News » Cover Stories

The 2007 Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team

They shine brightly.


CAUSES COUNT: For Nicole Topich.
  • CAUSES COUNT: For Nicole Topich.

It’s the 13th edition of our program to honor 20 of the highest academic achievers in Arkansas. Given their records, we think you’ll agree it’s anything but unlucky to be among this number.

You’ll find a wide array of talents among our winners, but remember that academic excellence — grades, test scores and academic competition — is what the judges are looking for.

We invited nominations from every high school in Arkansas, public and private. Each school may submit one male and one female nominee. Two rounds of judging produce the winners, and we’ll also tell you those who achieved finalist status, but not the final cut.

The winners are to be honored at a ceremony this week at UALR, a sponsor of this competition from the beginning. They will receive plaques and cash awards. We’ve given out $65,000 so far.

The winners, if the past is a judge, are future winners of prestigious fellowships, doctors, lawyers, teachers and more.

Expect to see some of our winners on television. Our All-Star partner, the Arkansas Educational Television Network, will be filming our awards ceremony and also broadcasting profiles of some of this year’s winners.

The 2007 winners:


Age: 17

Hometown: Cabot

School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts

Parents: Steve and Tami Eggensperger

College plans: Drexel, Tulane, Georgia Tech, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, computer science

Gadget whiz

It’s a little difficult explaining why Caleb Eggensperger stands out from the crowd. Not because he doesn’t stand out — but because what he does is a mystery to those of us who don’t speak Google or computer. See, he’s got an API. That’s an application program interface, which computer programmer types use to create new applications for their operating environments, like Windows. And (in plain English) with that API, Caleb created a really cool thing: a computer gadget that lets you count down to a particular date, like (as he did, in 2005) when Christmas vacation starts.

He sent his countdown gadget to Google, which collects such things, and the next thing he knew it was proclaimed the No. 1 new gadget by Google and the then-16-year-old was on his way to California for an award presentation. (The Googlers were a little surprised at Caleb’s tender years, since most gadgets are designed by grown-up computer programmers, he said.) Now, Caleb anticipates getting an internship with Google the summer after his freshman year at the college he eventually decides on — his first choice is Drexel. And after college? He wants to be a computer programmer, of course, or what he calls a “system architect.”

Caleb’s more recent claim to fame was his designation as the only Arkansas student to win the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement, based on his AP science and math exams. It was worth $2,000 in scholarship cash.

In the essay he submitted for All-Star consideration Caleb raves not just about computers but about the School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. It took a few years, but he finally convinced his parents to let him go off to the Hot Springs boarding school, which had to create new math courses — vector calculus and quantum mechanics — for him and a few other whizzes there who’d taken all the other maths. “Through ASMSA, I’ve competed against other colleges in Arkansas in a programming contest (and beat them), spent 36 hours straight working on a math modeling problem ..., measured the speed of light to within a hundredth of a meter per second and beamed a sound signal across a room with a laser beam. ... I wouldn’t trade my experiences at ASMSA for anything.”


Age: 17

Hometown: Conway

High School: Conway High School

Parents: Molly and Don Walchuk

College plans: Yale or the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, foreign affairs

Ace of a student

Andrew Walchuk may have aced the American College Test with a 36 and be ranked No. 1 with two others in his senior class of 629, but that hasn’t given him a superior kind of attitude, his counselor said.

“Andrew just smiles and goes on his way,” Linda Hammontree said. “He gets a lot of pats on the back and high fives.” Hammontree describes Walchuk as “very humble,” including when the ACT result came in. “He had previously scored a 35, but few, very few students score a 36.”

Like his good friend Karthik Soora, a fellow All-Star, Walchuk has taken an interest in what’s going on beyond the U.S. borders. “Foreign affairs and tolerance of diversity have become the defining issues of my life,” he said, adding that he wants to change the distrust in the world. “I want to be able to build bridges between clashing societies and foster an understanding that leads to peace.

