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Class of 2013Morgan Zemaitis

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Mallard Creek grad hopes to make a difference

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  • Reinecke: North Meck senior stays upbeat
  • Doerstling: Ardrey Kell rocker and scholar
  • Nelli: Restored Ashbrook's school spirit
  • Oufkir: East Meck grad's global perspective
  • Morgan Zemaitis

    •  School: Weighted GPA of 4.8 puts her in the top 10 graduates. Student body president, yearbook editor, founder and captain of the girls’ golf team.

    •  Family: Mom Kathleen Zemaitis works in communications. Dad John Zemaitis works in information technology. Brother Evan, 16, is a rising senior at Cato Middle College High.

    •  Summer plans: Zemaitis will do an Outward Bound program in Sierra, Nev., as part of the Morehead-Cain program.

    •  Weakness: Zemaitis says she wasn’t good at Spanish and doesn’t speak another language. She’ll try German in college.


  • Tell us about an outstanding grad

    Do you know a high school graduate who stands out (including your own child)? Send us a photo and tell us his or her story in up to five sentences.

    Please include the student’s name, high school, city and plans for the future.

    Go to www.charlotteobserver.com/contest to submit.


  • CMS graduations

    Here is a schedule of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools high school graduations.

    Monday

    Bojangles’ Coliseum: Berry Academy, 8:30 a.m.; Hough, noon; Olympic, 3:30 p.m.

    Time Warner Cable Arena: Mallard Creek, 4 p.m.; Myers Park, 7:30 p.m.

    Ovens Auditorium: Marie G. Davis Leadership Academy, 10 a.m.

    Tuesday

    Bojangles’ Coliseum: West Mecklenburg, 8:30 a.m.; Harding University, noon; East Mecklenburg, 3:30 p.m.

    Ovens Auditorium: Hawthorne, 9 a.m.; Performance Learning Center, 12:30 p.m.; Northwest School of the Arts, 4 p.m.

    Wednesday

    Bojangles’ Coliseum: Garinger, 8:30 a.m.; Butler, noon; North Mecklenburg, 3:30 p.m.



Fifth in a series

Morgan Zemaitis doesn’t do anything halfway.

She didn’t just volunteer at Crisis Assistance Ministry. She created a board to get teens from multiple schools involved.

She didn’t just play golf. She created a winning girls’ golf team at Mallard Creek High.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that as her graduation approached, the 18-year-old found herself weighing two of the state’s 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, doesn’t 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 can’t stand to let her room get messy.

It’s 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 daughter’s environmentalism emerged early. As a child, she’d 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 children’s passions and pushing them to try new things.

You wouldn’t 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 that’s not the whole picture.

“I’m 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 I’ll be more prepared to study long hours,” she says.

Expanding horizons

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. It’s 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.

“She’s just so passionate about the community,” Prescott says. “I don’t 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 school’s 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.

State’s 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 Monday’s 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?

“Don’t be afraid to make the biggest difference you can.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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