The class of 2016, our 22nd, is made up of inventors, Olympic-caliber athletes, poets, programmers and Quiz Bowlers. There's rarely a B on the transcripts of these students — in not just this, their senior year, but in any year of their high school careers.
Back in 1995, we created the Academic All-Star Team to honor what we then called "the silent majority — the kids who go to school, do their homework (most of it, anyway), graduate and go on to be contributing members of society." Too often, we argued then, all Arkansans heard about young people was how poorly they were faring. Or, when students did get positive attention, it came for athletic achievement.
As you read profiles of this year's All-Stars, it should be abundantly clear that good things are happening in Arkansas schools and there are many academic achievers who deserve to be celebrated. You should get a good idea, as well, of how these stellar students are busy outside school, with extracurricular activities, volunteer work, mission activities and more.
They'll be honored this week at a ceremony at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with plaques and $250 cash awards.
The final deadline for college decisions has not yet arrived. College plans listed are, therefore, not set in stone.
Amrit Kannan believes that there are, at the very least, two kinds of students. "There are the ones who sort of sit back and observe and absorb what the teacher is saying," he explained recently, "and then there are others who ask questions and offer their opinions." Amrit belongs to the latter group. "I like to engage," he said. "I guess you could say it's closer to the Socratic method." As an AP Scholar with distinction, a volunteer at Fort Smith's Mercy Hospital, a tutor for Mu Alpha Theta, and a captain of the Southside High School Quiz Bowl team (among other activities), Amrit has found many outlets for his form of engagement, an intensely active approach to schooling and extracurriculars that he attributes to "a combination of being intrinsically motivated and having supportive parents." Amrit, who plans to major in biochemistry at the University of Arkansas (having been offered the school's prestigious Honors Fellowship), has also maintained a more purely creative outlet over the years, in the endearingly idiosyncratic form of commercial airline photography. This, too, he has approached with an outsized degree of ambition. Several years ago, Amrit discovered that a subculture existed on the Internet for airline photography enthusiasts, and dove in. He bought his first DSLR camera, trained himself in Photoshop and began accumulating newer and better lenses and gear. Since then, his interest in the hobby has only increased "exponentially." Today, Amrit is a leading figure in aviation photography circles and has even garnered press for his expertise in this arena ("Fort Smith Teen Turns Love Into High Profile Hobby," ran the headline of a recent profile in Fort Smith's daily newspaper, the Southwest Times Record). Why aviation photography? "For thousands of years, man dreamed of flight," Amrit explained, "and in what's really been the blink of an eye in terms of geological history, flying technology has developed at such an incredibly fast pace. And, I don't know, I've just really been astounded by that."
Taryn Imamura calls herself a STEMinist. It's a label she embraced last summer after encountering a male peer who expressed disdain for women who love science, technology, math and engineering. "I had never truly experienced sexism before," she says, "but I'm glad it happened. Before that, I didn't notice that I was the only girl who did a lot of the things that I did. It made me appreciate the things I love and how that makes me who I am. And it also made me realize that we have to get more girls involved [in STEM]. This has to be a thing!" That guy who dismissed Taryn's abilities should know she won the state science fair this month for a project in which she used genetically engineered bacteria to ferment a substance from rice hulls, an abundant agricultural waste product. The resulting molecule is a surfactant, a substance that Taryn explains is "used in everything from manufacturing to medicine to oil spill remediation." Then, she realized that she could turn the surfactant into what's essentially biodiesel; a Massachusetts company, Modular Genetics, is now attempting to scale up Taryn's research into a commercially viable process. "Arkansas is the largest producer of rice and rice by-products in the nation," she says. "Why not take something seemingly useless and make an industry out of it?" In May, she'll head to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix. Taryn's interests range from robotics to swing dance (she's captain of both clubs at ASMSA), but "STEMinism" has given her a righteous cause. One day, she wants to set up a scholarship to help girls become engineers. In the meantime, she's committed to being an advocate, "not just for women, but for anyone who's having hardship in doing what they want to do."
