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2017 Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team

Meet the best and brightest high school students in the state.

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The class of 2017, our 23rd, is made up of athletes, coders, budding politicians and brain experts. There's rarely a B on the transcripts of these students — in not just this, their senior year, but in any year of their high school careers.

Back in 1995, we created the Academic All-Star Team to honor what we then called "the silent majority — the kids who go to school, do their homework (most of it, anyway), graduate and go on to be contributing members of society." Too often, we argued then, all Arkansans heard about young people was how poorly they were faring. Or, when students did get positive attention, it came for athletic achievement.

As you read profiles of this year's All-Stars, it should be abundantly clear that good things are happening in Arkansas schools and there are many academic achievers who deserve to be celebrated. You should get a good idea, as well, of how these stellar students are busy outside school, with extracurricular activities, volunteer work, mission activities and more.

They'll be honored this week at a ceremony at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with plaques and $250 cash awards.

Many college plans listed here are not set in stone, as students await information on scholarships and acceptances.

CAROLINE COPLIN-CHUDY
Age: 17
Hometown: North Little Rock
High School: Mount St. Mary Academy
Parents: (guardian) Dennis Chudy
College plans: Duke University

Caroline Coplin-Chudy has a 4.4 grade point average — high enough to rank second in her class at Mount St. Mary Academy — and lost her mother to leukemia during her sophomore year, something she told us came to be a source of inspiration and drive during her academic development. "It was a big adjustment. After my mom passed away, it was just my stepdad. It's a weird realization coming to the idea that both of your parents are gone, and it's just you. ... I still think of her every single day. She motivates me to do well in everything, because my whole life I wanted to make her proud." Caroline is president of Mount St. Mary's Investment Club and of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions). She's also been a regular volunteer for several years at the Little Rock Compassion Center, whose recovery branch provides meals and health resources to people suffering from addiction. Caroline said she found healing from her own grief in the friendships she forged there. As the recipient of a Questbridge scholarship, described by Caroline's guidance counselor and nominator Amy Perkins as a program where lower-income students qualify for tuition to schools with which they "match" via an early decision process, Caroline will attend Duke University on a full scholarship. "I'm going to study biology and psych, with a minor in Spanish. My plan is to work at the Duke Center for Addiction [Science and Technology] helping people with drug addictions overcome that sort of thing. It's something that I've had experience with, watching my family go through things like that."

AXEL NTAMATUNGIRO
Age: 17
Hometown: Pine Bluff
High School: Subiaco Academy
Parents: Sixte Ntamatungiro and Sylvana Niciteretse
College plans: Rice University, neuroscience

Axel Ntamatungiro grew up among books and maps dispersed throughout his home that "paint[ed] the walls with nuanced shades of knowledge." It shows. Not often can a high school senior explain, as Axel does, his love for studying the brain so easily. "Neuroscience is basically a neuron turning on and off," he said. "The fact that you have billions of these combinations that lead to consciousness, that's unbelievable." To continue learning about the mind, Axel is headed to Rice University on a full ride as a QuestBridge scholar. Maybe medical school or graduate school after that. Axel said his parents taught him a "humble intellectualism" that helped him understand "the irrationality of life." They always told him: "Work hard, but you need to realize you don't always get what you deserve." And life has been, at times, irrational and difficult for his family. Axel was the only member of his family born in the United States — in Little Rock in 1999. The rest migrated from Burundi in the early 1990s. They stayed here as the Rwandan genocide inflicted incredible damage in the area. That past was never hidden from Axel. "Instead of avoiding my questions, my parents level-headedly answered [them], telling me about Belgian colonialism, Hutu-Tutsi tension and the systematic poverty afflicting Burundi," he said. Maybe that is why Axel has never been afraid to ask big questions. He said it also helped to have a diverse group of friends who taught him new things. At his cafeteria table for lunch are kids from all over: Nigeria, Fort Smith, Japan, Bentonville and Russia. Everyone's small stories add to a global perspective, something bigger from something small, kind of like those neurons.