“This is what truly drives me, though few may see it at first glance.”

His longtime interest in Spanish could lead to spending a college semester abroad in Spain. He spent the recent spring break in Italy, where one of his sisters is studying this semester. He said he also wants to learn Arabic and gain some understanding in French and other Romance languages, while also learning more about other cultures and religious ideas.

“He’s very up on current affairs,” said his mom, Molly, a Conway teacher. “I ask him, ‘Andrew, what do I need to know today?’ He gives me the rundown.”

The last of six siblings, all of whom enjoyed academic success, Walchuk has participated in band since sixth grade, playing the French horn and earning all-region honors.

“He truly is a leader and an all-around good guy,” Conway band director Tim Cunningham said.


Age: 18

Hometown: Jacksonville

School: Mills University Studies Magnet High School

Parent: Anselm and Pearline Beach

College plans: Washington University in St. Louis, biomedical engineering

A musical scientist

What did you do last summer?

Anselm Beach was paid to participate in the Jackson Laboratory Summer Student Program in Bar Harbor, Maine. “My project involved locating a mutated gene that caused a lethal movement disorder in a strain of mice.”

The summer ended with publication of his research paper on the topic, not to mention a raft of new friendships and memories of a summer of sea kayaking, whitewater rafting and sailing.

Counselor LaJuana Green said Anselm “likes to participate in anything that’s going to give him an educational advantage.”

A local mentor helped Anselm find his way to the program in Maine, where Beach was one of only about a dozen high school students chosen from among 400 applicants. He is now in the running for a college-level science program this summer at Rutgers University. If he doesn’t get there, he’ll still be traveling, participating in the international envirothon competition in New York. The Mills team was first place in state for its knowledge of environmental science, with Beach specializing in alternative energy resources. He’s also been a winner in the Brain Bee and was a finalist in the National Achievement Scholarship Program for top minority students.

Anselm’s top college choice is Washington University in St. Louis, where he’d like to study biomedical engineering.

Anselm doesn’t just work. He plays, too, particularly the alto saxophone. A drum major at Mills High, Anselm goes by “saxrulez” as an e-mail address. He was retired from future competition after winning the Mills talent show with his rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Anselm ranks second in a class of 195 students. He did it the hard way, closing his high school career with Advanced Placement courses in English, environmental science, calculus, European history and government.


Age: 18

Hometown: Lonoke

High School: Lonoke High School

Parents: Jowel D. and Glenda Barnes

College plans: UALR, computer science


Jason Barnes had never used a computer until he was in the sixth grade. His family couldn’t afford one. “Then I got into it,” he recalls. Literally.

Jason began taking them apart and putting them back together to figure out how they worked. Then, encouraged by programming a calculator, he turned his attention from hardware to software and the rest is history. He was self-taught. The district offers no computer courses.

By age 16, the Lonoke School District had enough confidence in Jason, his counselor Carol Rudder said, to hire him to work unsupervised all summer at the district’s schools. He cleaned and serviced every computer and installed new cables for new systems.

Jason put problem-solving to work in the band, too. A trombone player, he found a dusty bassoon in the bandroom, cleaned it up and taught himself to play it. He’s trying to learn piano, too.

Jason is No. 1 in a class of 121 and scored one point shy of perfect on the ACT test. He competes in improvisational speaking — two-man teams are given a skit topic and then 30 minutes to prepare it — and is a nominee for the presidential scholar award. His 4.1 gradepoint could have been higher if only Lonoke had more Advanced Placement courses to offer. Jason took just about everything available.

Jason said he’ll be a rare member of his working class family to move beyond a high school diploma. And he may just not stop at one. He’s headed to UALR’s Cyber College, for its rich scholarship and training to be a software engineer. But he said he might seek an advanced degree so that he can teach others. Imagine what someone self-taught could have done with a little help.


