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The 2013 Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team 

The twenty best and brightest high school students in the state.

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

The class of 2013, our 19th, is full of athletes, musicians, quiz bowlers, scientists and Jeopardy champions. 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.

The final deadline for college decisions has not yet arrived. College plans listed are, therefore, not set in stone.

JACE BRADSHAW
Age: 18
Hometown: Arkadelphia
High School: Arkadelphia High School
Parents: Julie and Joseph Bradshaw
College plans: Considering Baylor, Rice and Washington University in St. Louis

Failure not an option

From a very young age, Jace Bradshaw has pushed himself to excel academically. His mother, Julie Bradshaw, said that even as a small child, Jace was goal-oriented and loved to undertake new challenges. "Part of it is personality," Julie Bradshaw said. "The other part, I think, is that his dad and I have always stressed to do your best, and in doing your best, always learn. Every day should be a chance to learn." It's a lesson Jace has taken to heart. Currently ranked No. 2 in his class of 132, Jace has a 4.22 GPA in a course load that has included eight advanced placement classes. Jace said that he plans to become a doctor and help people in impoverished countries overseas. He's already got a jump on that goal, having been part of an engineering design and development team that built a prototype for a condenser that can pull water from air. "After three months of constant work on the prototype and constant refinement of the design," Jace wrote in his Academic All-Stars essay, "my group produced a highly mobile, working prototype that produced clean, drinkable water from the air. ... The prototype worked so well that I have been in contact with a vendor from Walmart." Asked why he pushes himself so hard in school while others are content to coast, Jace said he likes to set goals and achieve them through persistence. "I will not accept failure," he said. "I am always open to new experiences that will enrich my life, and I have pursued them throughout high school."

DAVID CHEN
Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Central High School
Parents: Tao and Ying Chen
College plans: Considering a variety of options, including Stanford and University of Chicago.

By the numbers

For a math whiz like Central High's David Chen (by his junior year, he'd exhausted all but one of the comprehensive list of math classes offered at the school), numbers seem as good a place as any to start. He's No. 1 in a class of almost 500 students at one of the state's most competitive high schools. His composite ACT and SAT scores were just shy of perfect. He's scored a 5, the best possible score, on nine Advanced Placement tests. His transcript is a perfect parade of A marks (4+) in demanding courses such as calculus and AP English, chemistry, physics, U.S. History and psychology this term.

David, a National Merit scholarship program honoree, hasn't been pinned in by Central High boundaries. He's studied game theory at Duke's TIP program and been a winner in the Math Counts and science fair competitions. He attended Governor's School. He's done independent research at UAMS and NCTR. He competes on the swim team and led a state championship team in a Future Business Leaders economic competition, though he'd never taken a business or marketing class. He created a chess team at Central High, an outgrowth of his passion for a game he was taught by his father as a first-grader. It's one of his proudest achievements. It included persuading a statistics teacher who didn't play chess to be a sponsor, recruiting enough members to field a team and winning a school grant to support the program. He also lined up a coach from Little Rock Air Force Base. Results: 30 members and a fifth-place statewide finish. He thinks he's established a base that guarantees its continuation. Though his strongest subject is math ("I never have to study," he says), he's leaning toward concentrating on business in college. He might be particularly well-placed to put new skills to use with one of the world's fastest growing economies: He learned as a child to speak Chinese from his immigrant parents.

SIGAN CHEN
Age: 16
Hometown: Conway
High School: Conway High School
Parents: Xiaowei and Zhirong Chen
College plans: Dartmouth College, economics and math