JADE DESPAIN
Age: 18
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Haas Hall Academy (Fayetteville)
Parents: Brenan and Tiffany DeSpain
College plans: U.S. Naval Academy, nuclear engineering

For Jade DeSpain, the question, "Where's your hometown?" isn't necessarily as straightforward as it seems. The National Merit semifinalist, swimming star and Quiz Bowler spent much of her childhood in Beijing, where her parents — both fluent in Mandarin — taught her Chinese concurrently with English (and where, she notes, she acquired an "incredible prowess with chopsticks.") "We've moved around so much that I don't really have a 'hometown,' but Springdale is the closest I've ever gotten," she said. She's made her impact there, too, tutoring students free of charge through her volunteer work with the M&N Augustine Foundation and putting in time at the Arkansas Council for the Blind and the Springdale Animal Shelter. Jade is ranked second in her class, and her high school transcript is full of aced courses in trigonometry, physics and calculus. She's also the co-founder of Haas Hall Academy's coding club, so a career in nuclear energy development — Jade's field of choice — isn't just an aspiration; it's the plan. "I have a deep appreciation for nature," she told us, citing Devil's Den State Park as a spot to which she feels closely connected, and stressing the importance of preserving natural spaces and developing more long-term options for sustainable energy. On Christmas Day 2016, Jade checked her email to find that she'd attained something she'd wanted as early as age 12: acceptance to the U.S. Naval Academy. There, she'll major in nuclear engineering and complete her five mandatory post-Academy years in the Navy, after which she hopes to acquire a Ph.D. in the field.

AVERY ELLIOTT
Age: 18
Hometown: Cabot
High school: Cabot High School
Parents: Dan and Melissa Elliott
College plans: University of Arkansas, medicine

Though many of our All-Stars seem destined from birth for academic greatness, there is the occasional inspiring All-Star who has had to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. One of those is Cabot High School's Avery Elliott, who was born with nystagmus, a condition that causes involuntary eye movements that can make it hard for sufferers to concentrate and learn. Though it's hard to imagine it now, when she was in elementary school Avery found herself falling further and further behind her classmates in reading because of her condition. "That was difficult," she said. "I was behind schedule until about third or fourth grade. I would have to go home and really work with my parents to keep up with the rest of the class." Even though she struggled early on, Avery said that, in a way, the nystagmus contributed to her success and gave her a direction to follow. "I had to learn to really study even outside of school," she said. "I learned some very good study habits. But I think it also really affected where I wanted to go as far as my career. ... I really learned that a medical team can not only dispense medicine, but can really affect someone's life." A National Merit finalist who has volunteered extensively with Special Olympics and already completed 43 hours of college-level coursework, Avery has been awarded the University of Arkansas Fellowship. She plans to study medicine at UAMS after completing her undergrad degree, then practice in Arkansas. That goal has always pushed her to succeed academically. "I wanted to go into the medical field from an early age," she said, "so I knew starting out in high school that I needed to make very good grades in order to get where I needed to. I had to really learn the material, rather than just trying to ace a test."

JARED GILLIAM
Age: 17
Hometown: Cabot
High school: Cabot High School
Parents: Dan and LeAnne Gilliam
College plans: University of Arkansas, engineering

When most young people say they want to change the world, it's easy to believe that's just pie-in-the-sky thinking by someone who hasn't yet been through the Academy of Hard Knocks. When Jared Gilliam says he wants to change the world, however, there's a good chance he might actually pull it off. Jared even has a plan: He'll change the world through engineering. A National Merit finalist and AP scholar with a GPA of 4.18 and a perfect score of 36 on the ACT, Jared is well placed to do just that. A musician who plays percussion with the Cabot High Marching Band, Jared said his favorite subject in school is math. "I think I'm mostly interested in engineering because I've always been sort of a problem-solver," he said. "I've enjoyed math and science, working through things and finding solutions to everyday problems. This year, I've been in robotics, so we've spent time working on a robot to perform various tasks. I've enjoyed that a lot. I think engineering is where my ability would best be used." He'll attend the University of Arkansas, which has offered him the Honors College Fellowship. He said the drive to excel academically has always been a part of his life. "I've grown up being encouraged to do well, and I guess I have my parents to thank for that and all my teachers," he said. "I think knowing that I have the ability to do all of this, I feel compelled to do what I can to make a difference. I think life would be pretty boring if I didn't go out there and do all the things I do. I don't think I could settle for not being successful."