Age: 17

Hometown: Maumelle

High School: Mills University Studies Magnet High School

Parents: Coskun and Isil Bayrak

College plans: Hendrix College, University of Texas at Dallas, pre-medicine


The irony is not lost on Sinehan Bayrak that for an oratorical contest she chose the subject of overachieving students. Some of them, she related, literally tear their hair out over schoolwork. Not Bayrak. The top-ranked student at Mills University Studies High School has crammed as much learning into high school as possible and is a happy, poised and self-starting young woman. She got classes like keyboarding and physical education and health out of the way in summer so she could take more AP classes in history, environmental science, calculus, chemistry, statistics, art history, human geography and biology during the school year. By the time she graduates, she’ll have taken 13 AP exams. When she strikes out, it’s in the bowling alley: Her Mills team won first place in the state bowling tournament in 2005.

The daughter of first-generation Turkish-Americans, Bayrak is bilingual; she spent the summer of 2005 in Turkey teaching English grammar to disadvantaged students.

What drives Bayrak to succeed? Her parents were involved in her studies in elementary school but gave her free rein in middle school, “where I learned to be responsible. Since then they haven’t seen a report card,” she said.

Her future? Going to med school for a career in reconstructive surgery. She got an early start: Last year she worked with surgeon Dr. Gazi Yasargil’s students at UAMS. “They gave me my own cadaver,” she said brightly, noting that bodies aren’t cheap, and it was an honor to have worked on one.

This summer, it’s back to Turkey, and then to New York City with her fellow state Envirothon winners from Mills High. Then off to the college lucky enough to be her choice.


Age: 18

Hometown: Arkadelphia

High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts

Parents: David and Carol Griffith

College plans: Austin College, Rice University, Columbia University or the University of Chicago, medical or biological research

A world view

Anna Griffith is not your average science nerd.

Sure, nothing quite gives her the thrill of doing experiments in a laboratory. And she’s probably going to make a career out of medical or biological research.

But her science project this year was studying the effects of herbal and naturopathic medicines. She admits to secret fantasies of driving a taxi or writing poetry in Morocco. She’s lived in New Zealand. And her counselor, Diana Arms, said she can see Anna joining the Peace Corps.

“She’s not like the average teen-ager in that she doesn’t run around with iPods and cell phones,” Arms said. “She’s more into looking at the world, what she can do for the world and give back to the world, how she can help in the future.”

Anna’s already doing that, if not yet full-time. She volunteers at a soup kitchen in Hot Springs, is secretary of ASMSA’s Young Democrats group, and is one of the school’s Community Leaders — seniors selected to be peer counselors for juniors, and to conduct tours and answer questions for prospective students.

“This school has given me so many opportunities that I feel like it’s important to help the community around it,” Anna said.

Anna’s family moved frequently when she was growing up, following her college-professor dad. She spent her sophomore year in New Zealand — the second time the family had lived there.

She said she chose ASMSA because of the science classes available. This year, she researched the effects of alternative medicines on a bacteria that causes sore throats. Not only did she find that some of the herbal remedies worked, she also managed not to get sick.

“I was very careful,” she said.


Age: 18

Hometown: Cabot

School: Cabot High School

Parents: John and Melissa Coggins

College plans: Yale University, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and the University of Arkansas, pre-medicine

No boob at the tube

Sarah Coggins is the kind of girl who knows the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” inside and out. “I’m infamous,” Coggins acknowledges, “because I watch more TV than my grades suggest.”

Those grades would be all A’s for the top senior at Cabot High School and good enough for Yale University. How does this fan of the boob tube do that? “I don’t have any drama in my life,” Sarah said, describing her parents as motivators (she doesn’t dare come home with a B) and herself as “well-adjusted.” A pragmatist too, Sarah will go to the college that offers her the most scholarship money. She intends to go to medical school, since she’s known since she was a small child that she wants to be a doctor.