This flute-playing National Merit scholar has set her sights on becoming a pediatrician. "I love interacting with [children]," Charlotte Jeong told the Times. As vice chair for the March of Dimes Chain Reaction Youth Council, she's worked to raise money to promote awareness and help prevent birth defects, prematurity and infant mortality. That work has taken two major forms: She organized the Wonder Walk walkathon fundraiser at an elementary school "in hopes of spreading our message to a younger audience," and the event raised more than $4,000 for March of Dimes. The March of Dimes Prom Fashion Show she helped put on raised a staggering $14,000 in 2015. Charlotte has also used her musical ability to raise funds, joining with her flute teacher to organize a performance in Memphis by an 18-member flute choir to benefit the Refilwe Bophelo medical clinic in South Africa. Charlotte's embrace of the community prove that she has recovered from the culture shock she received when she moved to Jonesboro from Bethlehem, Pa., five years ago. "I came from an area where there was a lot of diversity," the native of Korea said. "Here, I was basically the diversity." She and her family will visit Korea this summer before she heads off to Rhode Island.
To be honest, there's a stereotype about cheerleaders that they're not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer. That's a misconception handily refuted by Sarah Handloser. Second in her class at Sheridan High, with a G.P.A. of 4.34, Sarah is both the school's Quiz Bowl team captain and part of the school's two-time state championship winning cheerleading team. A National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, Sarah plans to devote her life to the cause of furthering the rights of women around the world. To get there, she hopes to attend law school after she finishes her undergraduate studies at Arkansas State University, where she has been named an A-State Scholar. The importance of rights and education for women is a subject she became passionate about after hearing the story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who became an activist for education — and, later, a Nobel laureate — after she was shot in the head in 2012 for speaking out against the Taliban. "That inspired me," Sarah said. "I don't think anybody should be discriminated against based upon gender, especially on the right to education. I think that one of the keys to fixing our world's problems today is for everyone to be educated, and to include females in that." Sarah says her work ethic comes from her faith, and from a sense that if she is able to do something well, she should. "I'm motivated by the idea that I have the capability to be whoever I want to be in this world," she said. "Using the talent that God has gifted me with to the best of my ability, I feel that's almost a duty of mine. I feel that if there is anything I can do to use those talents and show God through them, I should be doing it."
Akhil Maddukuri first became interested in K-12 education in ninth grade, when his American government class spent a month studying the U.S. school system. For Akhil, who lived in Poland until age 9, it was a shock to learn about inequality in educational opportunity in America. "It really inspired me to try to change that as much as I can as a high school student," he remembered. Akhil contacted the volunteer coordinator in the Little Rock School District and began tutoring LRSD fifth-graders using math lessons of his own design. He's since recruited seven high school friends and one college student to join him; over the past two years, they've worked with kids at McDermott and Williams elementaries. "My goal is to make learning fun. I have a 6-year-old sister and we go on all these crazy adventures. We build pillows and covers into a rocket to Mars; she's interested in medicine, so we perform neurosurgery on her stuffed pony. I took what I do with my sister and tried to directly apply it to education. ... I build my lesson around an interest of the student." Akhil is also interested in international relations; and has participated in Model U.N. since eighth grade. This year, he headed a delegation from Pulaski Academy that won first place in Arkansas out of 135 teams. Between his early childhood in Poland, his South Asian heritage and his time in Arkansas, Akhil has already gained a global perspective — something he calls his "masala worldview," from the Indian word meaning "a mixture of spices."