Likes a puzzle

A native of China who came to the United States when she was 6 years old, Sigan Chen wasted no time rising to the top academically. A National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist, Sigan is ranked first in her class of 572. Her transcript is impressive: Sigan is finishing up her high school career with a 4.45 GPA and 14 advanced placement classes. She will graduate at only 16, having skipped the 8th grade. Though she said she likes almost every class, her favorite subject is calculus. "I just really like calculus because of the challenge each problem presents," she said. "There's so many different ways to approach a problem but still end up with the same answer. I just really like the puzzle aspect of it." A Quiz Bowl competitor since 7th grade, Sigan was named MVP at this year's Quiz Bowl regionals. Starting last year, she went out for track. Even though she knew she likely wouldn't be the best out of the blocks, it was trying that counts for her. "I knew I was probably going to be the last," she said. "Turns out I wasn't the very last, even though I never won any meets or anything. But I enjoyed doing it. In a way, I kind of failed at track, but doing it was an achievement." At Dartmouth, her "preliminary plan" is a double-major in economics and mathematics. Her drive to excel, she said, comes largely from her parents. She said that from a young age, they told her "success stories" about people who grew up in poverty in China, followed their dreams to America, and wound up being successful. "They've told me that if those people can succeed under those conditions," she said, "then what is my excuse for not seizing the opportunities that I have?"

LEONARD COOPER
Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: eSTEM High School
Parent: Judy Cooper
College plans: Brown University, pre-med

The champ

Leonard Cooper is already a star, but we have a feeling we'll be hearing even more from him in the coming years. Leonard became a local celebrity this year after winning Teen Jeopardy. He topped 15 other competitors to win the big prize (more than 10,000 tried out for the show). His wide range of knowledge and cool under pressure stood out on the show, as did his sense of humor. The national media took note of his charm and ease in front of the camera, particularly when his answer in Final Jeopardy went viral — with a big lead, Leonard wrote this response to a World War II question: "Who is some guy in Normandy? But I just won $75,000!" Leonard had always watched the show growing up, playing along at home, but says that actually being on the show was full of surprises, from the studio — much bigger than it looks on television and with a row of 10 fact checkers staring down the contestants — to the timed buzzer system, which took Leonard a few games to master. The hardest part? After he won, under the terms of his contract, Leonard couldn't tell anyone the result until the show aired almost three months later. For four days, the senior class watched the competition during lunch at Gusano's Pizza, finally exploding in cheers when Leonard took first place. When he's not busy taking YouTube by storm, Leonard plays left field on the baseball team and is captain of the Quiz Bowl team, natch. The National Achievement Scholarship finalist ranks ninth in his class with a GPA of 4.16. He's heading to Brown University this fall, where he is interested in pursuing pre-med classes (Jeopardy watchers will know that Leonard already can point to where the collarbone is).

ARHITA DASGUPTA
Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Central High School
Parents: Tonmoy and Shree Dasgupta
College plans: University of Arkansas, pre-med

Fearless

You probably have to have experienced the chaotic roadways of India to appreciate Arhita Dasgupta's greatest accomplishment: "Learning to ride a motorcycle in India!" Her counselor, Leslie Kearney, says it's a good indicator of Arhita's spirit and "wide-eyed wonder." Born in Ranchi, India, Arhita has lived in the United States since she was a small child, but the family returns frequently and it was on one of those occasions when her father suggested they "figure out this motorcycle," one long unused at a relative's house. It was terrifying, she recalls. But before long she was driving along dirt roads and then finally, driving on her own with her father on the back, to a neighborhood sweet shop amid the swirl of rickshaw, car, truck and animal traffic. Though pre-med's in her future, she also hopes to add Spanish to English, Bengali and Hindi as languages she speaks fluently. She anticipates that if she accepts the Sturgis Fellowship offered by the University of Arkansas she'll eventually study abroad and build that communication skill. Second-ranked in Central's class of almost 500 students and a National Merit scholarship program honoree, Arhita began making her mark early. As a freshman, she won a bronze medal in the International Science Fair Olympiad for work involving solid state physics, semi-conductors and quantum theory. Counselor Kearney sees Arhita as a real-life example of a character in her favorite Indian movie, "Three Idiots," about a brilliant med student who also has more fun than his peers. "Arhita's exuberant dedication to not miss out on the social aspects of high school is equal to her passion to achieve academically." Those achievements include her 4.4 GPA and a slate of solid AP courses. But she also comes to school an hour early every day to play violin in the orchestra, a class that gets no grade weighting as AP classes do and thus counts against her slightly in her overall GPA. But, says Kearney, "She is adamant about pursuing what she loves and is not caught up in the GPA rat race." Still, she is competitive, Kearney said. "I asked her once why she was so competitive and she tearfully explained how her grandfather would not hold her as an infant because she was a female first born. While Arhita recognizes the traditions of her heritage, and in fact has learned two Indian dialects, she is not about to let those traditions hold her back."

