Sultana Begum

Sultana Begum, Sophomore, North Atlanta High School

North Atlanta High School sophomore Sultana Begum speaks “high achiever” in five languages—three of which, English, Spanish and Bengali, she’s fluent in. And she’s catching on fast to the other two, Hindi and Arabic.

“I sort of have a knack for languages,” said Begum. “They interest me, especially because I’m not from here—I’m from Bangladesh. Everything about other cultures interests me. I love learning about other people and bringing them together.”

This ‘knack” has led to more than just riveting conversation in five languages. Rather, Begum has taken her passion for culture and international unity and shaped them into two nights of fundraising, raising over $1,500 for the charity Direct Relief International.

Begum, as an International Baccalaureate (IB) student, began brainstorming her freshmen year for her personal project, a mandatory assignment conducted by sophomores on the IB track. The project is intended to be a culmination of the student’s learning and interests, which, in Begum’s case, was bringing all races and cultures together at North Atlanta.

“My high school is definitely not your typical school,” Begum said. “We have students from all different backgrounds. Not one of my closest friends is purely one race; for example, my best friend is half Chinese and half white. I wanted to bring light to all the diversity we have on our campus.”

After nearly a year of planning, Begum brought 55 volunteers and nearly 400 attendees together under the roof of Atlanta’s Global Mall for the first of what she hopes will be an annual international fashion show showcasing the cultures of North Atlanta students. She raised $1,000 through the event, which she asked Direct Relief International to use specifically for Haitian relief.

In February, as North Atlanta’s International Night approached (which Begum was in charge of coordinating), an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile. Begum again sprang into action, and she attracted a crowd of nearly 100 people to the previously somewhat poorly attended event, raising $500 for Direct Relief International to spend on Chilean relief.

“Here we’re so far away from the disasters that it sometimes seems like there’s nothing we can do about them,” said Begum. “The fashion show and International Night gave me a chance to raise money for people who really needed the help.”

Her efforts to aid others and unite her school’s diversity landed Begum as the winner of the Atlanta Princeton Prize in Race Relations for 2010, an award which is designed to commend students who are working to increase understanding and respect among all races. Begum is the first public school student in the award’s six-year history to win the top prize: $1,000 cash.

Aside from acting as the United Nations of her high school, Begum keeps busy as a member of Student Government (she was president of her freshman class), of the soccer team and of a tennis team outside North Atlanta. She also volunteers twice a week at a Hispanic daycare center and once every two weeks at Piedmont Hospital.

What’s Next:

While she still has two more years of high school to complete, Begum knows that she will continue helping and uniting others in the future.

For the short term, she intends to continue hosting her fashion show and coordinating international night. Her long-term goals, however, are just as clear-cut as those for the remainder of her high school career. “To be able to help people as a career is my dream,” said Begum. “I’m dedicated and determined and hope one day to achieve that.”

–Amanda Wolkin