Meet the 2015 Charlotte Observer All-Star scholars

Each year, The Charlotte Observer recognizes outstanding high school graduates with its All-Star Scholars program.
Each year, The Charlotte Observer recognizes outstanding high school graduates with its All-Star Scholars program. The Charlotte Observer

Note to the teachers who encouraged this year’s Charlotte Observer All-Star Scholars to think big, work hard and believe in themselves: Your students heard you.

That’s clear when you talk to the 30 smart, interesting and motivated graduating high school seniors selected as this year’s All-Star Scholars. Many of their stories include the words: “I had this teacher …”

A favorite teacher told Morgan Nettles: “No matter where you come from or what you’ve been through, you can persevere.” And the teacher had Morgan stand on a desk and proclaim: “I will be somebody!”

The pep talk resonated with Morgan, a West Mecklenburg High senior whose family was once homeless. Morgan is now on track to be class valedictorian and attend Appalachian State University.

Lauren Cook of Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology says a favorite teacher got her hooked on computer programming. That’s what she’ll study when she heads to N.C. State.

“I have loved being able to get to know my teachers. I’ve grown such close bonds with a few,” said Mikayla Bowen, of Jay M. Robinson High School in Cabarrus County. Mikayla, an aspiring pediatrician, will go to UNC-Chapel Hill.

Favorite teachers challenged, captivated and counseled. Occasionally a teacher stepped in to urge an over-scheduled achiever to slow down, breathe and remember that families, friendships and fun are important, too.

You can imagine that these students are the stuff of teachers’ dreams.

They see a world that can be much better. Collectively, they plan to cure cancer, help the poor build affordable homes and solve America’s immigration crisis. They’ll work to expand solar energy, save endangered animals and fix Congress.

“They were all so different from each other, but each one was extraordinary,” said Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins, one of six judges.

(Interactive: Get to know the 2015 Charlotte Observer All-Star Scholars)

The best of the best

“They really are all outstanding; how do you choose the most outstanding of the outstanding?” asked Sugar Creek Charter School Principal Cheryl Turner, another judge.

The Charlotte News began honoring the city’s scholars in 1956. The Observer picked up the tradition when the News shut down in the 1980s.

Nominated by guidance counselors in Mecklenburg and seven surrounding counties, students are selected based on academic records, character and community service. The Observer received about 140 entries from more than 90 high schools and chose 30 finalists. The Observer’s judges interviewed the finalists, then selected 10 as the 2015 Seniors of the Year. Each wins a $1,000 scholarship. (The 10 scholarship recipients are pictured with this story.)

Most of the scholars are No. 1 or near the top of their classes. The majority plan careers in science, medicine or technology. One had a perfect SAT score; others came close.

They’ve performed thousands of hours of community service, from tutoring low-income children to healing injured wild birds to helping Ugandan and Ethiopian orphans on mission trips.

They are skilled athletes and captains of sports teams; musicians, artists and student government leaders. Some are children of well-educated parents; others will be the first in their families to attend college. A few are the English-speaking children of first generation immigrants who speak another language.

Choosing among them was difficult.

“I’m blown away by their talents and drive and the scope of their interests,” said Emily Zimmern, president of Levine Museum of the New South and one of the judges. “It’s reassuring for the future. You read so many stories about the lack of quality in academics … and then you see these students achieving at such a high level.”

Other judges were Jim Woodward, chancellor emeritus at UNC Charlotte; Hilda Gurdian, publisher of La Noticia newspaper; and Observer Editor Rick Thames.

Woodward said he was impressed with the students’ commitment to public service: “These are broadly engaged people,” he said.

Varied inspirations

Several students said attending N.C. Governor’s School was the highlight of their high school career.

“It changed me for the better,” said East Gaston High School’s Tyler Rapp. “I was really challenged to think in ways I hadn’t been challenged before. We’d talk about race, gender, sexuality – things you wouldn’t talk about in public school typically.”

Rapp was homesick his first week.

“By the end of the six weeks, I didn’t want to leave.”

Traveling also inspired several students.

“It was probably for sure the best thing I’ve ever done, and I can definitely see a difference in myself,” said Northwest School of the Arts’ Nia Moore, who raised money to take a European trip through the People to People Student Ambassador Program.

Many of the students talked about supportive families; others described how personal experiences steered them toward prospective careers.

Working at a camp for kids with heart conditions inspired Clover High School’s Elizabeth Edmunds to pursue a future as a pediatric cardiologist. Love for animals will send Charlotte Catholic’s Casey Margerum to Davidson College toward a possible career as a veterinarian.

Marvin Ridge High School’s Kayla Thompson plans to become a pediatric oncologist and hopes she can help find a cure for the leukemia that killed her beloved cousin, Jennie. “I miss her every day. She’s the reason why I do what I do.”

And a few students hope to continue the work of their teachers.

“In middle school, I had a very influential teacher who made me fall in love with writing,” says Meara Waxman, a Providence Day senior who wants to be an English teacher.

Kyle Johnson of Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe says his teachers have been advisers, sounding boards and life changers.

He had planned to become an engineer, but when a teacher questioned him about his interests, Kyle talked about his passion for music – he’s played with the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra – and the thrill he gets from it.

When the teacher asked him how he felt about engineering, Kyle grew quiet.

The teacher owned a trumpet he said was collecting dust and sold it to Kyle at a big discount. The trumpet will go with Kyle to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he’ll major in music education. He plans to be a high school music teacher.