LAUREN DICKINSON
Age: 18
Hometown: Siloam Springs
High School: Siloam Springs High School
Parents: Gary and Dena Dickinson
College plans: Currently deciding, but leaning toward Hendrix College, international studies

Hates ponies

Our Arkansas Times Academic All-Stars often come across as a serious lot in their applications, so full of hard facts about their achievements and struggles. So it was a bit of a breath of fresh air to laugh out loud while reading the essay submitted by Lauren Dickinson of Siloam Springs, in which she admits she is "the farm girl who hates ponies (long, traumatic story, trust me)" and who still sprints from her car to her door at night in fear of the bogeyman. Her sense of humor aside, Lauren is all business when it comes to her studies — a National Merit Scholarship finalist whose 4.17 GPA ranks her No. 1 in her class of 263. A varsity tennis player, Lauren's favorite subject is calculus, thanks in part to her math teacher Ms. Bennett, who she says is "always telling us the wonderful things we can do with our lives, as well as teaching us the actual calculus." While Lauren said she is undecided on what she wants to do in college "because I love parts of everything," she's interested in international relations, and may wind up going into that field. She's also considering going to medical school, though she admits her queasiness may keep her on the research side of things if she goes that route. Lauren said that while her parents were never pushy about her grades, they were a big part of her academic success. "They never told me that I had to get As," she said. "They said they'd always be proud of me, so I always wanted to make them proud." Lauren said she studies so hard because she believes it will all pay off in the end. "I think the harder I work right now, the easier it will be later," she said. "Also, I just enjoy the feeling of getting an A."

PETER DU
Age: 18
Hometown: Fayetteville
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Yuchun Du and Jianhong Zhou
College plans: Princeton University, biochemistry

Inspired by father

Peter Du's desire to become a medical researcher comes not only from his upbringing — his parents are both researchers — but also from an even more personal place. "My dad is a cancer survivor, so I'd really like to get involved in cancer research," Du said. To that end, Du will start at Princeton University this fall, most likely majoring in biochemistry. He also considered Johns Hopkins, Duke, Yale and Berkeley, but said the offer from Princeton was the best. Du said several teachers at Fayetteville High School were particularly important in his education, including Rita S. Caver, Erin Johnson, George Spencer, Nate Magre and Neil Norberg. Caver and Johnson teach a block AP U.S. History and English course that Du took in 10th grade; it "was the first really rigorous course that I'd taken in high school," he said. "It really got me prepared for what high school was going to be like." Swimming is also one of Du's enduring interests. "I've been a swimmer for a long time," he said. "It's really been such a big part of my life. It really disciplined me, taught about camaraderie and teamwork and the resolve to go past hardships." As for what motivates him to work so hard, Du said his family has always stressed education as one of the most, if not the most, important pursuits. Plus, "I'm a competitive guy to begin with," he said. "I like to compete." He's also a longtime student of piano, having attended Suzuki Music School of Arkansas since he was in 7th grade. Some of Du's academic accolades and accomplishments include AP Scholar with Distinction, National AP Scholar and National Merit semifinalist.

