Jack Pearadin and Doug Nelsen found a 1.73-carat diamond after nearly a year of searching the park's field.
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:
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."
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?
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Episcopal Collegiate School
Parents: Lynda Daily and Doug Rawn
College plans: Georgia Institute of Technology
His mother and stepfather call him "the efficiency master," Austin Daily says. He likes things to go right, without wasted effort. He also likes higher math. So it makes sense that he's thinking about majoring in industrial engineering, where he'd learn to analyze systems to find ways to make them work better.
Has he applied some streamlining to his family dynamics? "Honestly, I do sometimes. When we get things out of the fridge, I make sure we get out everything that we're going to need ... that way you don't have to keep opening and closing the door."
But Austin, who took week-long church mission trips to Jamaica in the summers of 2009 and 2010, also enjoys human relationships, which can be anything but precise. Jamaica, you say? "I remember at the time having two distinct questions in mind," Austin wrote wryly in an essay for the Times. One, "what sort of mission team goes to Jamaica?" And two, he wondered what could be accomplished. As it turned out, his mission there was "to love people." Most of the time was spent in play with children living in poverty, and at a going-away service, Austin said, "One woman got up and said that she had almost forgotten that there was love in the world. ... Just by loving her kids we had an impact on them and also on her."
Austin, who is ranked at the top of his class of 43 at Episcopal Collegiate, converses more like an adult than a teen-ager, which you might expect from a young man who, having lost his father when he was only 6 and whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer only two years later, had to grow up fast. His mother survived and remarried.
Austin is making sure that a young boy at home has someone to play with. He became a Big Brother to an 8-year-old a year ago, and though he feared his weekly visits might become a burden, now he looks forward to his time with My'Sean. Recently Austin and the child spent 45 minutes trying to dig up a rock. They might not have gone at it in the most efficient way, but the young boy "was having so much fun, I just started going along with it," Austin said.
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Robinson High School
Parents: Mark and Jari Davis
College plans: University of Tennessee, Knoxville
If the great sports broadcaster Dan Patrick were to describe Cayce Davis, he might say something like this: "You can't stop Cayce Davis, you can only hope to contain him." The young man described by his school counselor as "dynamic" and "an inspiration" has overcome not only the day-to-day trials of your typical high school student but a life-threatening illness as well.
In March 2010, Cayce had surgery to remove a brain tumor. He constantly traveled back and forth from Little Rock to St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis to receive treatment, all while keeping up with his classes and assignments.
Robinson High School Counselor Virginia Abrams says Cayce displayed remarkable determination.
"He was able to read and do his research and he communicated with teachers through e-mail," Abrams says. "It was very easy for teachers to support him because of his willingness to do the work. When offers were made to reduce the workload, that was unacceptable on his part. He wanted no exceptions made for him."
But Cayce says although the experience was a trying one, it's not something that necessarily defines him.
"I would say that in no way was I ever defined by that experience because I made sure there was a balance in my life," Cayce says. "I was not just 'the brain tumor kid.' I was Cayce Davis. I'm very involved in my school. I play sports. I was in a play this year. I'm in student council and a lot of clubs. When you're balanced, it's hard to be defined by any one thing."
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Central High School
Parents: Sivakumar and Sreelatha Duvvuru
College plans: Stanford University
"No matter where I go, it will always be where I'm from and it's an integral part of me."
When Kamakshi Duvvuru talks about her life, her interests, the things she's passionate about, it all comes back to culture. Kamakshi is an Indian-American student at Central High. She moved to America with her family when she was only 5 years old. Frequent family visits to India help her connect with her family's roots.
"I often wonder if I lived in India, and hadn't moved here, who I would be," she says. "Coming from two different cultures — Indian and American — gives me a real independence of thinking."
Kamakshi's interests range from computer science and bioinformatics to fashion. She hopes to pursue a bioengineering degree from Stanford or Columbia and hopefully dabble in fashion on the side.
"Several people might see it as a superficial type of art form, but I think it has its own strength," Kamakshi says. "Every teen-ager goes through some kind of soul-searching, trying to find out who they are. For me, fashion was a way to bring everything together into harmony. I guess when I wore Indian clothes with American clothes and was confident in them, I could also be confident with my identity."