Neurology attracts her because the brain holds out infinite secrets to discover; she gets bored unless she’s learning something new, and the more obscure the better. Her love of trivia, pop culture, literature and music made her the obvious choice as captain of her school’s Quiz Bowl team, which took top honors in the state tournament last year. Sarah was named Arkansas’s Most Valuable Player. Her broad interests include chemistry, and she and a group of fellow students have put together a traveling chemistry show they perform to county elementary schools to boost interest in science. “We blow up stuff and make smelly gas,” Sarah said, and the young kids love it. They’ve hung a little girl off a door with suction cups (illustrating a vacuum), and, of course, made volcanos. When she’s not lounging in front of “American Idol,” Sarah’s tutoring kids in math and science or playing the bassoon (she made All-State Band). Cabot principal Dr. Tony Thurman said, “I could write a book on why Sarah Coggins stands out from her peers,” and it would include a chapter on the “quality of her character and the compassion in her heart.”


Age: 17

Hometown: Conway

High School: Conway High School

Parents: Roger Hazel and Marlene Faulkner

College plans: University of Arkansas, biomedical engineering

Disaster responder

For Lana Hazel, it wasn’t enough just to watch the news about the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. After both events, she got involved with relief efforts. After Katrina, she performed in a concert to raise money for hurricane victims.

To help with the tsunami, though, she got a little more creative. As president of the Beta Club, she headed up the organization of a Kiss-the-Pig contest. Students voted by putting donations in jars in participating teachers’ rooms; the teacher who “raised” the most money had to kiss the pig.

“It was definitely an unusual thing for my school,” Lana said. “We don’t have pigs on our campus every day.”

Lana’s list of awards and activities is as long as any high-achieving high school senior’s — among others, she’s a National Merit Semifinalist and an AP Scholar with Distinction — but it’s hard to miss how important music has been. She plays both piano and saxophone, performing in Conway High’s marching and jazz bands. She’s on her church’s worship team, and accompanies a community women’s chorus. She was named first chair, first band in All-Region Band and All-Region Jazz Band.

“It feels like I’m using more of my potential if I’m involved in all that I could be,” Lana said.

Conway High counselor Linda Hammontree described Lana as a modest, compassionate person with a true love of learning.

“She’s not loud — she would never draw attention to herself,” Hammontree said. “She’s just one of those people who does what she’s supposed to do, is where she’s supposed to be.”

Biology has been her “absolute favorite class,” Lana said, and that may figure into her career choice.

“I’ve looked at biomedical engineering,” she said, “but I really don’t know for sure.”


Age: 18

Hometown: Little Rock

High School: Pulaski Academy

Parents: Michael and Susan Heald

College plans: New York University, possibly journalism

Fearless editor

Alex Heald learned early that the journalism career he’s considering won’t always make him the most popular guy around.

Alex, co-editor of Pulaski Academy’s student paper his junior and senior years, once wrote an editorial challenging how much attention students paid to athletic events compared with other school activities like plays and art shows.

“I kind of knew it would get me in hot water,” he said. “A lot of people misunderstood” and thought he was criticizing the athletic program itself. After fielding angry phone calls from alumni and talking with a coach, he considered apologizing, but ultimately held his ground.

“It was actually one of the coolest, weirdest experiences ever, because it was horrible when I was going through it, but now I can see that it was actually a really good experience,” Alex said.

Alex said he’s attracted to journalism because he likes working behind the scenes. It’s also contributed to his understanding of issues like homelessness. This year, as student council president, Alex was in charge of Pulaski Academy’s annual canned food drive. As part of the organization process, he went to a church’s food pantry and talked with a homeless man who lives in the woods near the Rave movie theater.

“I really felt like I got to see the rest of the story,” he said. The school’s students contributed almost twice as much food as they had the year before.

Alex participated in the Hugh O’Brian leadership program after his sophomore year, and returned the following summer as a junior staff member. He’s a National Merit Semifinalist and winner of the Harvard Book Award.

Alex is a natural leader, said Cheryl Watts, P.A.’s college counselor. “He’s just that kind of outgoing kid you always see with people all around them,” she said.