CODY DYKES
Age: 18
Hometown: Tulip
High School: Poyen High School
Parents: Tricia and Jerry Dykes
College plans: Vanderbilt University, chemical engineering

Tulip to Tennessee

This fall, Cody Dykes will leave tiny Tulip, Ark., bound for Music City USA and a degree in chemical engineering at Vanderbilt University. Dykes is no stranger to that campus, however, having attended the Aspirnaut Summer Research Internship program there for the past three years. As for what kindled his interest in chemical engineering, Dykes said, "I've always liked math and science, and when I was in 7th grade wrote an essay on engineering." Another inspiration was Poyen High School teacher Amanda Jones, who taught Dykes biology, physics and chemistry. "She played a huge role in me getting accepted to Vanderbilt and getting a scholarship," he said. Last year, Dykes conducted the Pennies for Patients Service Project, raising more than $1,000 for leukemia research. In addition to being the Class of 2013 valedictorian, he's also an athlete, playing football and basketball, and is active in the Beta Club, Future Business Leaders of America and the Student Council. Dykes said he is considering pursuing a graduate degree from Vanderbilt as well. So what motivates him to work so hard? "Knowing that I've got to be successful in life to have an enjoyable life," he said. "And to start a family, I have to work hard and get an education and it will pay off later."

HELEN HATHAWAY
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Mount St. Mary Academy
Parents: Laura and Jeff Hathaway
College plans: Considering University of Notre Dame and Davidson College

Curious

The time Helen Hathaway describes as "probably the most enjoyable months of high school" didn't actually take place in high school. In 2011, she spent four months in Washington, during the school year, working as a page for Sen. Mark Pryor. She loved it even though she had to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning, often wasn't relieved from her page duties until well into the evening and still had to fit in time for school and homework. Helen said she learned something new every day, even if her job didn't impact the political process: "We do work that a college graduate would not want to do." In return, she got to witness history first hand: She heard the Senate debate the U.S. government's use of drones, in the wake of the killing of Anwar al-Awalaki, and she got to sit in the House chamber during a State of the Union address and shake the president's hand. But don't look for Helen to hit the campaign trail in the future. "I don't think I would like it as a career. But it piqued my interest in politics. I like to keep up with what's happening because of it." Spanish, not politics, is a more likely college focus. The summer after her sophomore year, Helen spent a month in Argentina in a small town just outside of Buenos Aires, as part of an exchange program with an Argentine school that, like Mount St. Mary, is run by the Sisters of Mercy. But who knows? "I'm a very curious person," Helen said. It's that impulse that's led her explore folk music on the violin after years of playing only classical ("I love the relaxed style that lends itself to improvisation," she said) and to be a part of the Mount St. Mary newspaper staff since 9th grade. "Obviously, it's a way for me to stay informed," she said of being a part of the newspaper staff. "But also I want to make sure all the girls at my school are aware of the interesting and fun things happening with their classmates and friends. I don't want things to go unnoticed." One thing seems certain in her future: Helen will not go unnoticed.

ANDREA KATHOL
Age: 18
Hometown: Fayetteville
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Marcia and Jon Kathol
College plans: University of Arkansas, business

Business-minded

There probably aren't too many high school seniors who say they're looking forward to sitting in on corporate quarterly earnings report calls. But Andrea Kathol comes by this rare attribute honestly: Her father is vice president of investor relations for Tyson Foods Inc. "I'm definitely trying to follow in his footsteps," she said. This fall, Kathol will attend the University of Arkansas, where she's enrolled in the Walton College of Business. "I haven't declared a major yet, but I'm thinking about a double major in economics and marketing," she said. Why a double major? "Economics uses the math side and organizational side of learning that I really like, and marketing ties in the communication skills and social skills that I have," Kathol said. "I feel like getting a double major will allow me to get a job that synthesizes my personal skills and also my academic skills." She said an AP economics class at FHS was inspiring for her, and taught her how the study of economics ties many different disciplines together into a fascinating whole. Kathol has a scholarship to the UA that will pretty much cover everything. "When it came time to make a college decision, I just couldn't imagine going anywhere else," she said. "Because of the in-state opportunities, and I've already laid so many roots and business connections here, and with Arkansas's amazing business school, it just seemed like the right fit for me."