BENJAMIN KEATING
Age: 18
Hometown: Fort Smith
High School: Southside High School
Parents: Drs. Bill and Janice Keating
College plans: Undecided

If you were looking for a ringing endorsement of Ben Keating's character, you'd need to look no further than Amy Slater, the guidance counselor who nominated him for our Academic All-Stars roster and who said of Ben, "He is all the things I hope my son turns out to be. ... He really thinks about things, and he practices the trumpet and piano for hours a day. It's crazy, his dedication." Ben probably had something to prove here; he admits to some skepticism on the part of his mother when he announced he'd be pursuing a career in music. He's certainly proved his mettle; Ben is band president at Southside, was a principal trumpet for the 2017 National Youth Honor Orchestra, first chair for Southside's Wind Symphony and for the All-State Jazz Band and was ranked in the top-tier bands for All-State Band and All-State Orchestra each year from 2014-16. The accolades go on and on: Ben has received a Young Artist Award from the International Trumpet Guild, a Gold Medal from the National Piano Guild and superior ratings from the National Federation of Music Clubs competitions for over a decade. He plays for the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra and as a volunteer musician for the Fort Smith Community Band. Ben is still deciding where to attend college, but wherever he goes, he hopes to continue playing with an orchestra. Eventually, he wants to teach at the university level. "Ultimately," he wrote, "I want to use my passion to unite people of all different races, backgrounds and cultures. In today's society that is politically and culturally divided, it is more important than ever to share the universal language of music."

KATHERINE HAHN
Age: 17
Hometown: Hindsville
High School: Huntsville High School
Parents: Shannon Hahn
College plans: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, biochemical engineering

Katherine Hahn is ranked first in her class at Huntsville High School, which she attends because her hometown of Hindsville is too small to support its own school system. The population of Hindsville is "about 75 people," she told us. At Huntsville High, Katherine plays bass drum in the marching band and marimba/xylophone in the concert band and runs with the Huntsville cross-country team. Her real passion, though, is science. "I think I've always wanted to go to a college that was science-based and research-based," she told us. Her high school principal, Roxanne Enix, noted her own surprise when Katherine announced that she'd take 10 credits her senior year, instead of the recommended eight. "I thought she had lost her mind," Enix stated. Those credits, over half of which are in AP classes, are what Katherine hopes have prepared her for the rigorous workload at MIT. Aiming for a career in pharmaceutical development, Katherine plans to study biochemical engineering, something she said resonated personally with her as a result of her mother's struggle with skin cancer. "Biology helps me understand why medicine does the things it does," Katherine told us. "Whenever I first started out, I wanted to do environmental stuff," she said, but turned her attention to drug delivery systems after observing so many friends and loved ones battling cancer. "I want to help stop people from being scared of losing people," she explained. Katherine, a native of Tahlequah, Okla., who moved to Arkansas around fifth grade, has served on the Madison County Health Coalition as Youth Leader and was named Student of the Year in 2017 by the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce and Huntsville High School.

