The Observer’s All-Star Scholars program 2014 Seniors of the Year

Of course they’re smart. Naturally, they’re well-rounded. Teachers respect every one; colleges bid for their favors. Passions drive them forward like steam-powered locomotives.

So what makes the 2014 Charlotte Observer All-Star Scholars distinctive? They’re fixers.

One hopes to go back to his native Ecuador to improve public services. Another wants to polish the U.S. Navy’s reputation around the world, reminding people of its motto: “A global force for good.”

A future engineer plans to design an alternative to current traffic signals and crosswalks, so visually impaired people will be safer. Another engineer-to-be expects to improve technology and make developing ​nations greener.

All of them see problems, ​ponder solutions​ and seize their tools.​

The​se 10 Seniors of the Year, who each get $1,000 scholarships, come from a group of 29 regional finalists in the Observer’s All-Star Scholars program. High school counselors in the Observer area nominate ​top students on the basis of academic performance, character and community service. About 140 All-Stars emerge from 90 schools across eight counties, and panels of judges interview finalists chosen by the Observer.

Some will turn into Rhodes Scholars or congressional representatives. (That’s already happened.) Some will invent better mousetraps or, perhaps, better mice. Arthur Griffin, a 2014 judge and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chairman, wouldn’t be surprised by anything they accomplish.

“As a senior citizen, I hear concerns from my contemporaries about the future of America. If they could have been sitting there during the interviews, those fears would be significantly diminished,” Griffin said.

“I was floored by their commitment to learning and the community. One had volunteered for eight years doing the same thing; how many people have that kind of commitment? It didn’t matter what neighborhoods they came from; one was even homeless when she came to Charlotte. For her to have such focus and vision .”

The All-Star Scholars program sprang from a White House conference on education that asked, “If newspapers can publicize All-America football players, why not All-America brains?” The Charlotte News named the first All-City Brains Team in 1956, eventually changing the name to All-Star Scholars. The Observer continued the program when the News stopped publishing in the 1980s.

Wise beyond their years

Fellow judge Ann Caulkins, publisher of the Observer, called the 2014 crop old souls: “They were multidimensional, and the maturity of their thinking surprised me. I tend to think maturity comes from life experiences, but they have worldly thinking without having had the experiences first.

“All of them live on all cylinders, yet they were low-key, not tightly wound – compassionate, not competitive. A thread of happiness wound through the interviews; they were comfortable in their own skins.”

This year, the Observer invited people from the community to interview finalists. Panels included Caulkins; Griffin, who has just retired from McGraw-Hill education publishing; Carlos Sanchez, state director of external affairs for AT&T North Carolina; Observer Editor Rick Thames; Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School and member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board; and Jim Woodward, retired chancellor of UNC Charlotte.

Some scholars came out of high school with a clear goal. Megan Lauterer of East Lincoln High knew she wanted to attend a military college and applied to the Air Force and Navy academies; she’ll be at Annapolis in the fall. (She’d wanted to fly but feared her vision would disqualify her.)

“I’ve gone to numerous interviews for the academies, and the Observer’s was much harder,” she said. “Colleges ask about academics, what you’ve done in high school, what your experiences are. The Observer interview was about personal beliefs and characteristics, about relating yourself to the real world.

“The award gives me a sense of pride, knowing I represent my school. Being a small-town school, we don’t always see people reaching above and beyond to achieve. This gives me a chance to honor my teachers and make them know their hard work helped me become successful. When folks see me, they’re judging not just me but East Lincoln.”

Aaron Torres, who’s headed to Davidson College from South Mecklenburg, also felt the award reflected well on his principal, teachers and school. He was surprised by the choice: “My GPA was good, my SAT not that great, and the other two (scholars from his school) are brilliant.”

Judges may have been influenced by his life story: He came to New Jersey from Ecuador speaking no English, helped teach himself with “Amelia Bedelia” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (instilling a lifelong love of reading) and later learned French. He’s done social work, both abroad (raising money for Hogar de Esperanza, a Peruvian women’s shelter) and at home (starting a peer-tutoring service for kids struggling with Common Core classes at South Meck).

“The interview made me see that community service wasn’t just something I loved to do,” he said. “I realized it was really a part of my identity. I felt like my high school career had been well spent and started thinking about what I could do in the future.”

Paths through the wide world

Perhaps he and other winners can use Rachel Myrick or Matt Heyd as models.

Heyd, who won in 1988 from Providence Day School, now goes by Father Matt: Commitment to service in high school turned into a commitment to the Episcopal Church. After getting a degree in history and political science from UNC, he went into seminary work. He spent 10 years on the staff of Trinity Church in New York and became rector at Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan last spring.

“By the time I interviewed for All-Star Scholars, I had navigated the Morehead process,” he said. “The Observer interview wasn’t new, but it was important. The award was unique, because it gave me a sense of the whole of Charlotte as it then was. It included every high school from every part of the city.

“We were a generation who started school after (CMS integration). At the time, it seemed like there was a gulf between public and independent schools. I am very proud of my connection to (Providence Day) but sad that there was disconnection. The Observer award made me feel connected to a really diverse group. That meant a lot. It still does: Charlotte is home.”

Myrick, the Myers Park High grad who won in 2009, has graduated from UNC and is using her Rhodes Scholarship toward a master of philosophy in international relations. (She’ll get it from the University of Oxford in 2015.) Her self-evaluation during countless interviews has proved helpful.

“I find myself increasingly aware of how much more I have to learn, instead of developing a ‘stronger sense of self,’ ” she says. “I think it’s a myth that interviewers look for students with strong opinions; I think they look for self-awareness. Often, this means the acknowledgment that the world is far more complex than anything you could summarize in a 20-minute interview.

“As a young student, I don’t think there’s any greater honor than recognition from your own community. (It’s) often more validating than a prestigious honor from a distant committee. I’m acutely aware of this, now that I’ve been living abroad.

“At age 17, I was so eager to get out of Charlotte and move away from North Carolina. At 23, living in Oxford, I find myself identifying with my home more than ever.”

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