While our yearly crop of All-Stars is always an impressive bunch, it's not often that we run across one who had the opportunity to show his smarts before a nationwide audience. For Little Rock's Cooper Lair, however, that's the situation he wound up in as a sophomore, when he competed in the 2014 Jeopardy! Teen Tournament. Though he didn't win the whole shebang, he did take home $31,200 in prize money. With an astonishing 4.6 G.P.A. and an academic rank of No. 1 in his class of 148 at Little Rock Christian Academy, Cooper is well on his way to achieving more than his 15 minutes of TV fame. A National Merit semifinalist, he was also named an AP Scholar with distinction, and has performed as a violinist in the Arkansas Youth Symphony. He's been playing violin for six years. His favorite subject is calculus. "I love the analytical side of education," he says. "I really enjoy solving problems of all kinds and working through math problems." In his rare spare time, he likes to watch or play sports, read, and watch movies. While still weighing his options for college, he's leaning toward Duke, where his father attended graduate school. For Cooper, pushing himself to be the best academically is its own reward. "I think for me it's always been sort of a joy to learn," he said.
For as long as he can remember, Dylan Thompson has loved military history. "My parents were a little freaked out when I was in first grade and I started bringing home library books on World War II and the Civil War," he says. His fascination with the past has never subsided and he's read volumes on the history of conflict, especially the two world wars. Dylan lived in Las Vegas until his family moved back to Arkansas in 2009. "It was quite the culture shock back then," Dylan says, but he has since adjusted fully to life in Sheridan. He's been captain of the tennis team all four years of high school and is a leader in the Blue Crew, the school's student spirit group. Rallying the crowd at football and basketball games is one outlet for Dylan's competitive nature; another is Quiz Bowl, in which he's been taking part since fifth grade. This year, with Dylan as captain, the team made it to the state finals, placing second among Arkansas's 6A high schools. Dylan was named the match's MVP. Though Dylan excels in math, science and other disciplines, history remains his first love and will be his chosen major when he heads to Fayetteville this fall. We were curious: After extensively studying the world wars, how does he feel about the possibility of a future global conflict? "I definitely do not want stuff to go down," Dylan says. "World War Three would be interesting to read about, but I don't want to live it. ... There's that quote from Einstein: 'I know not with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.' "
Roy McKenzie's great-great-great grandfather was headed to Texas in the 1850s when his oxen died in what later became Prairie Grove, and he decided to stay. Since then, generation after generation of McKenzies have stuck around. "It's really imbued in me deeply," Roy says of the Washington County hamlet. "It's also taught me a lot of lessons in small-town community dedication and to work with people to more pragmatically reach goals." It's that spirit that kept Roy at Prairie Grove High School, even though he knew it didn't have the resources or the course offerings that a charter or private school in nearby Fayetteville might. "I've always wanted more opportunities, and that still holds true," he says. But leaving Prairie Grove didn't "seem like a pragmatic solution." Instead, he says, "I worked to create my own opportunities, that not only benefited me, but would help the community." Dustin Seaton, Roy's gifted and talented instructor at Prairie Grove High School, describes Roy as "brilliant, creative and a divergent thinker" who "inspires both classmates and faculty to be better involved in the school and community." To wit, after Roy scored a perfect 36 on the ACT as a sophomore, he began offering free prep for the test after school to classmates. Meanwhile, he and a friend taught themselves AP Computer Science, a course not offered at Prairie Grove, so they could take the AP test for college credit (and for the $100 Prairie Grove High gives to students for every AP test they pass). Roy said they over-prepared. The test was easy. He got a 5, the top score. This year, after more outside study, he plans to take AP tests in microeconomics and calculus. He's also teaching macroeconomics to three students at lunch and a couple of days a week. Despite his love for Prairie Grove, Roy is finishing high school as a junior and will spend a year living in Madrid with cousins before college. He said he always hears from older people warning him not to rush his life away. That's not what he's doing, he says. "I want to get something that I haven't gotten growing up in a small town, get to see another side of the world."