Age: 18

Hometown: Fort Smith

High School: Fort Smith Southside

Parents: Long Ma and Jie Weng

College plans: University of Pennsylvania or Dartmouth, pre-med

All-American girl

Kasey Ma was born in Shanghai, China, and moved to the U.S. when she was 5 years old.

“We came here because my dad went to college here,” Kasey said. “There were lots of other immigrant families here as well, and the pre-K class I was in had a lot of other young Chinese girls, so I mostly spoke Chinese at first.”

In those early days, Kasey learned English from watching television. “I watched the Disney Channel, and because it showed re-runs all the time, I sort of figured out what was happening.”

Kasey certainly didn’t have any trouble mastering the language or the culture. After living in Mississippi, Texas and Pennsylvania, and arriving in Arkansas in the ninth grade, she graduates this spring with a perfect straight-A record and a 4.27 grade point average.

She is involved in a broad array of clubs and activities, including the Mayor’s Volunteer Youth Council, and she co-chairs the Citizens Alliance for a Progressive Arkansas, which promotes political involvement among young people.

“This year we worked for the Mike Beebe campaign,” Kasey said. “In off-years, we discuss politics after school. We also help kids register to vote, and we volunteer on Election Day to work the polls.”

Kasey isn’t planning a political career, however. She intends to go pre-med in college.

Not that she couldn’t win the hearts of voters.

“She is real down-to-earth and can talk to anyone,” said her adviser, Judith Akins. “She is a real testament to the American dream.”

In her spare time, Kasey likes to draw, and more recently she began creating digital art on a computer. She also plays the piano and violin.


Age: 18

Hometown: Fort Smith

High School: Fort Smith Northside

Parents: Thomas and Krystin Pham

College plans: Hasn’t decided on college, probably major in chemistry

Bassoonist and chemist

Lam ranks first in a class of 395; plays several musical instruments very well; is an officer in a number of clubs, and yet, according to a high school counselor, “Humility is without a doubt the virtue that distinguishes him from other teens.” (And from most adults, too.)

Lam made first-chair All-State in both band (where he plays bassoon) and jazz band (where he plays baritone saxophone) and All-State in orchestra (where he plays violin). He’s president of the chemistry club and International Club, a club dedicated to sharing culture, and is a member of the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, the Future Business Leaders of America, the Key Club, the senior council, Partners in Christ, and Cultural Ambassadors, a club whose members share their culture with elementary school students. He’s placed first in a couple of FBLA competitions. He’s a representative of Northside in talks with community leaders through the Leadership Fort Smith program.

He’s worked as a volunteer at St. Edward’s Mercy Medical Center, passed out candy for the Key Club, worked a “hot dog day” at a boys’ club, did gift-wrapping with Make-A-Wish, rung bells for the Salvation Army, served food at a local soup kitchen. He gives free bassoon lessons at Kimmons Junior High, and tutors fellow Northside students in various subjects.

“Lam’s abilities so far exceed those of his peers, he tends to compete mostly with himself instead of others,” a counselor said. “He takes all the advanced classes he can take and then goes to our local college and takes required concurrent classes.”


Age: 17

Hometown: White Hall

High School: White Hall

Parents: Richard and Mia McCarthy

College plans: University of Illinois or University of Oklahoma, nuclear engineering

Math and science whiz

There never was any doubt that Anthony McCarthy could handle high school. But could high school handle him?

“When he first came here, there was the question of whether we could accommodate him,” said his adviser, Karen Pender, who nominated him as a 2007 Academic All-Star. “He already had taken a lot of our courses. And he took AP courses as a junior that were normally taken by seniors.”

Unsurprisingly, Anthony is graduating as valedictorian of his high school class with a 4.17 grade point average.

“I love math and science,” Anthony said. “That’s my biggest thing.” Sure enough, he scored a perfect 36 on the math and science portions of his ACT.

