King scholarship recipient a young leader

Taonga Leslie, center back, will receive the Keeper of the Dream scholarship. He is a senior at Eastside High School. (Special to the Guardian)

Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 7:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 7:05 p.m.

Seventeen-year-old Taonga Leslie has been chosen as the recipient of the 2011 Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream Scholarship, which is bestowed annually on an outstanding Alachua County high school senior by the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida Inc.

Taonga, a senior in the IB program at Eastside High School, said he is very excited to have been chosen this year's recipient. Taonga will receive a monetary award that will be determined later to be used toward college expenses.

"The scholarship will help pay for college for me," Taonga said.

Rodney J. Long, president of the King Commission, said the scholarship award recognizes the academic achievements, civic involvement and leadership of high school seniors. Long said Taonga will receive a minimum of $5,000 over four years. Last year's recipient received a $7,500 scholarship. Since the scholarship's inception in 1989, Long said more than $65,000 has been awarded to outstanding seniors.

"We believe Taonga will live up to our expectations," said Long, adding that Taonga exemplifies the qualities of a "Keeper of the Dream," and is someone who will preserve the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

"I believe we will be very proud of him five to six years from now," said Long. "He is our 21st year recipient, and he will certainly continue our legacy moving forward. Taonga will be the featured speaker at the national holiday kickoff program to be held at noon on Jan. 17 at the Bo Diddley Downtown Community Plaza.

Taonga is the youngest of two children of Dr. Michael Leslie and Dr. Agnes Leslie, both professors at the University of Florida.

Taonga is an outstanding student. In fact, he earned a combined 1,600 this year on the reading and math portion of the SAT. He is a National Merit scholarship semifinalist, a National Achievement Scholar, and holds a 3.95 unweighted GPA and a 4.72 weighted GPA.

Agnes Leslie said her son is a voracious reader, very conscientious, self-directed, and very interested in the environment. To save energy, Agnes Leslie said her son, along with some friends, ride their bikes from their homes near The Oaks Mall to Eastside every Friday. He also volunteers with UNICEF, campaigns for environmental issues, and is adviser and past president of the Democratic Party at his school.

Agnes Leslie said Taonga was delighted to have been chosen the 2011 "Keeper of the Dream." She said every year, the family participates in the King March and listens to the annual "Keeper of the Dream" presentation at the national holiday kickoff program at the downtown plaza.

"Taonga told me, ‘I always wanted to get this award. I listened (to the other recipients) and I wanted to be the one to give the talk,' " said Agnes Leslie about her son's reaction upon learning he had been awarded the "Keeper of the Dream" Scholarship.

Taonga's father, Michael Leslie, said his son is independent, self-motivated and looks at what he wants to accomplish and then goes about how to get it done.

Michael Leslie said it's been eye-opening to see his son's capacity. "Other people recognize he is going to achieve great things in his life," Michael Leslie said. "And I want to support him."

Michael Leslie said Taonga is very principled. In fact, after watching a movie by PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that showed animals suffering, Michael Leslie said Taonga stopped eating meat, and because of him, his mother also became a vegetarian.

"Life lessons guide his steps," Michael Leslie said.

Jeff Charbonnet, the Eastside principal, had nothing but praise for Taonga.

"Taonga possesses an exceptional blend of curiosity and confidence," Charbonnet said. "He seeks out challenges and views them, not as obstacles, but as stepping stones to excellence."

"He's always cheerful and positive," Charbonnet continued. "He approaches everyone he meets not as a stranger, but as a friend he is meeting for the first time."

Taonga is active in extracurricular activities and devoted to community service. He enjoys acting and music. He is president of the Eastside Chamber Singers, a member of the swim team, and a member of the French Honor Society.

Taonga said he was inspired by President Barack Obama to help revive the Democratic Party at Eastside and worked on Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe's mayoral campaign.

As a member of the United States Mock Congress Team, Taonga debated legal and justice issues with French students in Paris.

He plans to pursue a law degree and has applied to several Ivy League colleges. He said Princeton is his first choice.

When asked what advice he would give other students, Taonga replied, "Read a lot, whatever it is. If you find something you enjoy, you will excel."

"And do what inspires you," Taonga added. "Don't do it for the money. Do what moves you. And you can find ways to make what your love prosperous and work for you."

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