Looking back, looking ahead

This weekend, Julia Rhines put high school behind her.

Four years of homework-doing, test-taking and schedule-juggling came to an end Saturday when she received her diploma from North Mecklenburg High.

Her academic bottom line: Four years of straight-A report cards, and an acceptance letter from UNC Chapel Hill.

“It feels great,” she says, smiling. “I've always tried my hardest and know what I want, so I worked hard to get where I am.”

Mark Rhines says like many teenagers, the oldest of his three children needed a little push every once in a while.

“But she knows how to manage her time,” he adds. “She's usually thinking ahead and planning ahead for the things that need to be done.”

Not every “A” came easily.

She loves math and science, an affinity she might owe to her father, a chemical engineer and a vice president with Clariant, a global chemical corporation.

But English?

She makes a face. Not easy. But diligent worker-bee that she is, she pulled the same top marks in English as in Advanced Placement biology and anatomy, two of her favorites. She didn't bury herself in books, though. She played volleyball for four years, helping North Meck's team take the MECA-7 4A regular-season and tournament titles this year.

She's bracing for her next academic challenge at Chapel Hill, where she has been named an N.C. Nursing Fellow. She hopes one day to work in pediatrics or a neonatal unit.

Getting there won't be easy, she says. Chapel Hill's nursing program doesn't accept new students until they reach their sophomore year. Out of about 300 applicants, the nursing program takes only about 80.

Can she pull straight A's again?

“I hope to,” she says with a smile. “I just came back from (freshman) orientation yesterday, so I'm really excited.”

On her last day of high school, she sat at a picnic table on the North Meck campus, just 20 minutes removed from her last exam. Chewing gum and absently fingering her earrings, she looks as relaxed as she felt.

A school official's voice wafts across the intercom, giving last-minute directives about locker cleanings and other last-day-of-school necessities.

She thinks back across her four years and feels a sense of accomplishment, a job well done. She looks ahead and feels the lure of independence and adulthood, but also the anxieties about making new friends and tackling new academic challenges.

“I'm ready,” she says. “Ready to move on and get to college.”