He is especially proud of his performances at the Arkansas Beta Club Convention, where he has finished second in the math competition two years in a row, earning him a spot in the national tournament.

Anthony already is aiming for a career in nuclear engineering, which he likes because “it combines chemistry and math, and those are my two favorite subjects.” He also is attracted to the diversity of its applications, which include medicine, energy and weaponry.

His interest in the subject might be influenced by his father, Richard, who is employed at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. His mother, Mia, works at the local library.

Anthony’s favorite pastime is bowling (his average is 185), and he travels to Jacksonville every Saturday to compete as part of his high school’s bowling team. He also has played the French horn since the sixth grade. But when it comes down to what Anthony is best known for, Pender said, “For us, it’s absolutely his intelligence.”

“Academically, he’s the top.” Pender adds. “He’s probably the best student we’ve ever had.”


Age: 17

Hometown: Siloam Springs

High School: Siloam Springs

Parents: Stan and Laurie McKinnon

College plans: Amherst College

‘Loves everything’

Katie McKinnon will attend Amherst College in the fall, but she hasn’t decided upon a major yet.

“I have no idea what I’ll major in,” she said. “I love everything, so I have no idea.”

Her love apparently translates into aptitude, because Katie excelled in all of her high school classes, earning a 4.18 overall grade point average and the number-one ranking in her graduating class.

“She had a true desire to learn,” said her adviser, Lesa Eaves. “She wants to take every class there is, and she just loves school.”

Katie said she decided early on that she needs to be challenged. “If I don’t have a whole lot of hard classes going on, I get bored,” she said. “That happened freshman year, so I decided I wouldn’t take easy classes anymore.”

She also devoted herself to the high school band, where she plays clarinet. Earlier this year, Katie made the All-State concert band, and she also was part of the All-Region honor band for the past three years.

“I don’t think I’ll major in music, but I’d like to keep playing,” McKinnon said.

As befits a polymath, she was captain of the Quiz Bowl team, and she also served as president of the French club. She even traveled to France last spring with her French teacher and several other students.

In her spare time, Katie reads and does projects around the house with her mother, who teaches at John Brown University. (Katie’s father is the campus pastor at the university.) She even helped build a pond outside their house.

“She has extracurricular activities, she’s done well in academics, and she’s still very caring, very humble, and she will help anybody out,” Eaves said. “She’ll succeed in whatever she does.”


Age: 17

Hometown: Mountain Home

High School: Mountain Home High

Parents: Bruce and Louise Robbins

College Plans: University of Chicago or Tufts; archeology

In the swim

When Annie Robbins was 4, a playmate held her under water for several seconds in a backyard pool. It left her with a fear bordering on phobia.

In junior high, a bout with whooping cough led to mild asthma, and a doctor’s suggestion that she take up a sport. She decided to face her old fear by joining the school swim team. It didn’t go well at first. Fear was stubborn.

“One day, it just kind of clicked for me,” Annie said. “I was always trying to find an excuse not to swim, or why I couldn’t do it. And I realized that I was spending so much time focused on why I couldn’t that I couldn’t think of how I might succeed. After that, it became a challenge.”

Challenge met. She became captain of the swim team, typical of her excellence in other pursuits. With a 4.11 grade point average, she said her favorite subject is math. She likes the logic of it.

Number one in her class and recently named a National Merit Scholar, Annie is currently considering scholarship offers from eight schools. At the top of her list are Tufts and the University of Chicago, where she wants to study anthropology. Eventually, she hopes to become an archeologist.

“I really like history, and I really like math also,” she said. “With archeology, you have to have some math to be able to map out an area and survey it, but you need history to know where to dig and what you’re looking for. … You need science to know how to preserve the artifacts. It has all my favorite subjects in there.” Then again, she said, she might go into food science, or cryptology.

Whatever the choice, it will be only a beginning. “I just want to learn more and more,” she said.


