Charlotte Amalie High School guidance counselor Shirley Blyden tries to keep students apprised of all current academic competitions. "I’m always on the Internet, looking up new opportunities," she says.
In Muta Abiff, she hit the jackpot. The lanky, six-foot senior has garnered three awards for essay writing this year. And writing isn’t even his main preoccupation.
Abiff was one of three CAHS students to win the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation’s "Laws of Life Essay Contest," in a piece titled "Talents and Contributions." While lauding the work ethic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abiff delineated his own ideas about responsibility and community.
He expects a lot. One thought: "A person who has a beneficial talent but chooses not to use it or use it only for selfish reasons is a burden to this society."
With much fanfare early this month, the Department of Tourism announced Abiff had won first place over entries from 19 Caribbean countries in the 2011 Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) Foundation Children’s Essay Contest Senior Division for his essay on "What does Sustainable Tourism mean to your Destination?"
Abiff will travel to Puerto Rico in October to attend the 2011 FCCA Cruise conference where he will read his essay before 500 tourism and cruise representatives, while accepting his prizes, which include a $3,000 cash scholarship, with another $3,000 monetary award going to CAHS from FCCA.
Most recently, Abiff took third place nationally in the annual Congressional Black Caucus Spouses essay contest and forum. He and Blyden will travel to Washington, D.C., next week, where he will read his essay on Sept. 22 before the CBC Foundation annual Legislative Conference.
Naturally gifted and articulate beyond his years, the 16-year-old Abiff says he has no plans to work on his literary abilities, though the passion he expresses in his tourism essay would seem to counter that thought.
Though not dismissive of his writing achievements – he graciously acknowledges the help of Blyden and English teacher Nulseen Davis – Abiff is focused on medicine, a decision made early on.
As an 11-year-old he was invited to attend the prestigious Physicians Scientist Training Program, at Temple University in Pennsylvania. "I’d always been interested in science," Abiff says, "but I became fascinated by medicine that summer."
He has just returned from a summer internship program at the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Md. Abiff says he is leaning toward a career in immunology or internal medicine, with an eye to returning to practice on St. Thomas.
"Our most critical need in the territory," he says, "is specialty doctors. Lots of people have to go off-island for treatment."
For his pre-med training, Abiff says he is looking at Southern Methodist University in Texas; Villanova University and Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty likely would be happy to see
Abiff apply his talents in another field. She said his essay was "insightful and delivered a passionate message about the importance of sustaining our industry and putting our culture on display, especially to the thousands of cruise passengers visiting each week."
Abiff describes local tourism: "It has a meaning that is deeper than any dictionary can offer and citizens treat it as such.
"There are a lot of stereotypes of the Caribbean, and tourism allows most of them to be dispelled. Some may think that the islands are full of slothful people who are asinine and dishonest. The true nature of the islands, which is a tight-knit community of interesting people with an intriguing way of life, often leaves tourists awed and absolutely ecstatic that they took the time to visit."
All in all, Abiff is a serious young man, modest and appreciative of the abilities he has been given.
"Whether it may be music, artistry, or poetry, there is a special trait in each individual that may not be present in another," he says. "What makes this trait special, however, is how each person uses it."