As he wrote in his essay:

“I go into this profession knowing full and well that I won’t be living in a million-dollar mansion with butlers handing me platters of exotic foods. But honestly, I know I won’t need those things when I’m smiling from the conductor’s podium while changing the lives of future generations.”

Staff writer Pam Kelley contributed.

All-Star Scholar Nominees

These are the 2015 students nominated for the Observer’s All Star Scholars.

Cabarrus County

A.L. Brown: Briana Landis Daniel Sanchez.

cfa Academy: Noel Pena.

Cannon School: Sydney Frankenberg.

Concord High: Cassie White.

Cox Mill: Evan Alpern, Sydra Siddiqui.

Hickory Ridge: Mary Kathryn Wallace, Kruti Patel.

Jay M. Robinson: Mikayla Bowen.

Mount Pleasant: Caroline McDowell.

Northwest Cabarrus: Anna Silver, Rachel Silver.

Catawba County

Maiden: Madison Norket.

Bunker Hill: Cassey Cha.

Brandys: Allie Smith.

St. Stephens: Aaron Fox, Olivia Holmes.

Newton-Conover: Brittany Connor.

Hickory High: Ben Pleasant.

Gaston County

Ashbrook: Dalton Hoskins, Carlie Azar.

Bessemer City: Savannah Croft.

Cherryville: Caitlin Hay.

East Gaston: Tyler Rapp, Claire Paluszak.

Forestview: Abigail Cross, Max Flores-Palacios.

Gaston Christian: Victoria Becker.

Highland School of Technology: Jennifer Chan.

Hunter Huss: Yelisa Leiva, Zach Templeton.

North Gaston: Caroline Medlock.

Kings Mountain High: Sarah Scism, Mackenzie Smith.

South Point High: Morgan Mahaffey.

Iredell County

Collaborative College for Technology & Leadership: Katherine Pfeufer.

Mooresville High: David Faulkenberry, Peyton Roberts.

North Iredell: Jed McLaughlin.

South Iredell: Maggie Emery, Kelsey Jackson.

Statesville High: Chase Kleinhenz.

West Iredell: Kayla Morrow.

Lancaster County

Buford: Anna Funderburk.

Andrew Jackson: Allie Dabney.

Lincoln County

East Lincoln: Lexi Smith.

Lincoln Charter: Sophia Bhalla.

Lincolnton High: Kathryn Macomson.

North Lincoln: Andrew Cesmat.

West Lincoln: Cole Warlick.

Mecklenburg County

Ardrey Kell: Jackson Wright, Vishnu Menon, Allison Chang.

Butler: Chloe Pak, Charlotte Pak, Alex Zuelsdorf.

Cato Middle College: McKenzie O’Hara.

Charlotte Catholic: Casey Margerum, Ian Miller.

Charlotte Christian: Colter Corish.

Charlotte Country Day: Evan Cater.

Charlotte Latin: Ken Koch.

Community School of Davidson: Malia Carrie Ellington.

Covenant Day: Joe Yardley.

East Meck: Tin Phan, Charlotte Deiss.

Garinger: Tanajah Williams.

Harding: Ana Guerrero, Jeff Barahona.

Hickory Grove Christian: Anna Guercio.

Hopewell: Anna Claire Tucker, Matt Walker.

Hough: Jordan Eggleston, Via Savage, Joseph Obeid.

Independence: Kelsey Gonzalez, Halee Smith, Gabriel Palermo.

Lake Norman Charter: Ryan Stein.

Mallard Creek: Jane Henriques, Valerie Cristobal, Josh Kayani.

Myers Park: Pierre Lipton, Eliette Albrecht, Audrey Huynh.

North Mecklenburg: Sharad Wertheimer, Jason Lin.

Northwest School of the Arts: Nia Moore.

Olympic Biotechnology: Sabrina Spencer.

Olympic Executive Leadership: Jenese Wilson.

Olympic METS: Alex Doherty.

Olympic Renaissance: Morgan Adams.

Performance Learning Center: Maggie Deal.

Phillip O. Berry: Lauren Cook, Emi Gutierrez.

Providence Day: Meara Waxman.

Providence High: Rachel Pomerantz, Kevin Pickens, Connor Hall.

Rocky River: Courtney Bowden, Hira Javed.

South Mecklenburg: Zach Groce, John Hess, Lauren Glaze.

Vance: Jasmine Gaither, Jaman Timmons.

West Charlotte: Jennifer Tejeda, Bailey Turner.

West Mecklenburg: Morgan Nettles, Afi Bello.

Union County

Central Academy of Technology & Arts: Kyle Johnson.

Cuthbertson: Katie Izzo.

Forest Hills: Caroline Bradley.

Marvin Ridge: Kayla Thompson, Prakash Mishra.

Metrolina Christian Academy: Landon Whitley.

Parkwood: Lacey Billotto.

Piedmont High: Lucas Stegall, Cameron Tripp.

Porter Ridge: Laura Sanford.

Sun Valley: Gabby Dionisio, Nicki Jansen.

Union Academy: Logan Russell.

Union County Early College: Mikaela Maldonado.

Weddington High: Connor King, Lucy Hansen.

York County

Clover High: Elizabeth Edmunds, Patrick Smith.

Fort Mill High: Christopher Polito, John Romanski.

Nation Ford: Joseph Martinek.

Northwestern: Brogan Gaskill, Jade Morton.

Rock Hill High: Morgan Byars, Riley Moody, Alison Thrash.

South Pointe: Meghan Pearson.

York Comprehensive: Buddy Anderson, Carrie Lee Lancaster.

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