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Effingham Magazine

ASHARI PALMER: Standout Student is Heading to Harvard

ASHARI PALMER: Standout Student is Heading to Harvard

Story by Katie Vandenhouten  /  Photos by Michelle Holloway

Ashari Palmer has made history at Effingham’s STEM Academy. She was accepted into Harvard University in December, making her the first student from the STEM Academy to get into the prestigious Ivy League.

Rhonda Habersham was the teacher who witnessed the life-changing phone call. “The phone rang, and we knew it was Harvard calling,” Rhonda says. “When she told me she got accepted, I asked her if I could tell the wonderful news downstairs.” Rhonda then shouted out over the balcony, echoing throughout the corridor below, “Ashari got accepted into Harvard!”

“Then, when Ashari herself announced it to the staff, we all broke out in spontaneous applause and screams,” Rhonda recalls. “Some of us cried, too, because we love her so much.” The crowd surrounded Ashari, and the hallway erupted with cheers of congratulations.

“The uproar from the teachers was absolutely appalling. I didn’t know they could scream that loud,” Ashari says with a laugh. When her mother heard the news and got to the school, she embraced her daughter with pride, spinning her around excitedly until she broke down into happy tears.

It was a “movie moment” she will never forget. “It was very surreal,” says Ashari. She says it hits her in waves, and sometimes she still can’t believe it’s real. “I’m actually going to Harvard!” she exclaims.

Years of Hard Work

Although the acceptance changed the trajectory of her life in an instant, the accomplishment took years of hard work. Ashari has always excelled in school, which is no small feat considering her heavy course load. She has no shortage of AP classes in her repertoire, including AP Human Geography, Government, Chemistry, Spanish and Microeconomics, as well as AB & BC Calculus.

It was her calculus teacher, Jan Avila, who encouraged her to apply to Harvard. She saw something special in Ashari. Not only did Jan urge her to apply, but she also helped guide her through the rigorous application and interview process.

“In over thirty years I have been teaching, few students have achieved so much and demanded so little recognition,” Jan says when asked what makes Ashari a stand out student. “I am especially honored to have been Ashari’s teacher for two consecutive years.”

Jan describes Ashari as a special combination of innocence and humility. Not one to toot her own horn, she is the type of student who exceeds expectations while remaining modest. “I was elated, but not completely surprised that she would be accepted,” Jan adds. “To quote T.S. Elliot, ‘Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’”

Ashari expresses her gratitude and can’t emphasize enough how much Ms. Avila’s encouragement helped her along the way. “When she sees something in a student, she is going to bring it out. There is no question about it. That’s why she encouraged me to apply so much,” says Ashari. “She had a really strong feeling that I could actually get somewhere with that.”

A First Step Toward Big Goals

In this case, that “somewhere” is arguably one of the best schools in the world. Her acceptance into Harvard is only the first step in a long journey that Ashari has envisioned. She has big goals for the future.

Ashari plans to become a psychologist and to bring awareness to mental health issues. “We’ve grown a lot as far as accepting mental health as something that’s a part of us and that is normal,” says Ashari. “There is a whole lot of work to be done in certain communities of people who still think of it as a taboo thing. What better way than to go and educate yourself to help educate your people?”

Her interest in psychology was born in seventh grade English class with a novel called Flowers for Algernon. As she read the story, she became fascinated with the science and the complexity of the human brain. After that, her mind was set.

“I think I just found what I want to do for the rest of my life, and that’s what I’m sticking with,” she says. “I went and looked up a whole bunch of information about different psychologists and the degrees you have to have and what you have to do.” And she plans to do it. Only now, she’ll be doing it at one of the best schools in the world.

Excelling in and out of the Classroom

Ashari loves learning. When asked what her least favorite subject is, she hesitates to respond because she doesn’t really have one. She believes there is something to be learned from every class she takes.

And she excels outside of the classroom as well. She is an avid reader, and she loves to sing. She has been in chorus and drama; one of her favorite roles was playing an urchin in the SEHS production of Little Shop of Horrors. She also works two part-time jobs at Arby’s and Sonic.

To say she is busy would be an understatement. When asked how she does it all, she says she gets support from her family, comfort from God, and peace from meditation.

Her biggest role model is her mother, Jennifer Simmons. Ashari says the lessons she has learned from her mother have been invaluable to her.

“She really was the one who supported me and just propelled me forever to always do my best, to always give everything that I’ve got,” Ashari says. “She always reminded me that I was smart and that I could do anything that I wanted.”

Her faith plays a crucial role in her life as well. “I’m a Christian, and I do think that praying and talking to God and just giving a lot of the pain to Him has definitely helped,” she explains. “I also started meditating a while back. The focus on your breathing helps me go through my day without a troubled mind,” she adds. “Even in the most troubling of times, it’s very important to make sure you’re still breathing.”

This was especially important in 2020, which was a tumultuous year. Being a high school student in the midst of a global pandemic hasn’t been ideal, but Ashari’s exciting news at the end of 2020 reminds her that there’s always a silver lining.

“It really helped me to know that in any situation—even a year’s worth of torment and struggle—there’s always some sort of light that you can get out of it,” Ashari says. “But in this case, it was a little bit bigger.”

Dreaming Big

If there’s one lesson she has learned, it’s to dream bigger and not to underestimate herself. She never imagined she would get into Harvard, but now that she has achieved it, she encourages others to believe in themselves and go after their goals.

“There are going to be times where you feel like you’re not enough, or you feel like what you’re doing isn’t enough or someone else might be a better fit,” she explains. “I would tell [everyone] not to underestimate themselves, because you never really know what you can do until you do it.”

Ashari Palmer is a mix of perseverance and positivity, which has no doubt contributed to her success. Her work ethic and drive make her an inspiration to both students and staff alike. She had the audacity to set big goals and put in the work to achieve them. And while her acceptance to Harvard is a monumental achievement, it certainly won’t be her last.