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Multicultural Indonesian Girl Retraces Path to U.S. Science Magnet School

American media and academic circles have recently focused a lot of attention on controversial comments by the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, which suggested that women are genetically less capable than men to excel in the pure sciences. New American Voices talks to May-Lieng Karageorge, a student at the Washington area's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology -- one of the country's most prestigious science magnet schools.

Seventeen-year-old May-Lieng Karageorge, a slender young lady with laughing eyes and long, wavy dark hair, says she feels like she is the epitome of the American melting pot. Her mother is Indonesian, her father Puerto Rican. May-Lieng herself was born in the United States, but when she was two her parents separated, and her mother couldn't support her three small children, so she sent them to Indonesia to be raised by their grandparents -- a Chinese grandfather and a half-Dutch, half-Indonesian grandmother. May-Lieng didn't return to America until she was 12. She says it was quite a shock.

“Definitely. When my siblings and I were in Indonesia we lost whatever English we had learned, because no one else spoke English there,” she says. “Before we came my mother hired a private tutor, so basically I could write pretty well, but in terms of speaking it was very hard. I think what made me learn to speak English easier was that my step-father, he's Greek, so he can't speak Indonesian, and you kind of have to communicate with him.” she says, laughing.

On arriving in this country May-Lieng entered the seventh grade, and found it tough going.

“I was very scared, I actually cried (during) most lunches,” she says. “People thought I was mute, because I wouldn't speak. I mean, people would be friendly with me, but I didn't have real friends that I would converse with until I was in eighth grade,” she says. “And the reason for that was, in Indonesia I was doing very well, academically. For me it was just humiliating not to be able to speak English here.”

Although the socialization aspects of middle school may have been difficult for May-Lieng at first, academically she shone. Barely a year after coming to the United States, she passed the extremely competitive selection process to enter Thomas Jefferson High School -- which required tests, essays, high grades in middle school and glowing recommendations from counselors and teachers. The Washington-area public school (known popularly by the initials, TJ) attracts gifted students interested in science and technology, and usually reinforces their desire to devote themselves to a career in some aspect of science. With May-Lieng, it had the opposite effect.

“When I first came to TJ I really loved math and science,” she says. “And then for some reason I just got turned off, I can't quite figure it out. I think part of the reason is, when I came here I discovered debate. With that we learned a lot of governmental policies and that's why I really like the social sciences. I think the reason I like social science classes is because being able to talk about your personal experiences a lot of times enhances the classes, and I feel like I have a lot to say, about how I've grown up, and where I've grown up, and things like that.”

One of the reasons May-Lieng believes she has a lot to contribute in social science classes is that her personal story is so different from that of many of her classmates. In her view, she's in a distinct minority in the school, where the majority of the students are either white or Asian (often Korean or Indian, she says), and come from middle-class or affluent backgrounds.

“At times it's really hard for me to get these kids to understand what it feels like to come from a disadvantaged background, or from an ethnic minority group,” she says. “It's usually hard to get that view across. If you're in the minority, and they're outnumbering you, then, you know, in numbers they feel power, so they think they're right.”

On the question of whether girls have the same inherent ability as boys to excel in the pure sciences, May-Lieng thinks there may be a difference between the genders -- but it's not a difference in ability.

“I don't think it's about better or worse. I think if you look at the interest, like what classes kids enroll in, then yeah,” she says. “You look at the highest math class here, after differential equations -- there's like this -- it's not even named, it's like independent study, I guess. There's no girls. And the one girl that would have qualified for it, she decided to take psychology this year, because she finds it more interesting. I mean I would have found it more interesting, too. I took the class last year. It was amazing. I think it's just, you know, about the interests, what we're interested in. In ability, that girl has the same ability as the rest of the guys.”

May-Lieng Karageorge, who will be graduating this year, plans to pursue a double major in college: biology and Spanish. Spanish, she says, because she hasn't seen her natural father since she was two years old, and would now like to explore that part of her heritage. She knows, however, that - unlike most of her classmates at TJ - she'll face significant obstacles in her path to college.

“I don't come from a family where education is emphasized,” she says. “It's not. My parents don't read over my essays, or, like, even might have a problem paying for application fees and things like that. And so in terms of support, I'm pretty sure I'm going to face the choice of either going to an affordable college that I don't necessarily think I'll be happy in, or going to a less affordable school and taking out a lot of loans, because maybe my parents don't want to...”

May-Lieng Karageorge, a student at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.