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Charlotte Observer names Seniors of the Year

By Cliff Harrington and Scott Verner
Community News Editors

One of The Charlotte Observer’s Seniors of the Year studied ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease early, and though she’d never done science research before, had results worthy of publishing.

Another who tried tutoring for the first time her junior year found the experience so inspiring that she will pursue a teaching career.

A third has known since eighth grade that he wanted to help young people build brighter futures, but also chose to found his school’s physics club and captain his varsity basketball and tennis teams.

Keeping an open mind and seizing new leadership opportunities are recurring themes among the Observer’s 2013 Seniors of the Year, who will each receive a $1,000 scholarship as they head to colleges and universities.

They are doers who have tried new things, and those experiences have led to accomplishments. They represent The Observer’s diverse readership area, with achievements in academic research, innovative community service, personal triumph and the arts.

The 10 winners:

• Constance Zhou, Charlotte Latin, plans to attend Harvard University.

• Katy Thompson, Hickory Ridge, is headed to UNC Chapel Hill.

• Justin Elliott, North Mecklenburg, will go to Duke University.

• Kaycee Gass, Lincoln Charter, plans to go to Davidson College.

• Hannah Kessenich, Marvin Ridge, will be at the University of Virginia.

• Yeonsoo Sara Lee, Myers Park, is headed to Yale University.

• Maria Mazariegos, International Business and Communication Studies at Olympic, will attend Wingate University.

• Shiva Mohan, Fort Mill, will be in Clemson’s Honors College.

• Andrew Paluszak, East Gaston, is headed to Appalachian State University.

• Mary Thurman, Hickory Grove Christian, plans to go to UNC Chapel Hill.

The awards are part of The Observer’s All-Star Scholars program, which honors academic excellence, character and community involvement. Each year, high school counselors select top students (from one to three, based on school enrollment) from among their seniors, and nominate one as Senior of the Year. Those nominees write an essay, and about 30 finalists are interviewed by judges before the winning 10 are chosen. (To read more about the finalists, see the Young Achievers pages at www.CharlotteObserver.com/youngachievers.)

The Charlotte News began the program in the ’50s, and The Observer continued it when that paper ceased publication in the ’80s. This year, 133 Scholars represent 85 schools across eight counties.

“Each year I am inspired by the talent, the intelligence, the maturity and the creativity of our All-Star Scholars,” said Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins. “The future is bright with these young people taking key leadership roles in our communities, in our nation and in our world. The Observer is proud to recognize the commitment and the hard work of these young people.”

Constance Zhou found her passion in biomedical research two years ago, when she first started working in the lab at N.C. Central University with Pradeep Chatterjee, a professor in the school’s Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute.

“I definitely wasn’t sure I was interested in research, or even a medical career,” she said in an email. “As a sophomore, I was more focused on keeping an open mind, and trying out as many new things as I could.”

She kept her horizons broad: She was an editor of the school paper, president of the science club, co-captain of the women’s golf team, mentored ninth-grade girls and was the principal cellist in the Charlotte Youth Symphony, to name a few of her achievements.

At N.C. Central, she did research to help identify plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, and she helped write “Identifying distal cis-acting gene-regulatory sequences by expressing BACs functionalized with loxP-Tn10 transposons in zebrafish,” published online by an international chemical sciences journal.

Now she wants to study medicine.

“It’s both the joy of being part of something so incredibly powerful, with the potential to save lives and protect people from pain, and the humbling feeling of being merely one cog in a complex, intricate system of machines,” she wrote.

She’ll share the Harvard campus with a 2011 Senior of the Year who also says that being open to new ideas has been key to his development. Matthew Harvey, a graduate of Fort Mill’s Nation Ford High School two years ago, went to Harvard certain he would become a lawyer.

He will start his junior year there in the fall, but said he has found a new direction.

A freshman economics class took him by surprise, he said. He realized he wants to study economics, and now he dreams of being a professor.

He advises Zhou and the other new Seniors of the Year: “Keep an open mind. I think, when I went to Harvard, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had all these preconceived notions, and they all turned out to be wrong.”

2013 Senior of the Year Katy Thompson didn’t expect tutoring fourth-graders to be what she now believes it was: an opportunity that let her “see a path my life should take.”

Seeing “her” students improve – and show her their gratitude – was a revelation. “I realized I had a passion … and that it could possibly turn into something much more.”

She’ll head to UNC Chapel Hill to study English, technology and psychology to prepare for that path. “It’s OK to step up,” she said, “and be someone others can look to … that people can believe in and trust.”

Justin Elliott will start at Duke in the fall, his career path undecided. But he already has drawn up plans for a nonprofit tutoring and mentoring program he wants to start in Charlotte.

He was in middle school when he began helping other kids with homework. Over the next four years, he became a supervising tutor who specialized in working with homeless, adopted and low-income children, served in youth mentoring programs, and taught tennis to 5- to 16-year-olds so they could stay active over the summer.

“My purpose here on Earth,” he said, “is to help others along the way.” A local group named him one of Charlotte’s 100 top young black men.

“This is not the last time you will read about the accomplishments of these scholars in The Charlotte Observer and elsewhere,” said The Observer’s executive editor, Rick Thames. “They aim high, and as they continue to hit their marks, it will only add to the pride our community shares in calling each of them one of our own.”

Lindsay Ruebens and Helen Schwab contributed to this story.

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