South Park Magazine

High Achievers

Kerchuan Soong, a rising senior at Charlotte Country Day School.
Kerchuan Soong, a rising senior at Charlotte Country Day School. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

For some, it’s music; for others, sports, or art, or science. Whatever the pursuit, these students aren’t satisfied with just making their mark inside classroom walls. In honor of back-to-school season, SouthPark Magazine invited area schools to nominate students they consider outstanding – and we salute the choices. Their examples serve as an inspiration for the coming school year.

Kerchuan Soong Age: 18Grade: Senior at Charlotte Country Day SchoolParents: Fan Yu and Szesu Soong

When Kerchuan was a child in Taiwan, her father would take her to the mountains, or a river, and, “I would just pick up rocks, or leaves, or small things, even insects. I would closely observe them for a long time. I got inspired by that.”

Now that she’s a senior and a prizewinning student artist, nature is what she paints, in a style that combines realism and abstraction. She likes her painting, drawing and ceramics to have a recognizable subject, she says, “Not like some of Picasso’s work where you couldn’t tell what it is.”

Kerchuan studied art at the N.C. Governor’s School this past summer. And her art took one gold key, five silver keys and one honorable mention in the 2010-11 Mid-Carolina Region Scholastic Art Awards. She won the gold key with an ox as subject, she says, but also, “I really love fish.”

“The fish structure is really free. When I draw it, I feel a sense of freedom.”

She’s working on a children’s book, doing both the text and the drawings. “It’s just a fish,” she says, “traveling around the world.”

Elyse Bodenheimer Age: 15Grade: Sophomore at Providence High SchoolParents: Andrew and Sharon Bodenheimer What started as a Bat-Mitzvah project at age 12 has become a life passion for Elyse Bodenheimer. Her website www.myjewishlegacy.com serves as a voice for those who survived the Holocaust, and she encourages children and teenagers to submit stories of their grandparents. Elyse dedicates the website to her late grandfather, Bert Bodenheimer, who shared his own stories with her. “I sat there for hours listening to his stories, and I found them so interesting,” she says. “This is a way to honor him and continue his legacy.” Elyse has spoken to numerous groups including schools and the Jewish Federation about the Holocaust. Public speaking doesn’t make her nervous, she says. “I just remember that I am educating them about something that happened.” Elyse, whose busy schedule includes running track, plans to continue her project through college. “This is one of my top priorities,” she says. “If I stop, who is going to tell their stories?” –Christina Darnell

Therese Mendoza Age: 12Grade: 8th grade at South Charlotte Middle SchoolParents: Dardz and Heidee Mendoza

When Therese played second-chair flute in the North Carolina Honors Band (All-State) for middle-schoolers this year, she was surrounded by people versed in musical knowledge. She enjoyed the experience so much she wants to go again. “Next year, I hope I’m in first chair,” she says.

When she practices at home – a half-hour on weekdays and one to two hours on weekend days – her audience is often her fish, Rondo.

The biggest challenge, she says, is “to put your own sense of music in there, and try not to mimic another person,” whether it’s her flute teacher or another performer.

Therese was chosen for the middle-school South Central District Honors Band (All-District) last year, her first year of playing the flute, and again this year.

At school, math is her favorite subject because “it’s more straightforward than reading.” In reading, you have to think critically, she says. “In math, you can just be yourself.”

Her hobbies? “Reading, playing piano, probably cleaning my fish bowl.”

Kenya DunnAge: 17Grade: Senior at Providence Day SchoolParents: Louis and Diane Dunn

Three years ago, Kenya Dunn realized she needed to focus her athletic talents. She didn’t want to be average at a lot of sports, she says. “I wanted to be really good at one.”

So she turned her back on basketball, though her mother had been a college coach and she herself had become a “pretty good” player, she says.

“Something about swimming made me pick it. I haven’t regretted it.” She was one of the first swimmers to join the Queen City Dolphins, formed in 2005, she says, “so that African-American kids could have another option besides playing basketball and football.” She’s now co-captain of the Dolphins.

She holds Providence Day records in the 200 freestyle relay and the 400 freestyle relay, and she’s a lifeguard at Mecklenburg County Aquatics Center. She’s taught others, from 5-year-olds to teens, at summer swim classes at Double Oaks pool, “so they can get a feel for the water.”

Her favorite stroke is “Free-style, for sure,” she says. Another favorite extracurricular experience has been with her school’s Beta Club. Kenya has helped serve meals and greet guests at St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen. There, she says, “a smile can go a long ways.”

Crawford White Age: 11 Grade: 6th Grade at Sharon Elementary SchoolParents: Eve and Chip White

Crawford was so intent on getting his black belt in martial arts that he bypassed playing baseball for the South Park Youth Association last season. “I’d like to have played,” says the first baseman and catcher, “but black belt was a big thing.”

He achieved his goal, breaking a brick with his hand. It took, he says, “a lot of time and training. You have to do these really hard workouts every day. Pushups, sit-ups and stuff like that.” Hitting a brick mimics the motion used in pushups, he says. “Pushing down with your hand, extending you stand over it and you break ithit it with the palm of your hand.”

The belt he earned is half red, half black. When he turns 13, he’ll get the solid black belt without having to break another brick.

As part of a community service project undertaken by his martial arts class, he has organized other Sharon Elementary students to write letters to servicemen and women serving in Afghanistan. “I have about 70, and my goal is around 100,” he says.

He went on classroom TV at his school to encourage the letter-writing. “You just tell them ‘Good luck’ and ‘Stay safe,’ and thank them.”