The No. 1 ranked student at Southside is pretty sure she wants a career in business. That's why Cara Shipley chose Baylor University, where she'll be in the Business Fellows Program on an all-tuition-paid scholarship. Too, Baylor is a Christian school "and faith is important" to her, she told the Times. Cara's followed through on a business plan of her own, by being president of the Future Business Leaders of America, winning the FBLA Community Service Achievement Award and placing seventh nationally in the FBLA Business Financial Plan Competition. Her math skills — she is a Mu Alpha Theta math club tutor — should serve her well, too. But Cara is not all business: She's got heart as well, finding enormous satisfaction in volunteering for the Antioch Food Bank and Peachtree Hospice, where she's worked for two years. The work, she said in an essay, has made her "a more empathetic citizen" with a worldview that sees the depth of need that exists in the community and abroad. "I'm passionate about mission work" as well, Cara told the Times: She has spent the last two summers in Haiti teaching in a vacation Bible school and helping construct a house for the disabled, among other tasks. "I'm not exactly sure how it would work out yet," Cara said, but after she gets her master's degree in business she hopes to blend "my career work with mission work." When she leaves in the fall for Waco, they'll miss her at Community Bible Church, where she plays keyboard on Sunday mornings and nights. That talent has earned her two Gold Cups from the National Federation of Music Clubs.
While going to the tap for a glass of safe water is something many people in America take for granted, Sydney Spillane knows that's not the reality for millions in the developing world. It was a lesson she learned from her father, who was often deployed during his Air Force career in places where water was scarce. That, along with the stories of friends in drought-stricken Texas and California, convinced her that she should devote her life to the cause of solving the world's growing water woes. "It started to hit me that it was a big problem," she said. "Once I got to job-shadowing, I realized just how big a problem it is. There are 663 million people around the world who don't have access to clean water. That's terrifying." Sydney is well on her way to saving the world. Since choosing her studies over 22 hours of training needed to remain competitive as a gymnast, she's farmed much of her physical energy into running, competing in local marathons. At school, her favorite subject is science of any kind. She likes science and math, she said, because you can use it to map the universe. "Everything works because of science and math," she said, "so if you can understand science and math, you can understand everything." Sydney will attend Oklahoma State University's nationally recognized engineering program. As a person of faith, she says doing well in her studies is a way of honoring her Creator. "I honestly believe that God put us on this planet so we could use His blessings that He gave us to the best of our ability so that we can glorify him in everything we do," she says. "That's why I push myself. I don't want to take that for granted."
When she's not seeking to unlock the mysteries of the universe, you can find Jonesboro's Grace Tedder in the pool. She's been a competitive swimmer since she was 8. A National Merit Scholarship finalist, Grace's true calling is science and the laboratory. With biology and chemistry having long been her favorite subjects, she said that a summer internship at the Arkansas Biosciences Institute at Arkansas State University reinforced her thinking that she wanted to devote her life to biomedical research. "I really like science and trying to understand things and break it down to a more basic level," she said. "I just find that really fascinating." Grace spends a good bit of her spare time volunteering for good causes, serving as the leader of the school's Amnesty International club and the president of the campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the organization that builds homes for the underprivileged. While students might feel like a volunteer cog when working with other charities, she says that with Habitat, the reward is clear. "With Habitat, you know the goal," she says. "It's really fun to go out to the build days and get to see the impact you're having, and talk to the homeowners and work with them. That's a really neat thing to be involved in." Grace says a lot of her desire to learn comes from the fact that she gets bored easily and always wants to do more. "Even when I was younger," she said, "I would always pick something that some people might look at as more work, but I'd say, 'Oh, that would be interesting. That sounds exciting! I want to do that.' I've always been kind of a workaholic, to be honest. To me, it's fun to be engaged."
