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N.C. public school student named U.S. Presidential Scholar

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When Dishita Agarwal walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma, she was celebrating more than just completing high school. In addition to her strong academic record, Agarwal has become an advocate for students with chronic illnesses and disabilities through her work with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services on a statewide research project, an internship at Duke University’s School of Medicine, and more.

Most recently, Agarwal received the honor of being named a U.S. Presidential Scholar, the first her home county of Guilford has seen in 15 years. 

Agarwal’s research is personal to her, having been diagnosed with long QT syndrome as a young child, a chronic condition that has led to her experiencing seven cardiac arrests before she turned 18. Her journey in education took unexpected turns due to her medical condition, but through it all she maintained a natural curiosity, strong will and developed a passion for advocacy, specifically for students with chronic illnesses and disabilities. 

“I always thought my medical condition took away my physical abilities, but one thing I’m really good at, my one thing I’m really proud of, is my brain,” said Agarwal. “I don’t want to ever let anything get in the way of that.” 

Agarwal moved to North Carolina from upstate New York during elementary school. She enrolled in the Academy at Lincoln in 4th grade, a magnet school in Greensboro, and completed her middle school studies there. For high school, she attended the Early College at Guilford, which was North Carolina’s first early college high school and named the “No. 1 Public High School in the United States for 2023,” by U.S. News & World Report

“I think she’s got a huge heart… she just is one of the kindest, most authentic, caring, empathetic people you’re ever going to meet.”

Pete Kashubara, principal of the Early College at Guilford

Presidential Scholars 

The U.S Presidential Scholars program was established in 1964 by an executive order from then-president Lyndon Johnson. The mission of the program is to recognize outstanding high school seniors across the country. Since the program’s founding, more than 8,000 students have been honored. Each year, the Presidential Scholar commission selects up to 161 seniors to recognize.

In 1979, the program expanded to include recognition of students who demonstrate exceptional talent in visual, literary, and performing arts. In 2015, the commission began including students who excel in career and technical education (CTE).

Agarwal is the only North Carolina public school student to receive the honor this year. Jacob Elijah Chen of Providence Day School, a private school in Charlotte, was also named a  Presidential Scholar.

Becoming an advocate

Agarwal has always been very driven, especially in terms of academics. When she was a little girl, she dreamed of being a designer, having been fascinated by art as a child. Exposure to STEM courses in elementary school led her to wanting to be an architect, but her experience having a chronic illness shifted her aspirations towards careers that include advocacy. 

During her sophomore year of high school, Agarwal experienced a cardiac arrest. While she felt supported by her friends and family, she felt frustrated by the barriers she faced getting the support she needed from the school system.

“She grew frustrated over the school system’s inability to support her without excessive explanation of her condition,” according to a spotlight on Agarwal by Guilford County Schools.

This experience made her reflect on what her peers with chronic illnesses and disabilities may be facing, and it propelled her to action. 

“I started reaching out to people in the public health department and asking them to do a project or share my story,” said Agarwal. 

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) responded to Agarwal’s request to get involved. She became a youth health advisor for the department and conducted a research project of her own design. Agarwal created a survey for students with chronic illnesses and disabilities and distributed it across the state.

The survey received over 100 responses from students “all over North Carolina, from the mountains to the beaches,” according to Agarwal. 

The project is called Empowering North Carolina Disabled Students. It is not currently public because publishing takes time and with her busy schedule on top of a year marked with another cardiac arrest this past February, free time has been hard to come by. 

“This year was kind of medically chaotic for me, so I didn’t have time to do that and college applications,” said Agarwal.

In addition to her work with NC DHHS, Agarwal has served as a public health intern for Duke University’s School of Medicine, where she analyzed hundreds of clinical cases in efforts to create guidelines for “cultural humility” for pediatric doctors. She has since worked with Duke Children’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Harvard to implement the guidelines. 

“She wasn’t worried about just herself. She was really thinking more globally about other young adolescents going through these issues and going through these problems,” said Kashubara.

Agarwal is a member of an advisory committee for the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs National Research Network (CYSHCNet). She has presented her work at select conferences, including two in North Carolina. 

Following her work with NC DHHS, she spoke at the Johns Hopkins Global Health Leaders Conference. Her presentation was titled, “Unveiling the Invisible: Tackling Pediatric Heart Disease.”

“What I’m most proud of was taking all of those initiatives on my own and talking to adults and important people on my own,” said Agarwal.

Leading with vulnerability 

There have been times in Agarwal’s life where things have felt out of control. Harnessing the power of her own vulnerability, Agarwal has been able to create a secure space for herself to be brave, work hard, and follow her passions in a world that has not always been fully accessible to her or others like her. 

One way that Agarwal has coped with her challenges is through sharing with others. She hopes that her peers experience the power of honesty and transparency as a positive force, one that helps promote acceptance, inclusivity, and empowerment.

“It’s okay to ask for help and also to tell people when they’re not getting support or when they need more. For me, I always could have kept the condition to myself and sort of gone through high school not having that sort of external layer of people for support, but I’ve always been very open with my classmates… I hope that people know that they can talk about their condition because I know most people keep it to themselves.”

Dishita Agarwal, U.S. Presidential Scholar

Another support Agarwal has leaned on is her family, who inspire her daily. She has a twin brother and looks up to both of her parents as role models. 

“They are driven and humble at the same time. I think that the qualities I’ve absorbed and learned from them is to do your best but don’t always talk about doing your best or don’t let it get to your head,” she said. “Just keep going…But I think about just being humble and giving. My parents are really giving. They’re always taking care of the people around them.”

Agarwal isn’t certain of a specific career path yet, but she is committed to attending Duke University beginning this fall. She’s considering a combination of global health studies and computer science but also contemplating biology and public policy. Agarwal is hoping to figure out how she can make the biggest impact and wants to shape her studies and career accordingly.  

For now, she’s trying to take time to relax this summer and find a few hobbies. Between a rigorous course load, health challenges, and extracurriculars, she’s struggled to find time for hobbies in the past. However, this summer she’s been cooking more and finds it relaxing. She hopes to reconnect with her interest in art by sketching or printmaking.

She’s also taking time to celebrate all that she has accomplished, including the honor of being a Presidential Scholar.

“I think for me, this validated that it was okay to do all of the things that I wanted to do was the right way to go about it and I just feel proud because I don’t feel like I faked anything to get it or I didn’t just follow a random path to get it. I did what was true to me, and so that’s what makes the honor a lot better,” said Agarwal.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.