GEORGIANA BURNSIDE
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: Little Rock Christian Academy
Parents: Bob and Ann Burnside
College plans: Stanford University, biology and public policy

When this reporter mentioned to friends at UAMS that she'd just spoken to an amazingly poised, optimistic and intelligent young woman with a spinal cord injury, they said in unison, "You mean Georgiana Burnside." Her reputation as a teenager who at 16 was paralyzed from the waist down in a snow skiing accident but who considers the event a "blessing" no doubt goes further than UAMS, all the way to Denver's Craig Hospital, where she spent "the most memorable two months in my life," she said, and where she returns to continue her rehabilitation. What is a spinal cord injury? She answers that it is a) a life changed in a split second, b) finding out that a bad attitude is the true disability, c) a time to show off wheelchair tricks, and d) spontaneous moments of unfortunate incontinence. In her essay for the Arkansas Times, Georgiana writes, "my physical brokenness has developed wholeness in my heart about the capacity life holds for individuals regardless of their disabilities." In a phone interview, Georgiana, once a figure skater, talked about her work with Easter Seals, fundraisers for Craig Hospital, and giving talks and testimony about her faith. Georgiana has regained the ability to walk with hiking sticks and leg braces, thanks to the strength in her quads. And, thanks to support from the High Fives Foundation in Truckee, Calif., which sponsors athletes with injuries and which has paid for some of her rehabilitation, Georgiana returned to the slopes over spring break, skiing upright with the aid of long forearm equipment. At Stanford, she'll study to be a doctor, with a goal to return to Craig Hospital as a physician who'll treat other injured youths who, though they may have, like Georgiana, at first believed their life was over, will learn they have "a unique role ... enabling the advancement of society."

MITCHELL HARVEY
Age: 17
Hometown: North Little Rock
High School: North Little Rock High School
Parents: David and Susan Harvey
College plans: Likely Mississippi State University, chemical engineering

Mitchell Harvey is a big fan of the periodic table. "The elements are amazing little things," he wrote in his Academic All-Star essay. "They make up everything, yet we hardly see them in their pure form in everyday life." Mitchell decided they needed more exposure, so he started collecting examples of the elements and taking them to school for his peers and teachers to see. He extracted helium from an abandoned tank on the side of the road. He found zinc in wheel weights, grew crystals of copper with electrolysis and made bromine, which he describes as "a blood-red liquid that fumes profusely," from a "crude" homemade distillation setup and pool chemicals. Though you can buy sodium readily, Mitchell made his by melting drain cleaner (sodium hydroxide) with a blowtorch and then passing a current through it, separating the mixture into sodium metal, oxygen and water. His parents were OK with the procedure, he says, because he wore a Tyvek suit, three pairs of gloves, safety goggles and a face shield. While on a college visit in California last summer, Mitchell toured Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and was impressed by the large periodic table display exhibit there. So he decided to build one for North Little Rock High. He got money from the school's alumni group, the Wildcat Foundation, to pay for the supplies necessary to construct the 9-foot-by-6-foot display. He hopes to have it completed in the next two weeks and fill it with examples of elements he has collected, though he may need additional funding to pay for other elements. No. 1 in a class of 687, Mitchell scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. He's also an Eagle Scout, and led a project to plant 800 native hardwood seedlings at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park. After college, Mitchell said, he might start his own waste remediation business. "The business model I would be going for would be taking some byproduct that's hazardous and turning it into something useful."

CARSON MOLDER
Age: 18
Hometown: Mabelvale
High school: Bryant High SCHOOL
Parents: Kevin and Ruby Molder
College plans: University of Arkansas

Not everybody plays the mellophone and likes to draw up better interstate exchanges, but Carson Molder does both. The University of Arkansas Honors College-bound student, No. 1 in his class, likes to create three-dimensional schemes in his head, and has been creating road designs since he was young. But as a musician who plays the French horn in his school's orchestra and the mellophone in the Legacy of Bryant marching band, and who has won a band scholarship in addition to his Honors College reward to the UA, he said that one day he may be an audio engineer. "I'm going to put things together and see what sticks," he said of his future. Meanwhile, Carson said the internet has been his Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, taking him to new places that he otherwise could not get to. "I can count on my hands the number of times I have set foot outside Arkansas," Carson wrote in an essay for the Arkansas Times. But with the internet, "I can gaze into the redwood forests of California and the skyscrapers of New York City without leaving my desk." Without the internet, he said in a phone interview, "I would not be at the top of my class." Carson added, "It's not going to replace going out and visiting these things, but if you're a kid and don't have the money to go out, you can visit Yellowstone." Carson, who describes himself as "really ambitious," is looking forward to studying with Dr. Alan Mantooth, the director of the UA National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission. The UA, he said, "will provide me the tools" he'll need to succeed in graduate school, which he hopes will be Stanford University.