Kamakshi volunteers her time as president of a non-smoking advocacy group and is active in Seeds of Empowerment, a non-profit organization that helps educate children in rural areas and empower women around the world. She also practices Kuchipudi, a traditional Indian dance that depicts religious epics.
Hometown: El Dorado
School: El Dorado High School
Parents: John and Laurie Eckart
College plans: University of Notre Dame
Swimmer, musician, National Merit Semifinalist, Salvation Army volunteer — you can't pigeon-hole Katherine Eckart. Her physics teacher once described her as a student who could just as easily become an artist as a rocket scientist.
Katherine has been playing piano since she was 6 years old and violin since she was in the seventh grade. But she's also a problem solver who loves the sciences, calculus and physics.
"I want to be able to solve things and apply those principles to real-life situations," she says. "I really like figuring things out, but in a real way, not just on paper."
Katherine plans to be an engineer and credits a summer internship at Vanderbilt University for helping her find out what her real interests were and that leaving home might not be that bad.
"It was eye-opening for sure," she says. "There are definitely things beyond El Dorado. I realized I liked being away. I missed home, but it was good to be away and realize I could handle it."
Katherine is also considering a double-major in history.
"I do so many different things but I guess I just try to keep myself organized and focused and I really love everything that I do," she says. "If I didn't like school I wouldn't want to succeed. I really enjoy learning. I love music and taking on new challenges. It feels good when you can accomplish something and I guess that's what's always been driving me to keep going, because I love what I do."
School: Conway High School-West
Parents: Kevin and Crylia Hemphill
College plans: Washington University, Vanderbilt or Duke
The world has always been a fast place, and the modern world is a fast place built on science and math. So for many, literature is seen as a less-than-useful subject with no real applications in modern life.
That's not the way Destiny Hemphill of Conway High School-West sees it. From an early age, Destiny has been a lover of the written word. Recent years have seen her become a producer of the written word as well, developing her skill as a poet.
"It's been a pretty big factor in my life," she said. "I'm really trying to study the craft and get better at it." Destiny said that the study and appreciation of literature can help a person understand all facets of what it is to be a human being on planet Earth.
"I feel like literature, more than any other subject, really conveys the experience of humanity and incorporates so many other disciplines. Just from reading one piece of literature, you can find out about the historical context of a period or what they were doing in science or math, and how that affected people's mentality and philosophies."
Currently ranked number one in her class of 590 students, Destiny currently holds a 4.34 GPA and is active in her school's Spanish Club and Quiz Bowl team. When she gets to college, she plans on studying African-American and English literature.
Destiny said that her parents encouraged her to succeed in everything in life, not just the academic world. They made sure she knew that being successful in life is about doing your best — a quality that is now firmly set in the way she sees the world.
"If I can do something, I'm going to try my hardest to actually do it," she said. "I don't like knowing that I could have done something but because I halfway did it, it wasn't accomplished."
School: Gosnell High School
Parent: Monycia Coleman
College plans: Undecided
It's hard to imagine a more well-rounded student than Kalan Leaks. In addition to being a true academic phenom — holding down a 4.04 GPA and a class rank of number one while taking a very rigorous class load that's heavy on math and science — Kalan is the president of both the senior class and the student council. In addition, Kalan plays football, runs track, competes with his school's Quiz Bowl team, and volunteers to sing carols to the elderly at Christmas time.
Kalan said that working at his grandmother's business as a boy instilled a strong work ethic in him. From an early age, he knew he wanted to do well in his academic career, both to make a difference for himself and to set a good example for his community.
"I noticed that there were very few of my race in advanced courses," he said, "and I got the impression that in my town, African-Americans were not expected to succeed academically and even socially. From then on, I undertook a silent cause to make a stand in this small town."
That sense of striving for excellence has not gone unnoticed, even outside the borders of Arkansas. Last summer, Kalan was selected by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a six-week seminar on science and engineering. While there, Kalan dabbled in robotics, listened to presentations by world-class scientists, and found the career he hopes to pursue in college and beyond: materials engineering.
"Materials engineering is, you have the whole periodic table at your disposal, and then you try to create new materials," he said. "Aluminum alloy bats to make them lighter. Special skis for Olympic athletes. You try to make materials better."