JUSTIN KLUCHER
Age: 18
Hometown: North Little Rock
High School: North Little Rock High School
Parents: Christy and Michael Klucher
College plans: Leaning toward University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, biomedical engineering

Bloomed

Justin Klucher had a rough go of it in middle school. When he entered high school, he remembers, he was reserved and lacked confidence in himself. Things turned around for him on a church mission trip to Chicago the summer before his 10th grade year. Something about getting away from home and out of his comfort zone allowed him to finally shed his self-doubt and be himself. "I had a spiritual and emotional rebirth," he says. "I can't even begin to explain what caused it. Since then I've bloomed." Justin has always been a good student — he is ranked third in his class with a GPA of 4.32. But after Chicago, he started making new friends, joining clubs, and being more active in school. He took on a leadership role in Student Council and he's now been president for two years running. He was also elected auditor of state at Arkansas Boys State in 2012. Justin's leadership and success in the classroom aren't the only way he's come into his own: After previously working behind the scenes on technical stagecraft, last year he made the leap to acting on stage, taking the role of Eugene in "Grease." This year he was Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol." "Before the curtain goes up every show, I get that same feeling of butterflies in your stomach, but then the minute you walk out, it's great," he says. Justin will most likely be heading for UA, where he's interested in studying biomedical engineering. He says that having parents as teachers helped him understand early on the importance of academic success. "At the same time," he says, "I feel like there's just a part of me that strives to work hard." Even as a lot of his fellow classmates begin to coast in their senior year, Justin remains as motivated as ever: "I can't even let a homework assignment go. Something in me stops me."

JONATHON LANCE
Age: 19
Hometown: Nashville
High School: Nashville High School
Parents: Glenn and Cynthia Lance
College plans: Harding or the University of Central Arkansas, English, history, journalism

Quiz Bowl whiz

When Jonathon Lance was just 5 months old, he contracted spinal meningitis. He was in and out of the hospital for the next two years and had seizures until he was 5, delaying his entry into kindergarten by a year. Throughout this ordeal, his parents constantly read to him, which Jonathan says is the root of a passion for learning and books that remains with him to this day. In the 4th grade, Jonathan started competing in Quiz Bowl, and found that as an avid reader, he had a base of general knowledge that gave him a leg up. "I just instantly fell in love with it," he says. He was state and national MVP in junior high, leading his team to a national championship in the Junior High Quiz Bowl tournament in New Orleans in 2010. He followed that up with an equally outstanding career in high school, winning the state MVP and leading the team to a state championship last year. The National Merit finalist is first in his class with a 4.12 cumulative GPA and has been active in community service projects through 4-H. Jonathan served as a state officer in 4-H and as a class representative of the Student Council at Nashville High. He is deciding between Harding and UCA for college, where he plans to take a wide range of courses before making up his mind about what to pursue. He is particularly interested in English, history and journalism, and is hoping to continue studying Spanish. Jonathan says he believes that hard work has led him to success but also feels fortunate just to have these opportunities after his early health troubles. "Who knows if things had gone differently where I'd be," he said. "I've been blessed to be able to do this."

KYLIE MCCLANAHAN
Age: 18
Hometown: Maumelle
High School: Central Arkansas Christian
Parents: Robert and Michelle McClanahan
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, physics

Where there's will

Kylie McClanahan describes a discipline uncommon in young people. She resolved after reading a fitness blog to live healthier, in part in hopes it would help her cope with a family curse of migraine headaches. That started with a balanced diet. She gave up soda pop. She began avoiding processed foods. She did much of her own cooking from scratch. She began a daily workout regimen. She succeeded: She says her physical and mental health improved. She changed fat to muscle and she gained confidence. And she hasn't had a migraine since last summer. In all, it made her better prepared for a busy senior year. The National Merit scholarship program honoree has made the most of it. Her 4.3 GPA puts her No. 1 in a class of 91 at CAC. She hasn't taken the easy path to those grades. Her senior classes include AP government, calculus and chemistry, economics, Greek 2 and an ensemble drama class. Counselor Jan Penrod says Kylie stands out not only for her achievements but her smile and her kindness. She's a regular in school mission activities, with trips to Chicago, Oklahoma City, Birmingham and Haiti over the last 10 years. She shoveled bags full of dirt as part of a school building project in Haiti and plans a trip to the Dominican Republic this summer. She's the "mom" to CAC stage productions, Penrod says, working as stage manager. "I was never as good at acting as at managing," she says. She does costume and stage design and lighting. She found understanding the "whole picture" was easier for her than focusing on a character. She also leads a campus big brother/big sister program. Kylie has been chosen as a fellow in the UA Honors College program. She thinks she'll follow her father into the IT field and hopes to concentrate on physics and computers. "The whole way society is interconnected and the way technology is progressing is fascinating," she says.

