The stars come out 

It's time again to meet our choices for Arkansas's top 20 high school seniors.

The class of 2011, our 17th, is full of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, artists, musicians and writers. 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.

They have busy lives outside school, too, with extracurricular activities, volunteer work, mission activities and more.

They'll be honored this week at a ceremony at UALR with plaques and $250 cash awards. AETN will feature some of them in a series of short videos that will appear periodically on the state's public television network.

We've tried to give an idea of what the future holds for them, but the article appears before the final deadline for college decisions and many of our winners have exciting options. College plans listed are, therefore, not set in stone.

Meet the team:

Age: 17
Hometown: Camden
School: Harmony Grove High School
Parents: Mimi Bird and Tamin Antakli
College plans: Smith College

It's not easy being a child named Berea Antakli, the daughter of Syrian parents, in Camden, Ark. When Berea told people she was Syrian, she said, "They'd go huh? Cereal?" They made fun of her curly hair, didn't understand her love of '60s folk rock. When she had to do a family tree project in fifth grade, the Middle Eastern names caused her so much embarrassment that she started crying when she had to turn it in.

Now, as the top-ranked senior at Harmony Grove High School, a former All-American cheerleader ("the cheerleader that nobody could believe was a cheerleader," she says, because of her bookishness) and track and field letterman, with numerous academic awards to her name, the kids in her hometown probably know what Syria is, and where it is, and what kind of smart kids come from there. Her counselor, Rachell Sorrells, noted that Berea is the only Harmony Grove student in the past decade to have received college credit for every Advanced Placement test she's taken. Berea believes her greatest achievement is she has not "let my circumstances make me."

Berea, who has been offered a scholarship to Smith, in Northampton, Mass., that goes to fewer than 10 in the incoming class, knows she wants to be in academia — but not in science or math, though she was the first-place winner in the Lockheed Martin Engineering Competition two years running. She's thinking of majoring in cultural studies, and this early fan of folkies will probably specialize in music history, most likely 20th century. (She describes herself as a "theater geek" as well — she persuaded the school to do an "American Idol" parody last year.)

After graduate school, Berea hopes to travel: "I want to live overseas. I don't want to be settled," at least not for many years. She'll get to travel before college: She plans to go this summer to Syria with her father; she speaks Arabic conversationally, so no problem there. But she'd also consider living stateside, if there was a job opening at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a town she calls "heaven."

Age: 17
Hometown: Magnolia
School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts
Parents: Hong Cheng, Guohong Gu
College plans: California Institute of Technology

We can't tell you which algorithm she uses (we're not even real sure what an algorithm is), but Jessica Cheng can solve a scrambled 3 by 3 by 3 Rubik's Cube in 18 seconds. For those in the know, she's a Fridrich speed-cuber and president of the Rubik's Cube Club at ASMSA. She's also No. 1 in a class of 86 at what is said to be the hardest high school in the state.

That kind of mind — the puzzle-solving kind — is what it takes to succeed in material science engineering, a field that combines chemistry and physics and one Jessica hopes to pursue. She's already made a stab at modifying graphene, a two-dimensional carbon cell (two dimensional? "Really, really thin," she explained), to use as a window (transparent) electrode, rather than the rare and expensive material currently being used. It didn't work, but she got to use the radiofrequency chemical vapor deposition machine at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the process, which she enjoyed. Makes solving a Rubik's Cube sound like a breeze, doesn't it?

Music is also a passion for Jessica, who moved to the United States from China when she was 3 years old and now hails from Magnolia. She discovered stringed instruments at ASMSA, taking up the banjolele, then guitar and hammer dulcimer. She says her class in folk music and acoustics is the only such class taught in Arkansas. She also found a school that was "way more challenging" than she expected.

"I came here expecting to be able to sleep through my classes [the way she did in Magnolia] ... I had no idea I'd be working this hard," she explained. Her fellow students are glad she does. Her counselor recently spent several nights in a dorm, where Jessica, as president of the Student Government Association, has tried to create a more "home-like" atmosphere. "I discovered that Jessica is the 'go-to' person when any student needs help in solving a problem in mathematics." Like, how can I get this row to be all yellow?


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