One thing he'd like to make better is the body armor worn by soldiers. It's all within the reach of Kalan, who has a hard time deciding which he loves more: advanced physics or advanced calculus.
"I like how when you finally figure out the answer to a question, it actually applies to the real world," he said. "You're applying the laws of nature and you're actually solving real-life situations."
School: Jonesboro High School
Parents: Price and Polly Marshall
College plans: William and Mary or Rhodes College<
Given that Jonesboro High School's Adison Marshall is the lead attorney on her school's mock trial team, and that she led that team to the mock-trial state championship this year, you might expect that she was planning on being a lawyer someday. We hope you didn't bet the farm on that idea. Though Adison is clearly good at putting together cases, arguing, questioning witnesses and convincing a jury (at least a mock-trial jury) of the facts as she sees them, a childhood spent watching her attorney father slog through the boring stuff that leads to all that thrilling courtroom drama has soured her on the prospect of a career before the bar. She knows that life as a working attorney isn't all wine and roses. "I kind of got to see the bad side of it too, so I really don't know if that's something I really want to do," she said. "It's not 'Law and Order' or 'Perry Mason' with the surprise witnesses."
Given her many other pursuits, we have a feeling Adison isn't going to want for excitement in her life. Currently Jonesboro High's Student Council president, she has been able to log an admirable 4.22 GPA, and scored 32 on the ACT. She was named a National Merit Semifinalist, a 2010 AP scholar, and won the Old State House's digital short film competition last year. Her favorite subject is English, and she likes to spend her spare time doing "normal kid stuff" like hanging out with her friends.
Asked why she pushes herself to make high grades when it would probably be so easy for her to just have fun and coast through high school with A's and B's, Adison gives a well-reasoned answer that is — not surprisingly — very persuasive:
"Life doesn't end after high school, and if I don't push myself and take an ownership in my education now, and not take things for granted, I'm not going to do that in college, or in the next step after that in graduate school," she said. "Life isn't high school and then over. I guess I'm looking for something bigger."
ALEXA "LEXI" MCCLAIN
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Pulaski Academy
Parents: Duncan and Carol McClain
College plans: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Lexi McClain is a standout in the Pulaski Academy schoolrooms, serving as president of Mu Alpha Theta; secretary of the Literary Club; treasurer for the school's Young Democrats Club; and distinguished as a National Merit Semifinalist. She hits the books, sure; but she hits the ice with just as much enthusiasm.
Since first lacing up her skates in the second grade, Lexi has spent a decade honing her skills, mastering difficult spins, landing vaulting jumps and showing diligence by practicing her technique virtually every day. Having earned the title of "Gold Medal Skater," she's taken her skill on the road, participating in nationwide competitions from California to Massachusetts. Her next figure-skating goal is to complete a senior ranking, which would make the 17-year-old the second-highest-ranked skater in all of Little Rock, all before graduating high school. It's a tempered ambition for precision and perfection that the cheery Pulaski Academy senior's teachers describe as "driven but not possessed."
Last year, Lexi found herself in an intensive, eight-week summer program at Stanford University, acing eight hours of college credit in classes pertaining to politics and government, another main area of interest and one engendered by the teachers in the "fantastic social sciences department" at Pulaski Academy that she brags about.
School: Cabot High School
Parents: William and Kelly Otter
College plans: Rice University
His transcript may be uniform (an unbroken string of A's) and his standardized test results lofty (scoring solidly in the 99th percentile in the ACT and a mere 20 points away from a perfect SAT score), but Will, a keen writer and editor of Cabot High's "Panther Tale" school paper, conveys ideas with a lively wit, audacity and, as his teachers agree, an "astonishing ... confidence and maturity."
"Despite my fear of sounding like a jingoist, a homophobe and a Republican," he begins, "I'm using this space to [talk] about my Eagle Scout project." For his project, Will, whose father was deployed to Afghanistan last summer, spearheaded a book and DVD drive for the troops stationed at Kandahar Air Base. After finding out that the base's library consisted of a single, shabby, under-stocked shelf, the then-rising senior approached his Scoutmasters with an idea to expand Kandahar's collection.
