A train ride between the Twin Cities reminded Zhen Tu of her first home across the globe.
An elderly Asian woman carrying a basket sat beside Tu, and smiled at her, like her grandmother in China did before trips to the market.
An ocean away from her birthplace, Tu is now a junior at Eagan High School, and this week she won the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s annual Profile in Courage essay contest. The contest, in which high school students write about a courageous act by a U.S. elected official, drew more than 2,000 entries from across the nation — and Tu’s essay, “Howard Baker: The Great Compromiser of the 1970s,” scored first place. She’ll be honored in Boston this weekend and receive a $10,000 prize.
Baker, a Republican senator, supported the United States’ 1977 treaties with Panama that relinquished U.S. control of the canal.
“While Baker essentially sacrificed his political career,” Tu wrote, “he made the right decision and achieved an important moral victory.”
Tu was born in China, where she lived with her grandmother until she was 4. Her family then spent six years in Milwaukee, where Tu attended the German Immersion School, and then moved to Eagan. She now attends classes full time at the University of Minnesota, where her mother drops her off with Minnesota Public Radio playing in the car. Her father picks her up in the afternoon at Fort Snelling’s train stop, where she observes other passengers and their ways of life.
History lessons informed her view of today’s world — and her role in it. And as for current events, she’s analyzed them.
She knows that President Obama’s immigration policies have made him fiercely unpopular with Republicans. His plan “should be carried through,” she wrote in a school assignment. “But by gradual steps.”
In literature, Tu has found authors she admires — another way to understand, and write about, history. Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian playwright and novelist, is a favorite; she’s read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” and recently Anzia Yezierska’s “Bread Givers.”
The 1925 “Bread Givers” tells the story a young immigrant Jewish girl in New York City’s disease-ridden tenements.
The character achieves “her own dreams,” Tu said, and finds “independence during a time when it was uncommon for women to work outside the home.”
Tu’s favorite presidents?
“Lincoln. Of course, President Kennedy,” she said. “Theodore Roosevelt.”
Theodore Roosevelt was known for his “big stick” policy that secured U.S. control over the Panama Canal. But he also championed the environment, Tu said, and planted the seeds for the federal Clean Air Act of 1963.
Adam Copeland, the U.S. history teacher at Eagan High who nominated Tu’s entry in the contest, said, “She’s a very quiet, kind of self-driven student who basically just goes about doing her excellent job all by herself.”
When she isn’t turning pages, the ivory keys of Tu’s piano clink with classical music. She studies under Prof. Lydia Artymiw at the U and has performed with the Minnesota Orchestra. Twice a month, she plays at nursing homes.
As for after high school, Tu hopes to study English literature, history and German or French. Plus, of course, play the piano, wherever she goes. She hasn’t yet picked out a college.
She also hopes to share her cross-cultural perspective, she said.
“I have become more aware of my surroundings and people from different backgrounds,” she said. “I have come to know and learn from them as well.”
Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775