Scott Ortlip Age: 16Grade: Junior at Charlotte Christian School Parents: Michael and Allison Ortlip

Give Scott Ortlip a hammer and saw and pieces of wood, and there’s no telling what he’ll come up with. The fan of military history has built medieval catapults in his garage, and for his Eagle Scout project he chose to build a stage and stage equipment box at the Carolina Raptor Center. Audiences who watch the center’s eagles, hawks and other birds being presented now have a better view.

“I love working with wood. It’s a wonderful material,” he says. One of his catapults, a trebuchet, “can throw a golf ball 30-40 feet,” he says.

Scott is a member of Troop 55 at Myers Park Presbyterian Church. Last year, he and other Mecklenburg scouts backpacked 10 days at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. The high point was climbing Baldy Mountain, 12,441 feet above sea level, in the Cimarron range. This past summer, he was inducted into scouting’s Order of the Arrow, and, as quartermaster of a troop of Southeastern U.S. scouts, he attended the World Scout Jamboree in Rinkaby, Sweden.

Scott played first trombone in the South Central District Honors Band (All-District), and he’s a member of the Charlotte Youth Wind Ensemble and his school’s jazz, spirit and concert bands.

Ethan and Luke FosterAges: 10Grade: 5th grade at Beverly Woods Elementary SchoolParents: Bob and Laurie Foster

When Ethan found out that his Beverly Woods team’s creativity had won first place in the world finals of 2011 Odyssey of the Mind competition, “I was jumping up and down and screaming,” he remembers. His twin brother Luke, also a member of the team, vows: “We’re going to do it again next year.”

The competition, designed to promote problem-solving skills, asks teams to choose a problem, solve it according to guidelines and present an entertaining account of their work. Ethan and Luke's team of singing, dancing "dust bunnies" had to rescue its star bunny from a vacuum cleaner. They transformed a single sheet of paper into an airplane, a boat and, finally, a list of operating instructions for the vacuum cleaner.

Both Fosters also competed this year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Math Olympiad and Science Olympiad. One of Ethan’s tasks was to use pipe cleaners, cotton balls and other common materials to cushion an egg dropped from a height. “You don’t want it to break. Ours, it did,” he remembers. But, “it barely broke, just a tiny little crack in it. We still got points.”

In Beverly Woods’ Stemapalooza program, the boys build robots with Legos, then program them with a computer. When they’re not having fun figuring things out with science and math, they skateboard and take part in gymnastics.

Garland AustinAge: 17Grade: Senior at Charlotte Latin SchoolParents: Lilla and Wade Austin

Garland, a senior standout in softball and basketball, made a decision last fall that changed the direction of her life. She decided not to pursue a college scholarship in softball, focusing instead on what she really wanted in college: A pre-med education and a chance to serve others. As a result, says the All-State player in the 3-A division, N.C. independent schools, the season “was particularly fun because I got to play for love of the game and not have perfect stats.”

As a Carolinas Medical Center volunteer, she loved getting a feel for the medical world “by listening to see what the nurses were saying as they were going by.” She hasn’t chosen a specialty, but she thinks “oncology is fascinating.” She’s also worked in the kitchen at Urban Ministries, tutored children at Seigle Avenue Partners, and participated in faith-based Young Life.

This year at Latin, she’ll be a senior leader in charge of the Thanksgiving assembly, the volleyball tournament for breast cancer, and the Nevin Center dance – all events she has been a former volunteer for. “It will be really fun this year to have some of the say in the decisions.”

Yeonsoo Sara Lee Age: 16Grade: Junior at Myers Park High SchoolParents: Seok-won and Boonda Lee

"I've always liked listening to music and always had little melodies running through my head, says Sara. A former teacher showed her how to put the notes down on paper, and three of her compositions for piano have won awards and invitations to perform them at the N.C. School of the Arts.

Sara, a pianist since age 5, also plays first-chair violin in the Charlotte Youth Orchestra. She’s now composing “my biggest project ever,” a concerto for an entire orchestra. She’s doing it for fun, but “if I win a couple of competitions along the way, that’s perfectly fine, too.”

Sara has won honors in math and science, including an invitation to North Carolina’s 2011 Summer Ventures in Science and Math. She speaks Korean, Japanese, and Spanish, and she learned Braille and sign language to help her in tutoring exceptional middle school students. This past summer, she competed nationally with the celebrated Myers Park debate team, and also visited Washington as the winner of a Colonial Dames of America national essay contest.

This year, she’s vice president of Myers Park’s IB Council, where, she says, “we’re really focused on trying to bring about change,” both locally and globally.

Neha Kukreja Age: 17Grade: Senior at Providence Day SchoolParents: Atul and and Neeta Kukreja

Neha is following in her mother Neeta’s footsteps when she takes the dance stage. Her mom performed classical Indian dance professionally in her home country of India when she was Neha's age. Now Neha, who has performed at Charlotte’s annual Festival of India, performs a repertoire of jazz, tap, hip-hop, ballet and lyrical, and her own invention – tap dancing to the beat of Indian tabla drums. “I think it’s important to stay in touch with my culture,” says the U.S.-born Neha.

Neha studies and teaches dance at Rhythm Dance Studio in Matthews and both dances and choreographs for the Providence Day dance team, which she captains. She’s on the cross-country team at Providence Day as well. “It keeps me fit for dance.” And she was selected to attend the 2011 N.C. Governor’s School in dance at Salem College in Winston-Salem. This fall, she joins the Nrityangan Cultural Ensemble, which dances to the musical scores from popular “Bollywood” Indian-American movies.

Neha became fascinated with tap when, arriving early for dance class, she’d see others performing. “Making music with your feet – it’s really cool,” she says.

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