Age: 17

Hometown: Little Rock

High School: Little Rock Central

Parents: Nan Mei and Lei Guo

College plans: Washington University in St. Louis; bioengineering or biochemistry

Practically on call

In the summer of 2005, Xunbai was diagnosed with cancer while visiting grandparents in China. “A series of stressful events led to a Beijing-wide conference of experienced diagnosticians that gave final judgment on my biopsy samples,” he writes. The group then delivered the “relieving and joyous news” that the first diagnosis was in error. Xunbai was cancer-free. He’d planned to be a doctor even before that experience, but it solidified his intention. “I love to watch TV shows such as ‘House,’ ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘ER’,” he writes.

He doesn’t spend all his time watching TV. He ranks first in a class of 476. He’s a National Merit Finalist, an AP Scholar with Distinction, a member of the Cum Laude Society, a first-place winner in biochemistry competition, and winner of a certificate of achievement at Arkansas Governor’s School, among many other honors. He competes in math competitions and the Quiz Bowl, is a member of a Central High chess team that “excels” in regional and state competitions, has been a cross-country runner and plays Ultimate Frisbee.

He’s a volunteer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and has volunteered also at the Arkansas Arts Center and the Baptist Health Nursing Home, and works for Immanuel Baptist Church.

Xunbai has been in the United States four years. He was born in China and lived in Canada and Japan before coming to the states. His parents earned doctorates while they were in Japan. They’re research scientists at the National Center for Toxicological Research near Pine Bluff.


Age: 18

Hometown: Rogers

High School: Rogers High School

Parents: Marvin and Andrea Shepherd

College Plans: Cooper

Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, chemical engineering.

She’ll take Manhattan

With a 4.26 grade point average, a number-two ranking in her class of 607 at Rogers High School, and a long list of artistic, academic and charitable accomplishments, Michelle Shepherd could just about choose her college. Since she was 15, however, her heart has been set on attending a school few outside of New York City have heard of: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Intensely competitive, Cooper Union only accepts around 300 students a year and is tuition-free. Michelle has been focused on Cooper Union since reading about it in the ninth grade.

For Michelle, getting there has been half the fun. An accomplished musician who serves as first chair cellist for the Northwest Arkansas Youth Orchestra, her academic pursuits run the gamut, from European History to higher math and science. She’s particularly interested in chemistry and physics. Last summer, she attended nuclear engineering camp in Missouri, where she was one of only five young women in a group of 30. They toured a nuclear reactor, and studied the physics behind atomic bombs.

At Cooper Union, Michelle plans to study chemical engineering. From there, she hopes to learn about patent law.

“A lot of chemical engineering firms and producers of medicine need people to represent them who also understand engineering,” she said. “There’s not many of those and especially not many women. But you have to have an engineering degree first.”

Michelle is preparing to plunge into a city with millions of residents. She’s been corresponding online with others who will attend Cooper Union in the fall.

“Most of them live in New York,” she said. “They try to give me advice on what to expect. All I know is that it’ll be different.”


Age: 17

Hometown: Little Rock

School: Pulaski Academy

Parents: Bill and LaDonna Topich

College plans: Applied to Swarthmore, social justice


Nicole Topich wants college to be like high school. She’s hopeful of admission to Swarthmore College because of its reputation as an activist campus. She wants to continue to dedicate her energy to social justice.

Nicole is president of Pulaski Academy’s chapter of Amnesty International, which is helping students at other schools hold a benefit Quiz Bowl tournament for victims of genocide in Darfur. She’s spent two years working to help a school for girls in Afghanistan, raising money and trading letters and videos. It’s still functioning despite the Taliban’s resurgence, which produced damage to the school and injuries. It was a sobering lesson for West Little Rock kids whose biggest daily hassle might be the school traffic jam. But, she said, “Through my pen pal, I had already seen the greater hope the girls had and how they were now excited about the prospect of receiving an education.”