To some, computer science may sound all mathematical structures and cold logic, removed from human concerns. But talk to William Yang and you quickly realize his work is rooted in something else: a passionate desire to do good. "Computer science is an engineering field where you can make innovations to help other people without too many resources," he says. "All you have to have is a computer and your knowledge." William has already made his mark on medical research. Using the Cancer Genome Atlas — a publicly available database from the National Institutes of Health — he worked with the chair of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's computer science department to spotlight differences between the genomes of kidney cancer patients and those of normal patients. "We identified 186 differentially expressed genes," he explained. "We then looked up functions of those genes and the roles they play in a regulatory network, and saw which [biological] pathways were affected. And from that, we were able to identify new drug targets that medical researchers can then use." In 2014, William co-authored a paper on his kidney cancer research, and last summer he won an internship at the University of Texas' Advanced Computing Center to continue studying the links between genomics and disease. At ASMSA, William has organized a student cybersecurity team that this year advanced to the national finals in a monthlong digital forensics challenge. But he says cybersecurity is more of a hobby, a means of honing his problem-solving skills; William's real work remains singularly focused on cancer, and he dreams of one day achieving a scientific breakthrough by bridging the gap between various strands of study. "You have statisticians, biologists, computer scientists, doctors, all doing research, but most of them are too specialized in one field. They don't see the other fields," he says. "Maybe when you view the problem in a different way, the answer becomes clear."
Abigail Pickhardt loves animals. Her family has had four dogs and "probably more" than four cats for as long as she can remember. One of her favorite things to do is to walk Nugget, her golden retriever. But after a long stretch of volunteering at the Fayetteville Animal Shelter, where she did everything from shaving surgical sites to giving injections to talking to owners about their animals, she's come to the conclusion that she doesn't want to be a veterinarian. "I don't want to deal with owners who don't care about their pets," she said. It's not that she encountered many owners who purposefully mistreated their animals; rather, she found too many people just didn't care. Abigail, as demonstrated in the essay she wrote the Times, is anything but apathetic: "As I weave through the crowded halls at my school, I wonder about what causes absorbent matter to appear darker when wet, why males have more muscle mass, why people get so painfully embarrassed when they fall that when others fall they pity how embarrassing it is. Can we draw a perfect circle? How can we build a rocket to the moon when it's impossible to draw a perfect circle? My brain rushes through questions like these, jumping from topic to topic, refreshing my mind. It's a process that makes me alive to the world, to appreciate how complex it is, how complex I am and makes me realize how much there is to learn. It gives me perspective of a colossal reality that I welcome. It is truly exciting. The beauty of the utterly inconceivable complexity that is sitting around me is just breathtaking." After a trip to the Grand Canyon (speaking of colossal reality), she plans to pursue a degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Arkansas on a path to medical school and maybe a job in research medicine.
The Times caught up with David Xiang upon his return from teaching a poetry workshop in Oklahoma City and before he was off to present at a national junior science symposium on his research at Harvard last summer on mitochondrial DNA. The son of medical professionals, he once thought medicine was in his future, too. But then he started writing poetry. He wrote it well enough that last October he was honored at the White House, where first lady Michelle Obama gave him a hug for his designation as one of five National Student Poets, an experience he called "surreal." The fan of Pablo Neruda says that because of his appreciation for and desire to write poetry, "I feel like I would be much happier in the arts and humanities. My dream job would be as a screenwriter, or to write movies and plays." He loved his teaching stint in Oklahoma, where he talked about poetry's ability "to make us see something about ourselves." A musician — he's played piano for 13 years — David also shares with students the importance of rhythm in poetry. David, who was born in China but moved to the United States at age 2, includes allusions to Chinese culture in his writings. In the first stanza of his "Sleeping Gypsy," for example, he writes:
If I tried to paint your lion my brush
strokes would be stalactite sharp, we would
hear the roar over the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro,
his mane as majestic as a meteorite's
But with his background in genes, neurodegenerative therapies and heart disease, will his mentors at Harvard be able to resist pushing him into science? Research he could translate into Chinese, since he is fluent? We'll check in with him in the future and find out.