Despite their hesitancy about what he acknowledged were "hasty plans," Will forged on, hitting the sidewalks and collecting 50 boxes worth of books and movies over a mere two weekends.
During the school year, Will, ranked at the top of his class of 664, is a distinguished AP Scholar, handling 10 different advanced placement courses with what Cabot High's Principal Henry Hawkins describes as "an ease that is breathtaking."
Additionally, he finds the time to play varsity tennis, serve as a Quiz Bowl captain and participate in National Honor Society, French National Honor Society, Journalism National Honor Society and, he notes with a shrug, "you know, all the clubs the smart kids are in."
School: Springdale High School
Parent: Richard Palomino
College plans: Dartmouth College
Richard Palomino admits he didn't want to call Arkansas home when, half-way through his sophomore year, he moved to Springdale, leaving behind his home in Pomona, Calif. In California, the self-described "smart kid" enjoyed life and took part in a number of extra-curricular activities, including teaching literacy through the Los Angeles Public Library system's summer reading programs. Within months of arriving in Arkansas, however, Richard found himself not immune to the appeal of the places, people and opportunities in the Natural State. He soon knew that he "didn't want to leave."
Teachers and counselors paint a glowing portrait of the Springdale High senior, describing him as "confident, diligent and highly conscientious" and "a leader in the class-room," and of his selfless involvement in the community and school district, someone who "truly understands the meaning of 'Service above Self,' " that long-time Rotarian motto.
This type of self-discipline, paired with academic zeal, shows in his memberships in the National Honor Society, the Spanish National Honor Society, and his enrollment in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, an intensive, two-year program specializing in sharpening globally-focused minds.
Since his freshman year on the West Coast, Richard has focused on making his dreams of becoming a doctor a reality. Humbly, he offers why: simply, "to help others."
School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Michael Plavcan and L. Knierien
College plans: Duke University
Sarah is the top-ranked student in a class of 577 at one of the state's best high schools.
Sarah is also a National Merit Semifinalist and a winner of the phenomenally tough NCTE award in writing, with one essay on overcoming bullying as an elementary student and a timed essay about moving from New York City to Arkansas, where for the first time she really saw stars.
She's one of the six best French students in the state. An artist whose work has been selected for public shows. A top finisher in math contests in two states. A cross-country runner. A winning fencer.
Fencing grew out of Sarah's love for fantasy and science fiction literature and the inspiration of the "Princess Bride." In her soul, she says, "I am a knight straight out of a medieval fantasy." She took refuge in fantasy novels as an elementary student, when she was bullied. The knights of fiction taught her meditation and control of her temper. She developed a passion for justice and learning.
She learned archery and horseback riding. She took art classes. She vowed to excel. She is the president of the school Fantasy Club, whose members put on a festival that includes costume and weapon design, fencing demonstrations and contests.
But it's not fiction she yearns to write in the years ahead. She says she'll trade a fencing foil for a pen (or the digital equivalent). She wants to be a lawyer and inspire and comfort other kids like herself.
She'll succeed, Susie Stewart is sure. Stewart says in 40 years of teaching European history she's had few students like Sarah, a student who always went beyond the assigned work. She astounded students and teachers one day with a graphic design making the history of the Renaissance into puzzle pieces, each representing a political, social, economic, religious or intellectual change in the period. "Talk about complexity! I was amazed," Stewart wrote.
School: Mills University Studies High School
Parents: Barbara and Gabriel Reich
College plans: University of Notre Dame
Carina Reich attends schools six days a week most weeks. And it has paid off, in more ways than one.
Mills University Studies High School is one of several Arkansas schools participating in a state initiative aimed at improving Advanced Placement test scores in math and science. A qualifying AP test score — three on a five-point scale, which is supposed to signify proficiency at the college level — wins $1,000.
The classes, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, "have been really helpful for everybody," Carina says. She's scored 3 or better on 11 AP tests. Some of them were in social studies, not a part of the state initiative, but Mills has its own program of smaller bonuses for good AP scores in those areas.
Hard work with excellent results is Carina's resume in a nutshell. She's a perfectionist on the piano and in her all-star essay tells about how she was inspired by the soundtrack for "Pride and Prejudice" to marathon practice sessions on piano to learn the music well enough to add the nuances that distinguish art from recitation.