ARDRAYA MCCOY
Age: 17
Hometown: Forrest City
High School: Forrest City High School
Parents: Dennis and Sandra McCoy
College plans: University of Arkansas, industrial engineering

Doing things her way

Ardraya McCoy, in her Academic All-Stars essay, wrote that she knows that "most people already have their own ideas of the type of students that reside in Forrest City." That is, most people might not expect an African-American teen-ager from Forrest City to be a finalist in the National Achievement Scholarship Program for outstanding black high school students, or score 30 on the ACT. She is not held back, she writes, "by the limitations that others place upon me." Explaining further in an interview, Ardraya said the students from her high school are, unfortunately, "known for fighting." (Things are better during basketball season, she observed, when students pull together to cheer the Mustangs; she herself is a Lady Mustang, playing shooting guard.) Ardraya has held many leadership roles at school, in the Student Council, French Club, FBLA and other organizations. "I do feel like the students respect me a little," she said. An alumna of Girls State, Ardraya will work there as a counselor this summer. Then it's off to the U of A, where Ardraya will study industrial engineering and mathematics on the Chancellor's Merit Scholarship of $10,000 a year. Math "comes naturally" to her, Ardraya says. Even AP statistics? a reporter asked. "I loved it," she replied, and the A she made in the class confirms it. But Ardraya isn't planning on a career in science: She wants to be a patent lawyer. She says her brother "always told me I should be a lawyer" because she loves to debate and she loves details. She also confesses to being "stubborn. I like to do things my way."

PATRICK MCKENZIE
Age: 17
Hometown: Ward
High School: Searcy High School
Parents: Sheryl and Don McKenzie
College plans: University of Tennessee, pre-med

Rocket man

When he was a sophomore, Patrick McKenzie founded the Searcy High School engineering team so students could enter a NASA competition. His fledgling team was ultimately one of four chosen from around the country to design a payload to fly below a high altitude weather balloon. Over the course of just a few months, his team designed and built a mini-spectrometer that measures "gas concentrations in the atmosphere as a function of altitude." In Cleveland, where they got to attach it to the balloon that took it up 111,000 feet, the device itself functioned properly, but a programming error kept any of the data it captured from being recorded in the micro-computer. The engineering team was disappointed, but generally undeterred. They know there are several balloon teams active in Arkansas; they're hoping to hook up with one of them to give the spectrometer another whirl. Team members also recently traveled to Memphis to get their Level 1 high-powered rocket certification. What's that mean? "I can fly bigger rockets — every boy's dream," Patrick said, laughing. "I'm at the level now that you have to call the airport before you launch one." Like other All-Stars, Patrick's academic resume is sterling. He's a National Merit finalist and on pace to be valedictorian of Searcy High School with a 4.2 grade point average. But it is his extracurricular involvement that really stands out. Not only did he co-found the engineering team, he's on the Quiz Bowl team, an all-region euphonium player in the SHS band, a member of Harding University's jazz band, editor of the SHS yearbook and student class president. Asked how he's managed to transcend social cliques to be involved in such wide ranging pursuits, Patrick said he tries to avoid "tunnel vision." "Academics are definitely my priority, but I try to take a larger view of things and realize that being social and having friends are important too. I try to live in a way that I don't ever have anyone mad at me."