OLIVIA LANGER
Age: 18
Hometown: Jonesboro
High school: Brookland High School
Parents: Kelly Webb and Jonathan Langer
College plans: University of California, Santa Barbara, chemistry

You might think that a student who is No. 1 in her class and a National Merit finalist with nary a B on her high school transcript might not consider one of her greatest achievements her selection as her high school's drum major three years in a row. But here's the thing: Schoolwork comes easy to Olivia Langer. "I never had to work hard," she told us. In fact, her style of learning is "conversation-based," she said; she enjoys "debate without argument." But music was different: "I struggled at points, and had to put in extra work to be good." Her selection as drum major was "something I know I've worked for," she said, and she has enjoyed the responsibilities that come with it. "I like to take care of people. The band calls me band mom," she added. Beside numerous academic awards, Olivia also earned a 2017 state Horatio Alger scholarship for students who have overcome great obstacles. Hers, Olivia said, was financial: She's always had a place to stay and food to eat, but she hasn't been able to afford academic programs. "Honestly, I wasn't able to visit any of the colleges I applied to," she said. So she will see the UC Santa Barbara campus for the first time when she arrives this fall. She's considering a double major in chemistry and anthropology; she's interested in the evolutionary side of anthropology, and plans to seek graduate and post-graduate degrees.

REBECCA PARHAM
Age: 18
Hometown: Alma
High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts
Parents: Eileen and Rick Parham
College plans: University of Arkansas or Hendrix College

On a visit to Hanamaki, Japan, with her school, Rebecca Parham noticed that once a month all the citizens would clean the front of their homes and shops. Folks would give each other gifts, too. "It was clear people tended to think for the whole," she said. "I thought that was really nice." An avid chemist, Rebecca did not just improve her Japanese on the trip, she brought those lessons of helping the community back to Arkansas. Her work has been at the intersection of heady science and community impact. In her robotics club, she noticed that girls were less likely to participate. "I decided that was not OK," she said. So, she designed a day with LEGO kits to encourage women to pursue STEM education. That desire to make an impact goes beyond school, too. For her senior project, Rebecca designed a test for homebuyers to see if meth had been cooked on their property (yes, meth). Her parents, on hearing of this project choice, asked her to "please explain a little bit further ... ." Here's the gist: The method of meth production in rural areas has shifted to something called the Birch reduction; older testing kits would no longer work. But Rebecca thought she could produce one that could. She designed a flame test. It finds lithium compounds left behind. The process of invention was "definitely frustrating," Rebecca said, but you "learn things you never thought of before." Rebecca did not plan to spend senior year in her dorm late at night "searching online" how to identify meth production, but she has a driving curiosity toward science and how it "connects to the world." She hopes to work in renewable energy — to be part of the global community, from Japan to Arkansas — making the world a nice place in which to live.

GRANT ROBINSON
Age: 18
Hometown: Searcy
High school: Searcy High School
Parents: Eric and Lisa Robinson College plans: University of Arkansas