She's a member of the school's envirothon team. A soils specialist, Carina is inclined toward the study of biology in college as preparation for medical school.
Carina can't claim success in everything. Attracted to congressional candidate Joyce Elliott, who'd spoken at Mills, she volunteered in the candidate's losing campaign. She canvassed neighborhoods including Chenal Valley, a Republican stronghold, primed with information about Elliott, including her support of scholarship help for immigrant college students. "A lot of people felt strongly about immigration," she learned. Elliott's loss was not an ending worthy of Jane Austen for the plucky young woman.
Still, Carina doesn't experience many setbacks. She ranks third in her Mills class with a 4.28 GPA. She's a Young Democrat, naturally, and a participant in Model United Nations.
School: Har-Ber High
Parent: Sharry and Kendall Roetzel
College plans: University of Richmond
Derek Roetzel began working with the homeless as part of his school's EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) program, in which students tackle real-world problems by using technology. Now, he continues extensive work with the homeless on his own, as creator and chairman of the Bridge Initiative, a program to "address homelessness in Northwest Arkansas through the creation of personal relationships."
"Solutions to life problems come from a person's support network, and support networks start with the most elemental bonds between people," Derek says.
Derek is currently working with the organization 3Bags in 2 Days to create a marketing package to assist the group's efforts in addressing rural homelessness. Besides his work with the homeless, Derek has participated in programs to benefit the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History and Hobbs State Park, among others. He was chosen for the Founders Award, the highest honor a student in the EAST program can receive. He's an AP Scholar with Honors, a student representative to the Springdale School Board, and a member of the National Honor Society, the Student Council, and the Future Business Leaders of America. Academically, he's taken nine Advanced Placement courses, and he ranks first in a class of 492. He plans to major in business administration and international relations.
Hometown: North Little Rock
School: North Little Rock High School
Parents: Scott and Jennifer Teague
College plans: Harding University
"Making a difference in the lives of others has been and always will be my first priority," Leighton Teague writes. "My preschoolers tell me they love me after I've made them try all of the vegetables on their plate during our nutritional lesson. A lady in inner-city Mobile asks our group to pray with her because she's struggling with alcoholism and wants to be a better person. I see the tears on the face of a New Orleans family whose home we have 'demucked'."
Leighton goes on mission trips with a church youth group every summer. She mentors at-risk kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students as part of the STARS program, and she taught a 10-week drama class for elementary students. She finds time for studies and school activities too. She's president of the Beta Club, editor of the yearbook, an AP Scholar of Distinction, and a cast member of NLRHS fall drama productions and spring musicals. She's a member of the National Honor Society and was a National Merit Semifinalist. She's been a delegate to Girls State, and a member of the homecoming court.
"My friends come to me for advice because they know no matter how busy I am, I'll always listen," Leighton writes. Planning a career in professional counseling, she probably has a lot of listening ahead of her.
School: Conway High School-West
Parents: Jason Tzeng and Cathy Yang
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Vanderbilt
Jevin Tzeng remembers getting off the bus on a cold, windy morning, instrument in hand. He's in a large group, each person looking for a place to practice. Jevin finds an empty stairwell and tapes his music to the wall. As his time comes, he walks to the audition room and hears the competitor before him. She's very good. Then he's in the audition room, facing the blank curtain held between competitors and judges. He plays. Hours pass as competitors await decisions from the judges. "Finally, the violin list is posted and topping the list is my name; I am 1st chair and concertmaster of the Arkansas All-State Orchestra!"
Jevin's unsure when he started playing the violin. "I think I was 5 or 6. I've been doing it a long time." He's taught violin to younger players at summer music camps, and performed at many events to promote music in general and the Conway School Orchestra.
The violin is far from his only interest, though. He's a member of the varsity soccer team, the Student Congress, the Quiz Bowl team, and the National Honor Society. He's a National Merit Semifinalist and an AP Scholar with Distinction. He led the Special Event Committee of the Faulkner County Youth Leadership Program when it renovated and painted a Boys and Girls Club gym. And he organized, refereed and hosted a series of dodge ball tournament to raise funds for local charities.
Jevin plans to major in biomedical engineering/pre-med.