When Da'Viona Sims was a kindergartener in the North Little Rock School District, she'd await the return each month of her "big friend" — one of a group of high school students who mentored youngsters like herself. "I remember thinking, 'The high schoolers are coming!' and getting really excited," she recalled. Now that Da'Viona is a senior at North Little Rock High, she has six "little friends" of her own (in four NLRSD elementary schools) that she visits weekly as part of a school-sponsored program called STARS, or Serving Today's At-Risk Youth. She also mentors children at her church. Da'Viona excels in math and science — as a junior, she scored a 4 on the AP Calculus exam — but she says reading and writing are what really motivate her. Her goal to major in education is a natural outgrowth of her passion for working with kids held back by circumstances. In 2012, Da'Viona watched her brother, despite good grades and test scores, miss out on attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville because of a missed application deadline. "Neither of my parents graduated high school, and they didn't know much about scholarships and college. They thought the school would handle all of that. ... And so my brother ended up having to go to Pulaski Tech." (He later transferred to UALR.) That's one reason Da'Viona is enrolled in Arkansas Commitment, a program that helps African-American students in Central Arkansas with the college selection and application process. It's helped her tremendously, she said. "I just think about the kids who I mentor," she said. "There are a lot of kids in North Little Rock, and all over the place, who are really smart and really want to do things, but they don't know how to go about it. ... Which is why I want to come back and work with high school students and their families. How cool that would be?"
There is no right or wrong in Ethics Bowl, but how you argue your case. That's a life lesson, really, and one that Will Baker knows from his participation in Episcopal Collegiate's Ethics Bowl, where his team took up the issue of paying money for the release of hostages held by terrorists. Episcopal placed third, not bad for a team fielded by a private school against mammoth Central High (which took first and second). The National Merit finalist and No. 2 student in his class has also enjoyed being a senior peer leader, which means he's shown freshmen that there is right and wrong when it comes to behavior at school. He's told those he's mentored to talk respectfully to figures of authority, "which is a really important skill in my opinion," Will said; act responsibly at parties, avoid peer pressure and the like. Freshmen pay attention to Will, an imposing 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior: He said a few who had not learned to "follow the Golden Rule" had straightened up. Last summer, Will indulged his interest in science with a stint at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where he worked with researchers testing the effectiveness of a drug to reduce the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Despite his scientific bent, Will's volunteer activities have taken him to Wildwood Park for the Arts, where since his freshman year he's worked as usher, greeter, ticket-taker and as "manual laborer." He also plays in Episcopal's Percussion Ensemble and Steel Band, which recently treated the school to a performance of "Margaritaville" and "Hot, Hot, Hot." When he's not volunteering, you might find Will at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, where he and his father — a mechanical engineer for Dassault Falcon Jet — are making a light saber using 3-D software. He hopes to get the saber complete by the Maker Faire on May 7, when "I can look cool and dazzle young kids."
Music is central to Angela Wang's life. She started playing violin at 3, joined the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra in sixth grade and, for the last three seasons, she's served as concertmaster — the first chair violinist who sits just to the conductor's left, tunes the orchestra and serves as a leader of the orchestra — of the ASYO's top youth orchestra. Mendelssohn might be her favorite composer, but it just depends on her mood. "Music is a really good outlet for emotions," she says.
It's good that she has an outlet, considering how crammed her schedule is. On top of maintaining a full load of AP classes and a 4.49 GPA, she also serves as president of Little Rock Central High's Junior Civitan, which she says is the largest branch of Junior Civitan in the world. The group helps out with community activities such as Race for the Cure, Walk for Community and at local animal shelters; she is charged with recruiting classmates to volunteer. Central's SECME (Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering) team, of which she serves as co-president, recently won the regional division of the BEST Robotics competition. Angela was especially proud, considering that her crew, which scrounges for funding and works out of garages, defeated some teams with significantly more resources. She also serves as senior editor of the Memory Project Team, the civil rights awareness group formed in honor of the Little Rock Nine. One of her favorite projects with that group was writing a script for a readers' theater on the discrimination of Asian Americans in the U.S. She got to interview a former internee who'd been taken to the Rohwer Internment Camp in Southeast Arkansas; she also talked to her mom, who grew up in China, about that country's one-child policy. Coming soon to your phone, a project of Angela's and her Memory Project colleagues: a podcast that visitors to the Central High National Park site can pull up as they walk along the route Elizabeth Eckford took in 1957.