CELINA MIRANDA
Age: 17
Hometown: Cabot
High School: Cabot High School
Parents: Carla and Vince Miranda
College plans: Vanderbilt University, pre-med

Philosopher, songwriter

Several years ago, Celina Miranda saw a post on Facebook about symptoms of an eating disorder. She recognized some in herself, told her mom, went to see a doctor and received treatment for a year. It's probably safe to say that most teen-age sufferers of psychological illness — particularly one as stigmatized as an eating disorder — don't become outspoken advocates for awareness about the illness as part of their recovery. But, as Cabot High principal Henry Hawkins wrote in an essay nominating Celina as an Academic All-Star, Celina has a certain "ferocity" about her (also, per Hawkins, charm, wit, insight and brilliance). As a junior, she started National Eating Disorders Week at Cabot High, and spoke in classrooms throughout the school about the myths and health concerns surrounding eating disorders and the best methods to talk to someone who might be at risk. Talking openly with her peers is important to Celina. After she attended Governor's School over the summer, where coursework promoted critical thinking, logic and philosophy, she and a friend persuaded a teacher to sponsor the creation of a philosophy club. Now once a week after school, 30 students gather to talk about controversial issues — belief in a deity, the prison system, women's rights, gay rights. No one has objected to the club yet, Celina said. "Part of why we haven't gotten pushback is that we made it really clear that we wanted it to be open and safe." Celina is a National Merit finalist, on track to graduate first in a senior class of 675. She plans to attend Vanderbilt, where she'll likely major in biology or chemistry, en route to going to medical school. Or maybe she'll make it big as a songwriter. She said she partly chose a college in Nashville in hopes of pursuing her country-pop songwriting. She's a seasoned singer, who gives elementary students piano and guitar lessons. But it's the songwriting part that she especially finds gratifying. "I don't keep a diary or anything, but I do write songs to figure things out for myself," she said.

SONIA HELEN PASCALE
Age: 17
Hometown: Pine Bluff
High School: Episcopal Collegiate School
Parents: James Pascale and Mildred Franco
College plans: Yale University

Loves languages — and everything else

Sonia Helen Pascale is one of those super-bright and poised young scholars who, having excelled in everything, does not yet know what course she'll chart in college. She's brought home gold medals on the National Classical Etymology Exam, the National Latin Exam and the National Spanish Exam, so languages are an obvious strength for her. (Her mother is from Venezuela and she spent two summers in Panama in intensive Spanish study; she did not take Spanish at Episcopal.) But she's also a math tutor through the Volunteers in Public Schools, and has recruited others in her private school to tutor in the public schools. Then there's the research she did last summer at the Stephens Spine Institute on the campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, when she worked with Dr. William Fantegrossi for seven weeks with lab mice on research about alcohol-addiction fighting compounds. "I spent the first couple of weeks learning how to pick up a mouse," Sonia Helen said, and then learning how to inject them with test drugs. "By the end of the time they allowed me to do a surgery on one of the mice," she said. "It was a really cool experience." As captain of her school's Quiz Bowl team, Sonia Helen spends many of her Saturdays out of town at competitions, but she's not just a brain: She's also co-captain of the varsity tennis team at Episcopal, and hopes to teach tennis this summer. While Sonia Helen doesn't yet know what she might major in in college — "I am one of the most indecisive people," she says — she's known since 5th grade, when she accompanied her father to the campus, that she wanted to attend Yale. "It felt like home." She loves all subjects, and Yale is good in all of them, she added. But first, she thinks, she'll spend a gap year abroad, continuing her study of Spanish. "Rarely do I have the privilege of working with a student who has it so together," Philip A. Hooper wrote in his recommendation of Sonia Helen.