School: Searcy High School
Parents: Jonathan and Tracy Windley
College plans: Harding University
Jake Windley's resume reads like the resume of a lot of other Academic All-Stars. He's a straight-A student, a National Merit Semifinalist and a member of the Searcy High student council. But unlike some of his peers, Jake has definite plans for his future. He's going to stay in Searcy and attend Harding University, major in chemistry, attend law school and work in patent law. If finding a job as an attorney continues to be difficult, Jake says he'll work as a chemist: "Everyone's always going to need chemists." But his big end dream? To become a U.S. senator.
"When you go vote, often it's choosing the lesser of two evils. I think to make a big change the best way is to get out there and do it yourself."
Jake even has his retirement planned. He wants to travel the world. This summer, he'll get a head start with a two-week trip to Greece and Italy with Harding University that will trace St. Paul's journey through Corinth, Ephesus and Rome.
After Jake outlined his life plan, a reporter asked him if he had anything else to add. "One thing," he said, pausing for dramatic effect. "I am Iron Man."
A joke, sure. But maybe it should be a contingency plan, too. After all, before Jake had to take a break to concentrate on his studies, he was close to earning his black belt in Taekwondo. When he was younger, he competed in the AAU Nationals and the Junior Olympics, where he took home silver and gold medals. And he describes his role on the Searcy High Quiz Bowl team as the "Swiss Army knife of the group." Sounds like the stuff of a superhero origin myth.
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Little Rock Central High School
Parent: Vivian Ye
College plans: undecided
David Ye likes math puzzles. When he was a sophomore, he won the Arkansas State Science Fair for an algorithm he devised to express how many moves it takes to solve the stacked-disk game Tower of Hanoi. Last summer, at MIT's Research Science Institute, he worked on a coin-weighing problem that asks the question, "If we're given 100 coins four of which we know to be counterfeit and of a different weight, how many coins can we guarantee to be genuine in two weighings on a pair of scales?" That puzzle, or perhaps more precisely, what David generalized from it, was good enough to later earn him one of six spots in Los Angeles as a U.S. finalist for the international Shing-Tung Yau High School Mathematics Award. Furthermore, it was good enough to send him to Beijing as one of two U.S. finalists advancing to the international event. Unfortunately, the competition coincided with Central's semester tests, and he wasn't able to go.
David says he's really been enjoying math lately, but as his academic record indicates — perfect scores on the ACT and SAT, top of his class at Central High with a 4.5 GPA, National Merit Semifinalist, National AP Scholar — he's no slacker in other areas of studies. In fact, broad "curiosity" is the quality for which he takes the most pride in himself, he wrote in his Academic All-Stars essay.
"It is what drives me to search in the appendices of my textbooks for further explanations of given theorems ... and to read far beyond the required readings. It can transform a physics reading into Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time,' a straightforward combinatorics problem into an exercise in the use of generating functions, Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' into a brief foray into the Igbo language."
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Pulaski Academy
Parents: Fang and Jinhong Zheng
College plans: Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Duke
When Eric Zheng explains that his best stroke in swimming "is all of them," he's not boasting. The 100-meter individual medley, a race that combines the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, is his best event. He currently holds the state high school record in the event, and it's helped him become "the most outstanding swimmer in the history of the school," according to Pulaski Academy counselor Cheryl Watts, as well as a two-time National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association All-American.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that Eric chose a fish as his test subject for his honors independent research project on genetics, though for this project, he had to forget that the fish was indeed a fish. Convinced of the folly of a proposal made by a group of Canadian scientists to create a small scanner capable of processing DNA to identify unknown organisms, Eric instead tried to use simple molecular biology techniques not in standard practice to identify his "unknown" organism. In other words, he was testing his test. "It was completely successful," he reports.
That sort of elegance is what draws Eric to biology, which he plans to pursue in college. "I find it fascinating — the complexity of everything, how it's so fine-tuned and interacts so delicately."
Even with his success in the pool, his work in the lab, his 4.75 GPA, his perfect ACT score, his National Merit Semifinalist Award and his achievement as a U.S. Presidential Scholar Semifinalist, Eric says he takes the most pride in his leadership of the senior class, as student council president, on the school's annual canned food drive for the Arkansas Foodbank. This year, his class raised more than $5,000, enough for $25,000 cans.
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