Grant Robinson's father is a cardiologist, and Grant long figured he would follow in his dad's footsteps. But now he's not so sure. Last summer, he was selected, among thousands of applicants from around the world, to participate in a Stanford University summer engineering program. He got to experience a taste of college life, to take advantage of Stanford's decked-out labs and to tour the area to see results of civil engineering. The most memorable part of the program? Grant's small group built a Rube Goldberg machine — a complicated gadget that performs a simple task in a convoluted way — that, by Grant's estimation, was "the most complex and aesthetically pleasing" in the program. It included an electromagnet the group handmade and chemical reactions triggered by the machine. Grant's academic achievements are the byproduct of a natural curiosity. He said he spends what little free time he has exploring YouTube, trying to figure out the way the world works. Another influence: His father, who pulled himself out of poverty to become a doctor, has always instilled in him the importance of hard work. The message clearly stuck. Grant is second in his class of 263, with a 4.27 GPA. He scored a 35 on the ACT. He's a Presidential Scholar. His classmates voted him most likely to receive the Nobel Prize. He also participated in Project Unify (now known as Unified Champion Schools), an effort by the Special Olympics to get young people with and without special needs to come together for activities. Grant helped plan a basketball tournament as part of the project. In the fall, he'll be rooting on the Razorbacks at the University of Arkansas.  

JOHN SNYDER
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: Little Rock Christian Academy
Parents: Jill and Steve Snyder
College plans: Cornell University, industrial and labor relations

Whatever you were doing by your senior year in high school, chances are you probably hadn't already authored a book, much less a book on the complicated intersection of taxation and politics. John Snyder has, though. His book, "The Politics of Fiscal Policy," explores the political aspects of economics, including the pros and cons of various governmental tax schemes and their effect on government spending. It's for sale on Amazon right now. "It's pretty concise," John said, "but I wanted a way to express all my ideas in economic terms. That was a great way to do that." A history buff who serves as vice president of his class, John has a stunning 4.49 GPA and is ranked first in his class of 129. Though he wanted to be a lawyer when he was younger, his plan now is to go into investment banking. "Ultimately I want to have my own hedge fund — this thing called an activist hedge fund — and eventually I want to be actively involved in politics, whether that's in the midst of my business career or after ... . I'd love to run for public office one day." At Cornell University, John will be studying industrial and labor relations, a field that marries his love of multiple subjects. "Basically it ties in business, law, economics and history all into sort of one degree," he said. "You can do limitless things [with the degree]. Some people go into law school, some go into banking, some go to politics. That's why I chose that degree." John said his philosophy is that we have only a limited amount of time on earth, and so we should try to make the most of our lives. "I think there are a lot of things I can do to change the way things currently are in society, whether it's related to business or in academia or public policy," he said. "If I don't play a role in that and I'm not striving to do my best, I would feel like I'm wasting my potential."

PRESTON STONE
Age: 18
Hometown: Benton
High school: Benton High School
Parents: Haley Hicks and Brec Stone
College plans: University of Arkansas, pre-med

Benton High School's Big Man on Campus — No. 1 in his class, captain of the football team, an AP Scholar, straight As — can add to his resume the fact that he helped build his home. Preston, his two brothers and his mother bounced around a bit after her divorce, from Texas to Arkansas, living with grandparents and friends, Preston said. Then the family was selected by Habitat for Humanity, and he and his brothers pitched in to build their house. "It was the first place I could truly call home and it allowed me the stability I needed to grow into the kind of student I am today," he wrote in his essay for the Arkansas Times. Preston, who also helped build a school outreach group called SERVE to help new or struggling students, also credits sports for giving him purpose. He recently volunteered to trade in the pigskin for a basketball, joining a team that played boys at the Alexander Juvenile Detention Center. "It was an awesome experience," Preston said in a phone interview. "We were a little bit nervous at first" at the detention center, he said, but the team enjoyed the game — even though they lost to the Alexander team, formed to reward inmates with good behavior. "They practice every day," Preston said. Preston has received a $70,000 Honors College scholarship at Fayetteville. He won't be playing football with the Razorbacks. Instead he is thinking of following a pre-med track that will lead him to sports medicine. He plans to go Greek, as well.

