Guyanese top student excels at US college
Pursuing doctorate studies

Stabroek News
June 6, 2004

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One of Guyana's top A-level students has just been accepted to the PhD in Chemistry programme at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York on a full scholarship.

Former Bishops' High School student, Mahendra Christopher Orilall, 21, has his heart set on attaining his doctorate degree in four years' time. And given the purposeful way in which he has pursued his studies to date, if he says he is going for it, just watch him.

On May 2 this year, watched by his proud parents Mohan and Paulette, Orilall graduated from Concordia College in Minnesota, USA with a double major BA degree in ACS Chemistry (honours) and Mathematics. He applied to and was accepted at seven universities for graduate school, but chose Cornell in upstate New York. At Cornell, apart from the full scholarship, Orilall has been given a teaching assistantship at a stipend of US$22,000 a year, which entails teaching the undergraduate laboratories.

But Orilall's pursuit of his dreams was far from easy. He was one of the joint top A-level students, receiving the President's Award in October 2000 after which he took a year off from studies "to evaluate my career goals and to apply to universities."

During that year, Orilall returned to the Bishops' High School, but this time as full-time Maths teacher at the CXC and A-levels. Later, he also taught CXC Chemistry when the teacher had to leave.

Meantime, Orilall gained admission at six universities in England to do chemical engineering, including Imperial College, University of London, which he most wanted to attend. However, the fees were around 16,000 pounds sterling per year, with not much scholarship scope available for international students. "There was no way that my parents could afford this," Orilall said. But, because he was the top student, "I wrote to the government for a scholarship. I tried to speak to the President but I was directed to Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Public Service Dr Nanda K. Gopaul. After several meetings with him, I was told that there had been no government scholarship since 1992."

However, Orilall said, Gopaul assured him that he would press for his case, since the University of Guyana does not offer chemical engineering.

"So, I waited for things to develop. However, things got nowhere and pretty much Dr Gopaul's response was like, "The economy of the country is weak and so, probably not this year... Of course, I was not going to delay another year," Orilall said.

He told everyone he knew about his situation and his pastor, Rev Orin Cummings then of Redeemer Lutheran Church advised him to apply to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He was admitted and offered a 50% scholarship. The other 50 per cent, he said, worked out to around US$10,000 a year, which still seemed unattainable. However, this school offered alternatives to paying this amount off, like part-time jobs on campus and student loans. Orilall took the leap and started at Concordia in August, 2001.

Last month, Orilall graduated - one year early with Magna Cum Laude distinction. He was elected to the prestigious National Honorary Leadership Society: Omicron Delta Kappa Society for his extra-curriculum activities and services: president of the cricket club and resident assistant.

During the summer of 2002, Orilall did research at the University of Minnesota and presented it at the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Conference in Anaheim, California in March 2003.

"I also did another research at Concordia College, which I presented at the ChemCy National Symposium at Iowa State University," he said. "I was awarded the best undergraduate research poster prize at this symposium. I was also inducted into the National Chemistry Honorary Society: Phi Lambda Upsilon Society."

Concordia is a small college in the upper north-western part of Minnesota with about 2,800 students. It has Lutheran ties. Orilall said the great thing about the college is its diversity; there are about 150 international students from 40 different countries many from Ghana, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The domestic students are mainly of Norwegian or German heritage.

The only complaint he had was about the cold weather. Minnesota being one of the coldest states in the US, Orilall said that with the wind-chill factor, the temperature was as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit (around -50 degrees centigrade) and once it started snowing in November, it rarely melted till March!

Asked about his time there, Orilall said: "It wasn't easy but doing the A-levels helped immensely. I received some transfer credits for doing the A-levels. I would definitely encourage students to do A-Levels before attending university.

"Sometimes, I used to stay up till as late as 5 am to finish writing papers and then wake up for 8.30 am classes. I find Math easy, though it is challenging. I find Chemistry fascinating.

"[Concordia] is a liberal arts college and so I got a better-rounded degree as I had to take required courses such as Economics, Religion, Psychology, Philosophy and Music. Hence, I received a Bachelor of Arts degree instead of Bachelor of Science."

But studying was not all he did. Orilall worked part time to repay his student loan and at one stage, "I had three jobs at the same time. During the summer, I worked full-time, sometimes 15 hours a day."

To unwind, Orilall played first-division cricket in the Minnesota Cricket Association (MCA). "I played for the Minnesota International Cricket Club, which is primarily comprised of West Indians. In 2002, I won the best bowler of the club award and last year, I was instrumental in my team winning the MCA 45-overs first division championship. I am still very much a cricket fanatic."

Orilall enters Cornell "from this fall. Most likely, I will be doing physical chemistry, maybe nano-technology or alternately fuel research. When I start, I will decide what research to do." This programme allows students to skip the Masters degree and obtain a PhD in an average of five years. But Orilall said: "Being the ambitious person that I am, I will try to achieve that in four years."

And after that? Orilall said he thinks he wants "to be a professor. I can either teach at an undergraduate institution or be a research professor. Working in an industry is also an option and more lucrative, [but] I would prefer to do something more meaningful like teach."

Orilall will relax for the next month. He is due at Cornell in mid-July to start a teaching assistant training programme. "Orientation for grad school is in mid- August. So, I am getting some much-needed rest before I embark on another journey." He also plans to join some of his former GCC mates to play some cricket at a club in New York.

He expressed thanks to God for His guidance, "my parents for everything that they have done for me and everyone who encouraged and supported me along the way, most notably my uncle, Dennis Beepat of M Beepat and Sons Ltd for helping me with some financial support."

Orilall is the eldest of three children born to Mohan Orilall, a mechanical supervisor and Paulette Orilall, a housewife and church worker.

His brother Vijay, who followed him to Concordia, has just completed his first year of a double major, in business and accounting. Sister Melissa is a fourth-former at Bishops' High School.