Fifth in a series
Morgan Zemaitis doesnt do anything halfway.
She didnt just volunteer at Crisis Assistance Ministry. She created a board to get teens from multiple schools involved.
She didnt just play golf. She created a winning girls golf team at Mallard Creek High.
So perhaps its no surprise that as her graduation approached, the 18-year-old found herself weighing two of the states most prestigious awards: a Morehead-Cain scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill and a Park scholarship to N.C. State.
Or that Zemaitis, who chose to study environmental science at Chapel Hill, doesnt just want a good job.
I honestly just want to make an impact on the world, whatever it is, she said. To look back on my life and say, I changed this.
Zemaitis couples youthful idealism with a practical organization that would be the envy of most adults. She has a filing cabinet full of clipped articles and archived homework. She keeps calendars and lists. And she cant stand to let her room get messy.
Its a trait that comes from her mom, Kathleen Zemaitis, who has worked as an event planner. When Morgan was in elementary school, her mom let her tag along with her own clipboard. It stuck.
My mother and I are almost carbon copies of each other, Morgan Zemaitis says.
Kathleen Zemaitis says her daughters environmentalism emerged early. As a child, shed nag her parents to turn off the faucet while washing dishes and leave notes reminding them to turn off lights.
Trying new things
So how do you raise a teen who gets to choose between two full-ride scholarships? Kathleen Zemaitis says the keys are recognizing your childrens passions and pushing them to try new things.
You wouldnt know it now, but Morgan was a shy child, her mom says. In sixth grade she was invited to a three-week summer program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The prospect of sending her out of state for that long was intimidating to parents and daughter, but they took the chance. Morgan came home with the self-confidence that helps her be a leader, her mother says.
Ability helps, of course, but Morgan Zemaitis says thats not the whole picture.
Im not a naturally smart person, she insists. She estimates that she spends three hours working on Advanced Placement courses for every hour many of her classmates spend. In college Ill be more prepared to study long hours, she says.
Zemaitis is deeply involved with Mecklenburg Community Church, which has expanded her view of the world.
In middle school she went with a church group to sort clothes for the Crisis Assistance Ministry free store. She got so excited about the chance to help others in her city that she wanted other youths to join in.
The agency works with lots of young volunteers, many of them meeting community service requirements for school. Its not uncommon to see some come back on their own, or even bring a few friends, says Alicia Prescott, who supervises the volunteers.
But what Zemaitis did was unprecedented, Prescott says: She organized a youth advocacy coalition, recruited representatives from several schools, organized regular social events and volunteer days, and created a Facebook page to keep the buzz going.
Shes just so passionate about the community, Prescott says. I dont know how this girl sleeps.
A summer mission trip to build homes in Jamaica was also a life changer, Zemaitis says. She saw a world where people lived with so much less than most Americans and treasured what they had. It deepened her commitment to finding sustainable ways to live without destroying the environment.
Charting the future
Classes at Mallard Creek also helped Zemaitis chart her path. She loved her Advanced Placement environmental science class so much that I wanted to buy the textbook.
Signing up for the schools Academy of Engineering exposed her to career opportunities. Zemaitis says she was one of only two girls in her ninth-grade engineering class. Teacher Sharrell Howard talked about the need for more women in science and engineering, and Zemaitis came to see the wisdom of that. In class projects, she noticed, the boys tended to grab the materials and start working by trial and error, while the girls were more likely to plan first.
Zemaitis took a typically organized approach to college planning. She and her family started making visits in ninth grade, and she created a posterboard chart listing pros, cons and deadlines for several schools. A visit to Northwestern University in suburban Chicago, where she experienced snow driven sideways by wind, convinced her a Southern location would be a plus, she says.
Being nominated for the Park and Morehead-Cain scholarships gave her a shot not only at full scholarships but intensive enrichment activities for top students. She was interviewed for both. Just before the Morehead interview, N.C. State offered her a Park scholarship. The Chapel Hill offer came shortly afterward.
States engineering school was a big draw. But in the end, Zemaitis set aside charts and lists to follow her heart: I just fell in love with Chapel Hill.
In the gap between the end of exams and Mondays graduation, Zemaitis is lining up students who will make sure the youth coalition at Crisis Assistance continues after her departure.
Her advice to any who might follow in her footsteps?
Dont be afraid to make the biggest difference you can.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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