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Scholar candidate moves past disability

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  • More Young Achievers
  • Meet Rebecca Combs

    Age: 17

    School: Providence High

    Favorite author: Nicholas Sparks

    She loves sports of all kinds: And she’s been the unofficial scorekeeper for the Matthews Softball Association, where her dad coaches, for the past 5 years.

    Favorite TV shows: “Pretty Little Liars,” “Necessary Roughness.”

    Favorite activity: Thanks to buoyancy, Rebecca can walk on her own in a pool and loves to swim.

    She loves kids: Working with young children’s religious education has inspired her; she’d like to someday work with kids, through psychology or teaching.

    Her inspiration: A friend’s son who became a quadriplegic after a fall and went on to finish medical school and practice medicine.


  • U.S. Presidential Scholars candidates

    President Lyndon B. Johnson started the program in 1964. 141 students are chosen annually as national scholars: one male and one female from each state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico; and from Americans abroad, plus 15 students at large. Students must be nominated by their schools based on test scores or arts accomplishments, or by a top elected official in education, such as the state superintendent.

    These students from the greater Charlotte area are candidates; semifinalists will be named in April and finalists in May:

    Rebecca Combs, Providence

    Ezekiel Edmonds, Charlotte Catholic

    Andrew Haworth, Charlotte Country Day

    Sreeraahul Kancherla, Marvin Ridge

    Fiona Lynch, N.C. School of Science & Mathematics

    Joshua Mu, N.C. School of Science & Mathematics

    Alexander Plevka, Weddington

    Austen Poteet, Cannon

    John Rorie, Parkwood

    Austin Smith, Shelby

    Stephen Stroud, Forestview

    Quoc Truong, Hickory



When Rebecca Combs, 17, sits down to take a test in her favorite class, Advanced Placement biology, she’s not just focusing on writing the correct answers.

Because she has cerebral palsy, Rebecca also must concentrate on keeping herself upright in her seat.

If she doesn’t, her body will often lean to the left. “When I write, I use my left hand as a paperweight basically, because I can’t really do anything with it,” said Rebecca, a senior at Providence High and one of six North Carolina students to be nominated by the state superintendent for the U.S. Presidential Scholars program.

The six were chosen for maintaining academic excellence while overcoming major obstacles.

Cerebral palsy varies in type and severity. It’s an umbrella term for a neurological disorder that permanently affects the part of the brain that controls body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“I don’t have intelligence or speech issues,” Rebecca said. “I consider myself lucky.”

Her condition hasn’t stopped her from making every effort to excel in academics – and to have a normal teenage life.

Rebecca will graduate with 15 honors classes and three AP classes, and presently has a 4.0 grade point average. And she loves going to the movies with her friends, shopping at Forever 21 and blasting the volume to her favorite One Direction songs.

If she’s one of 141 students named as 2013 U.S. Presidential Scholars nationally – individual schools nominate other candidates based on test scores and arts achievements – she’ll receive a medallion and a trip to Washington, D.C., in June to meet President Barack Obama.

Rebecca has to work much harder than her peers to complete everyday tasks – from tying her shoes to walking through doors.

A typical morning begins at 5:15 a.m. to be ready when the bus comes at 6:10. Rebecca would sleep later, but it takes her extra time to get dressed and eat breakfast. She showers at night to save time in the morning.

She’s learned to dress herself and is proud of being able to manage her accessories, too. “I can do the belt one-handed, which is a trick. It’s difficult,” she said.

When the bus arrives, she goes outside with her metallic blue walker, then has a classmate fold it up and carry it onto the bus. She grips the railing, pulls herself up the steps and slides into the front seat.

That’s all before the day has really begun. But through it all, Rebecca keeps a smile on her face.

“There’s something about that beautiful smile that you latch onto,” said Andrea Wise, her AP biology teacher.

“Her positive attitude radiates over you,” said Pamela Mann, Providence’s media specialist.

Rebecca has had several surgeries and once had to spend a summer in a body cast. But “she made all of that easy,” said her mother, Susan Combs. “She doesn’t complain about the pain after surgery or the soreness after therapy or the extra time it takes to do this, that and the other. I get to stand by and watch her be successful.”

Rebecca’s already been admitted to the University of Alabama’s honors program, and she’s waiting to hear back from her parents’ alma mater, Wake Forest.

She loves working behind the desk at the school library. She’s sung in her school choir since seventh grade but had to give it up this year because her schedule was too busy. She co-teaches religious education to second-graders with her mom at St. Gabriel Catholic Church.

“I’d definitely say faith is important to me,” she said. “My mom always says, ‘God only gives the hardest struggles to people who can handle it,’ and that’s what I think about whenever I’m feeling down on myself.”

Every Saturday – after sleeping in, of course – Rebecca goes to therapeutic horseback riding sessions at Weddington’s Misty Meadows Mitey Riders program. She’s been riding since she was 4.

But while she loves horses, what Rebecca has really been wanting to do is drive. “Everybody else drives. I was going to do whatever it took to drive.” She passed driver’s ed with flying colors but had to wait two years to get permission from the state to use hand controls in the car.

Rebecca will soon experience another first when she goes shopping for a prom dress. It wasn’t until last year’s Sadie Hawkins dance that she began enjoying school dances; her friends had her ditch the walker and danced together in their seats. “I felt like I was being included,” she said.

Rebecca said it can be frustrating when people feel sorry for her or regard her as an outcast.

“Everybody’s different. I think people don’t really realize that they live in their little bubble, and when they see people outside of what they’re used to seeing, all of a sudden it’s weird or not normal for somebody to talk with lisps or walk differently than they do,” she said. “People have to be open and understand there are other people out there not like them in the world.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; On Twitter: @YoungAchCLT
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