KARINA BAO
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: Central High School
Parents: Amy Yu and Shawn Bao
College plans: undecided

Karina Bao embraces complexity. The Central High School valedictorian (in a class of 636) is a member of the school's back-to-back state champion Ethics Bowl Team, for which she said she spent hours "researching, discussing and sometimes even arguing" case studies. Unlike debate, she said Ethics Bowl is "really about the back-and-forth and considering different caveats and nuances and considerations" in issues ranging from local food to gender identity. As president of the school's Brain Club, she leads discussions on brain diseases, disorders and anatomy. It's a role for which she's more than qualified: She placed first in the U.S. Brain Bee, a youth neuroscience competition in which contestants answer questions about anatomy and make diagnoses based on patient actors. Placing No. 1 in the U.S. competition landed Karina a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, to the International Brain Bee, which happened to coincide with a Federation of International Neuroscientists conference, where Karina got to talk to scientists from all over the world about their groundbreaking research. She placed fifth in the international competition. A perennial outstanding delegate winner at Model United Nations competitions, Karina said Model U.N. has helped her to "not be scared of the complexity and interconnectedness of pressing issues we face today." In her spare time, Karina volunteers on the oncology wing of Baptist Hospital. "You don't get to do much," she said. "But at least we get to talk to people and help them with whatever they need and be there to listen." In her Academic All-Stars essay, Karina echoed the same drive for understanding: "The stories other people share with me become not my own when I retell them, but a part of humanity's collective spirit to understand each other. We grow from hours of listening and crying, to empathize, to have the strength and openness to pop each successive layer of the protective bubble that keeps us from seeing the very world in which we reside."

BRYCE COHEA
Age: 19
Hometown: Greenwood
High school: Greenwood High School
Parents: Mike and Robin Cohea
College plans: University of Tulsa or Vanderbilt university, biology

Though he grew up landlocked, far from the deep blue sea, Greenwood High School standout Bryce Cohea knew from an early age that he wanted to be a marine biologist. To reach that goal, Bryce had to start early. "In the ninth grade," he wrote in his Academic All-Stars essay, "I began planning out all my classes for the next four years. I wanted to graduate top of my class, and in order to do that I would need to take every advanced placement class and get an A in every class." That's exactly what he did, too, making nothing less than a perfect grade in every class for his entire high school career. With a 4.25 GPA and a rank of No. 1 in his class of 275, Bryce has volunteered extensively with the Salvation Army and collected shoes for the homeless; he helps unload trucks and stock shelves at the food bank at his church. A National Merit semifinalist, he also has the distinction of having scored the first perfect ACT score of 36 in Greenwood High School history. "I've honestly been a good test-taker," he said. "The first time I took it, I got a 34. After that, I got the test back and I worked on whatever I missed. After a few more tries, I got a 36." Bryce was still deciding on which university to attend when we spoke to him, but he definitely plans to study science. The subject has always interested him, he said. "I'm planning on majoring in biology and then specializing after that," he said.

IMANI GOSSERAND
Age: 16
Hometown: Rogers
HIGH SCHOOL: ROGERS HIGH SCHOOL
Parents: James and Hyesun Gosserand

College plans: University of Southern California, Harvey Mudd College or Columbia University, computer science or environmental science

Imani Gosserand has a journal in which she organizes the many moving parts of her life — competitive gymnastics, AP classes, computer science, Young Democrats, volunteering — into lists. Personal stuff is in there, too: bucket lists, remembrances. The journal combines the creative and the organized; it is problem-solving with an artful flare, which is how Imani operates. "I really like being able to create something of my own," she said of computer science. At a camp at Stanford University, in California, her team won the competition to program a car. Imani, not surprisingly, is good at math: She learned multiplication at age 4 and went on to skip two grades. Imani thinks schoolwork is fun. "We had a huge packet of homework problems we had to do over one of our breaks," she said. "And no one else was excited about it except for me. I was like 'Oh, I'm so excited to do all these problems!' " She brings that enthusiasm for problem-solving to bigger issues, as well. "I feel like there are so many opportunities for me because our world relies on technology, so I think I could go into any field," she said. She's excited to explore and see where she can help. "I want to meet people from around the world and hear different perspectives."