LUIS E. RUANO-AVENS
Age: 18
Hometown: Fort Smith
High School: Southside High School
Parents: Veronica Avens and Ernesto Ruano
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, chemical engineering

Safe, then a scholar

Luis Ruano-Avens is headed to the U of A Honors College on a Phyllis Hunt scholarship of $8,000 a year. On the day we talked to the native of Guatemala, he was headed out to celebrate his 18th birthday with his family and later with friends, and probably dressed to the nines. "I love dressing up. ... Just the feeling you get when you know you look good," he explained. Life is good for this tuba-playing Ultimate Frisbee fan, and he's earned it: With his 4.2 grade point average, he's 4th in his class. He can also thank his mother: Ten years ago she moved him to Fort Smith from Guatemala City after men armed with machine guns and handguns stopped her car, broke out the windows and threatened to kill her before stealing the car and all her money. Luis' mother decided she didn't want her children growing up around such crime; since her sister lived in Fort Smith, that's where she moved Luis, his two brothers and a sister. Luis is working on getting full permanent residency; he does have status to allow him to attend college on the Hunt scholarship. He's grateful to have the opportunity; he said he had a lot of Hispanic friends who'd graduated a few years ahead of him who were "really smart" but, anticipating problems getting a college degree, went into construction work right after high school. Luis plans to major in chemical engineering but expects to go on to earn a master's in business administration or accounting. His AP English Literature teacher, Karen Davis, has no doubt he'll achieve his goals. "I am confident, based on the work ethic he has demonstrated in class, that he will realize them all."

THOMAS SELIG
Age: 18
Hometown: Hot Springs
High School: Lakeside High School
Parents: Mary Jo and Paul Selig
College plans: University of Arkansas

Record setter

We get record-settling Academic All-Stars fairly often — highest GPA, perfect ACT or SAT score, and others — but Thomas Selig is definitely one for the books. Selig, who attends Lakeside High near Hot Springs, managed to set the record for most advanced placement classes in his school's history, acing 11 while holding down a 4.34 G.P.A. It's a drive to excel that's been with him a long time, even though he always hasn't been sure of what he wanted to do with his life. At 6, he said, he was sure he wanted to be a Catholic priest. By middle school, he'd settled on being a radiologist. Now that he's about to graduate from high school, he is considering the field of medicine or possibly majoring in political science and economics, a path that might lead him to law school. "I've always been interested in a lot of different things," he said, "so I'm excited to go to college. But at the same time, I'm a little scared, because I'll have to make a decision as to what I'd like to do." Undecided or not, the future looks rosy for Thomas, a National Merit Scholarship finalist. He said he's always loved the feeling of learning new things. "When you start a chapter, you look at the problems and you think: There's no way I'll ever be able to solve these, because they look ridiculously complicated. Then you read the chapter and you understand it." What drives him is his "extremely competitive mentality," he said, though he admits he winds up competing mostly with himself. "If I do something, I like to do it as well as I can," he said. "I would rather do something difficult and then either fail or not meet my goal than just sort of coast by and easily accomplish my goals, but know I could have done something more. I'd rather challenge myself."

OLIVIA SIMS
Age: 18
Hometown: North Little Rock
High School: North Little Rock High School
Parents: Suzanne and Barry Sims
College plans: Hendrix College, pre-med

Backstage leader

Olivia Sims has accumulated all sorts of honors in her high school career. She's a National Merit finalist, the vice president of NLRH Student Council and on track to be valedictorian in a senior class of 549. But she said perhaps her most significant achievement has been her work with her school's drama department. Olivia has always worked behind the scenes. "I've never been one to like a lot of attention. I have no desire to be onstage whatsoever," she said. As a senior, she's served as student technical director, calling the shots during stage productions — telling crew when to move sets, bring up lights and raise the curtain. The fall show, "A Christmas Carol," was especially challenging, she said. One scene involved a 20-foot "phantom" that the crew had to raise up, in sync with actors, curtains, lights, smoke and a spinning bed. The part of Olivia's brain that allows her to manage a number of moving parts onstage might also make her a successful doctor. She said she's long been interested in human biology, which she plans to study at Hendrix. "I find it fascinating that you can go in and alter it and heal people," she said. Olivia's counselor, Gwen Leger, offered further speculation about Olivia's brain: "With respect to those scientists who say that teen brains are not capable of forward-thinking and evaluating consequences, I offer Olivia Sims. Yes, she will continue to mature, and eventually this old soul will become an even more empathetic and giving woman inclined to quietly lend a hand, share a novel and leave her mark in ways too numerous to count."

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