When she was 7 years old, Anastasia Mills' mother took her shopping for food to help feed hungry families. The value of helping the hungry instilled in her early, Anastasia has pursued it at every turn since. She's organized a soup drive, raised money for the annual Hunger Hike fundraiser in Benton and distributed baskets of food to families during the holidays. In 4H, in which she's been active for five years, she leads the 4H Team Cuisine. They learn about food and cooking and have prepared freezer meals for nightshift workers at local hospitals. She hopes to study food science at the University of Arkansas next year. "I'd like to work for Tyson, or somewhere worldwide, trying to help with food distribution problems," she says. "A whole lot of food that gets thrown away doesn't get to the people who need it." She's also considering a second major in music, another long held passion. This year, she was the first chair oboe in the first band at the All-State Band Competition. She's also principal oboist in the All-State Chamber Orchestra, a member of the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra and a member of the Southern Belles a capella ensemble, which is doing a collection of Disney songs for its spring concert. Before she heads off to college late in the summer, she'll go on her church's annual choir tour, which will take her to Washington, D.C., with stops in between, and to a homeless shelter in New York, where, naturally, she'll be helping feed people.
Beebe High School's top student is thinking about majoring in biochemistry as a prelude to a career in pharmaceuticals. He wants to help people "in a big way, hopefully doing research and development making medicines." In his essay for the Arkansas Times, Colton Hunter wrote, "Mother Teresa once said, 'Let no one come to you without leaving happier.' I'd like to think I live life by these words, or at least do my best." In the past few years, Colton, a member of the Church of Christ, has "started prioritizing my religion more." He leads the choir at church, sings bass in the Gents Choir and Beebe High School Choir and made All-Region Choir. Like chess club, though, singing is just a hobby. He's also a member of the Comic Book Club at school, but he put aside the comics when the tornado came through Vilonia in 2014 and pitched in to help with cleanup efforts. His home wasn't hurt, but his cousin's property was damaged. Colton's also a sci-fi fan: "I've always loved reading from a really early age, particularly science fiction. "[Doug Adams'] 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is one of my all-time favorite books. It's just a great read. It's hilarious." That Colton enjoys humor makes sense: As he wrote in his essay about how his friends think of him, "I only hope that I'm remembered as someone who made them smile, someone who made them laugh, and someone who did his best to make a small piece of the world a little bit better."
You don't meet many kids like Blake Young, according to his counselor and track coach Joey Newman. "He's personable, down to earth and has every talent known to man, and he probably doesn't realize it." He's also a future Olympian, Newman says. Told of his coach's estimation of his talents, Blake laughs and demurs. "No, no. He's biased," he says. But on the other hand, Blake has never lost a meet in discus and shot put, including at state the past three years. Track became his primary athletic focus after he slipped a disc his junior year — at 6-foot-5, he had previously concentrated on basketball and was Fayetteville High's leading rebounder; he'll continue to throw the shot and discus at Harvard. It's more than his athletic talent that's sending him to the Ivy League. Blake is ranked No. 1 among 552 students, is president of his school's choir and chess club, an All-Region and All-State choral singer and an Eagle Scout. Still, Blake says he lives by the maxim often attributed to Mark Twain: Never let schooling interfere with your education. Lately, he's been working hard on his chess game, practicing the King's Gambit and reading books on the game. He's also trying to learn to play guitar, ukulele and banjo. And Spanish. The latter will be especially important since, in July, he will go on a two-year Mormon mission to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Then to Harvard, where he plans to take a premed course of study en route to becoming a pediatric endocrinologist. After that, he'd like to be a senator. "I just feel like there are so many ways the world could improve if we had legislators who really listened to people," he says. When asked why he pushes himself to excel when he could probably coast and still succeed, Blake offers a possible preview of a stump speech: "Most of my drive is based on something I figured out when I was young: Hard work leads to success. Education is literally the key to breaking poverty and getting out of tough situations. It will help you transcend almost any situation."
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