon Undergraduate Research Fellow at Hopkins.
Reaction Statement: Investments in our communities begin with investments in our own personal lives. As someone whose motto is: “move on forward,” I see this scholarship as a debt that I have to pay forward through continued service to my local and national communities. I am elated (and humbled) to have been selected as a winner and thank the scholarship organizers for this amazing opportunity! I hope this scholarship enables me (and all future students) to uphold a mind of open inquiry with an empathetic understanding of what it means to be a community member.

2020 Winner: Bryan Lopez

I am Bryan Lopez. I was born and raised in Guatemala. I am currently a second-year college student studying electrical engineering at the University of California San Diego. My fascination with circuits and electronics has always been driven by persistence, discipline, and resilience leading me to unveil personal fulfillment. As an immigrant, coming to a different country is hugely overwhelming and frustrating due to the orthodox stereotypical prejudices against us such as language barriers that prevent us from becoming the best version of ourselves. I am a strong believer that life’s greatest moments exist outside of my comfort zone. Throughout my life, I have always shown my goal of seeking discomfort in my academic and personal life by pushing my limits in my education to empathize with people’s struggles in life. Trying to discover my self-actualization is seemingly daunting and complex. However, my unwillingness to budge my faith in God, my personality, and ethics have changed the way I have viewed the world around me and my capability to acquire a top-notch education to make a direct impact in my family and community.

Reaction Statement: “Winning this scholarship opportunity entails a hard-won opportunity to keep working hard toward my education. I feel blessed and fulfilled to be considered as a winner for this scholarship. I would like to thank you all the people and sponsors that made this possible and offer a life-changing opportunity to cement stronger roots in student’s lives.”

2019 Winner: Aryann Farano

Aryann Farano is eldest of eight children living in a small, rural New Mexico town.  She is currently attending the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, pursuing her undergraduate’s degree in Psychology.  Within her department she is conducting psychological based research in lifespan development. After her research is completed, she plans to go to law school and practice law in the public sector.  She is an advocate for veterans, children, and victims of violence. Aryann has also worked for multiple political campaigns over the past four years, from Magistrate Judge to the Governor of New Mexico & candidates for the US Senate.  She is a volunteer for her local fire department, the American Legion Auxiliary, and the Girls Nation support committee for the state of New Mexico. 

For Aryann, strong roots are vital to her life and career; having a large family, she has been blessed with a strong community within her home and in her town.  In a changing world, strong roots are imperative to the development of well-adjusted individuals. Like a tree, having strong roots is necessary to branch out and make fruitful connections in one’s life.  Ms. Farano’s branches have become fruitful and thriving through the support of her family, community, and now the Strong Roots Scholarship Board.  

Receiving news of the award, Aryann was honored to join a group dedicated to furthering the education of students across the United States.  For Aryann, the news of the award reinforced the importance of a strong community and the need to branch beyond what she perceived as possible through the support and encouragement of her roots.  This award will be used toward her tuition at New Mexico Tech, the leading school of technology and mining in the South Western Region of the United States.

2017 Winner: Emma Pachon

Ms. Pachon was born in Bogotá, Colombia. She was adopted by two Colombian women, her mother and grandmother, who brought her to the United States and helped her become a citizen. She holds dual citizenship of both countries and is extremely proud to be Colombian-American.

She grew up in Washington, D.C. and was lucky to have been given opportunities that she believes she would never have had if she had not been adopted. She is about to graduate from Saint Joseph’s University (The Hawk Will Never Die!) and she feels she could not have loved her four years there any more. She will be moving back home after graduating and attending American University Washington College of Law. She is excited and nervous to start this new chapter in her life!

She feels truly honored to have been selected winner of the 2017 Strong Roots Scholarship. Having been chosen by such a prestigious law firm amazes her and is humbled by the outcome. She finds today’s definition of a community is constantly changing and she was able to reflect on that when writing the essay for the contest. This scholarship money will help her so much with law school and she hopes to make something of herself in the legal community. She is grateful to be able to say that the Strong Roots scholarship has played a role in furthering her education and helping her on this difficult but satisfying journey.

2016 Winner: Olivia Phillips

Olivia Phillips is the 2016 award winner for the Michael Kiely Strong Roots ScholarshipIn 2016, Olivia Phillips, a freshman student at the University of Virginia, is the winner of the Healthy Roots Scholarship celebrating young students community involvement and educational ambitions. Olivia displays an expansive history of going above and beyond in service of others with her educational and advocacy ventures.

In her essay about how the community is changing in today’s world, Olivia wrote about how her extensive community service experience strengthens her desire to build a strong and healthy community for others.

She is actively trying to expand that community experience at the University of Virginia, where her goals include involving herself in both the UVA and larger Charlottesville communities. It takes a unique person to nurture a love of place and to put down strong, healthy roots within a community, and Olivia effectively illustrates the importance of putting roots down in her community in Virginia.

Upon receiving this scholarship, Ms. Phillips stated remembering the importance of roots as they give a person strength and stability, on good and bad days, and that nothing can replace the solid foundation someone sets by appreciating the people who surround them. With the help of her family during high school, she worked hard to look within her Hanover County community, finding ways to empathize with others and be more aware.

She is an active member of service clubs such as Autism Allies, Best Buddies, Pancakes for Parkinson’s, and Human-Animal Support Services, and those connections keep her grounded and “rooted” to what’s important. She sees a bright future involving activism, psychology or law, and her educational path and community involvement continue to open her mind to new possibilities and potential outstanding work that can truly make a difference.