C.J. FOWLER
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Central High School
Parents: Bobbi and Dustin McDaniel and Chris and Kim Fowler
College plans: Yale University

C.J. Fowler has long been around Democratic politics. His stepfather is former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. But C.J. said he decided to become more politically involved himself after he came out as gay. "The situation that I'm in is not great," he said. "People are not always accepting. But it's on me if I want to try to change that and make it better for the people who come after me. I have to make sure that my community and all marginalized communities have a seat at the table, because far too often a bunch of old gray white guys are making policies that hurt everyone else." The student body president of Central High, C.J. said he's tried to move the student council, a glorified dance committee, toward advocacy and activism for students throughout the district, whose future is being decided by those "people sitting in dark rooms." He said students too often get left out of the conversation about the district "because we're too young to have opinions. But we're not; we're living it every day." C.J. has been a fixture at Little Rock School District public comment periods. Though he can't point to any policy victories, he said at least LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore knows who he is and that he disagrees with him. C.J., who is also the executive director of Young Democrats of Arkansas, sees the backlash against President Trump as encouraging. "We're realizing that, if we're going to go all in for progressive values, we need to go all in." Rather than join the chorus of progressives in the Northeast after he finishes at Yale, C.J. says he wants to come back to Arkansas and possibly continue in politics. He admires state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and says he hopes if he ever holds office that he can follow her example.

SOPHIE PRICE
Age: 18
Hometown: Fort Smith
High School: Southside High
Parents: Claire Price and Scott Price
College plans: Vanderbilt University, political science

"Growing up, I would always argue with everybody," Sophie Price said. Sometimes it was just to play devil's advocate, but mostly, it was because Sophie wants to find the capital-t Truth. Some of this digging for truth is class: seven AP course just this year and 12 during her time in high school. But, some of it is also talking with people, discussing issues. "The best way to improve your argument is to hear the counters, to hear the other side," Sophie said, and often she is willing to be convinced. She wants to do the right thing; she believes in justice. Which is why after college at Vanderbilt on a full scholarship, she wants to field arguments as a judge. "My whole life I've followed this ideal that you have to do what's right," Sophie said. "I want to be a judge so I can kind of decide that." Vanderbilt was the only school to which Sophie applied. She knew it was the right one for her. She arrived in Nashville on a rainy day in January, but through the gloom, she knew. "Something about the beautiful campus and the intelligent people and these varying perspectives just sold me immediately," she said. In a few months she was back at Vanderbilt for a camp where she studied law, and it cemented the deal. "There was something so exhilarating about being able to have this case and have the facts and kind of create your own narrative and really advocate for someone that drew me in," she said. Watch out, because "everything I do, I want to give it a 120 percent," Sophie said.

MEAGAN OLSEN
Age: 17
Hometown: Fayetteville
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Anjanette Olsen
College plans: University of Arkansas Honors College, chemical engineering

Fayetteville High School’s top student, with a perfect ACT score of 36, a 4.2 gradepoint average and the co-author of a paper on fractal self-assembly, is not just a bookworm. She’s a leader, her counselor Cindy Alley says, who shows “grit, motivation to succeed and a desire to help others.” She is also, Alley says, “a pure joy to be around.” In her essay for the Arkansas Times, Meagan talked about how she came to understand “ternary counters,” a base-3 method of counting in which only the digits 0, 1 and 2 are used. (Binary counters of 0 and 1 make up our computer’s “thinking,” as people with 10 fingers, we use base 10 to count.) Meagan, trying to make a “self-assembling ternary counter,” said she banged her head against “endless walls” for weeks. Then just after 1 a.m., she woke up with the answer. It’s a wise child who gives credit where credit is due: “I understood,” she wrote, “my mother’s advice about taking a break whenever I was upset.” Meagan’s paper on fractal self-assembly was published in the 22nd International Conference on DNBA Computing and Molecular Programing. She no longer lets frustration prevent her from solving a problem; sometimes, she’ll just sleep on it. Meagan told the Times she plans to attend a small conference this summer and then take some needed down time. She plans to use her degree from Fayetteville to pursue biomedical research.

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