Nicole can’t remember when her activist bent began. “I was just raised believing that.” She believes strongly, too, that reaching out means not just to those in the local community, but to an international community. So it is that her senior thesis, a 50-page-plus paper, is on the Bosnian genocide. She won a national award in a history competition for her documentary on genocide in Rwanda.

It strikes an interviewer as a grim litany of achievement. Do you do anything for fun? “Oh, yes, I like to read.” What? “Kafka,” she said. With a laugh, it should be noted.

A clarinet player, Nicole has a 4.489 grade point and has won awards in math and science. But she shines in difficult social science courses and has taken all Pulaski Academy has to offer. Her counselor, Cheryl Watts, writes that Nicole obviously has the academic talent to succeed. “However, it is her wealth of empathy and concern for others that will serve her well on the college campus and throughout life.”


Age: 18

Hometown: Fort Smith

High School: Fort Smith Southside

Parents: Bruce and Kathryn Rice

College plans: University of Arkansas, history and political science

Drums away

Daniel Rice spent two summers with the Memphis Sound Drum & Bugle Corps, which entitled him to participate in 12-hour practices and to march around a field carrying 50 pounds of hardware in the form of six tenor drums. So how was it? “It was great. We got to travel all over the country. We stayed in a different place every night, and we got a few free days in Chicago and Washington.” He said the experience left him with “an indelible work ethic and the enduring friendships of some truly remarkable people.”

Daniel ranks 11th in his class at Southside, but according to his counselor, would have tied for first if he hadn’t diverted some of his attention to band for four years. Comments from various teachers are instructive: “He sees the big picture in math, finds new ways to solve problems”; “Daniel is clever, talented, has a tremendous amount of understanding of world history”; “One of the funniest and most talented kids I’ve ever been around, writes with a real genuineness, and shows no cockiness”; “He writes amazing essays with thoughts no other student considers.”

Daniel is an All-State first chair percussionist. Besides band, he participates in Quiz Bowl, the Latin Club, the National Honor Society, the Astronomy Club, Mu Alpha Theta, the Fellowship of Christian Musicians and the Science Bowl, among other school activities. He also maintained the marching percussion equipment for local junior highs, tutored other students in percussion, volunteered in the Special Olympics, and was a youth deacon at Central Presbyterian Church.


Age: 17

Hometown: Little Rock

High School: Parkview Arts and Science Magnet

Parents: Indu and Siva Soora

College plans: Deciding among Hendrix, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Brandeis, Case Western Reserve and others.

Teen-aged diplomat

The movie “Hotel Rwanda,” a true story that focused on a hotel manager’s efforts to save many of his countrymen from the civil war going on around them, struck a chord with Karthik Soora at last summer’s Governor’s School. The desire to help people outside the U.S. led him to organize a benefit Quiz Bowl that will be held on Parkview’s campus April 28, with money going to the World Food Program and Darfur relief. The event, which will feature several junior high school Quiz Bowl teams, will include a presentation on the Darfur conflict in western Sudan.

“It is our way of trying to make a positive difference in the world,” Soora said of the group that is writing games for the Quiz Bowl and putting on the event. Among the group are Sarah Coggins and Soora’s best friend, fellow Academic All-Star Andrew Walchuk of Conway, and Parkview Quiz Bowlers and teachers.

“We’re hoping that maybe it will help stop the wave of anti-Americanism that is sweeping the world,” said Soora, who captained his Parkview Quiz Bowl team.

Soora wants to continue to make a difference in the world when he moves on to college. “I plan to major in international relations and minor in political science, or in Middle Eastern relations. … It would be cool to go on a foreign aid mission, where they desperately need it, such as Israel-Palestine, Lebanon or Darfur. Seeing what is going on is what inspired me to perhaps be a diplomat, to resolve differences that seem to be ingrained in people.”

Soora participated in Parkview’s choir and the Madrigal Feast. Soora also performed in Parkview’s 9/11 commemoration ceremony last fall. “I sang a song by Sting.” Considering the famed singer’s work in world affairs, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment

Add a comment