Athletic success generally is fleeting. Academic success, conversely, is likely to lead to a career or possibly even to world change. Yet, our culture (and yes, the media) is much more inclined to celebrate athletic success. Let’s face facts: It’s way sexier.
Well, here’s an attempt at something completely different: putting some smart, motivated kids in the spotlight:
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After countless hours of diligent reading, comprehension of complicated concepts and late nights of typing and double-checking, a large group of dedicated local students have been awarded with valuable academic scholarships.
They won’t be in the Olympics or the NFL. You won’t see them on “Dancing With the Stars.” As far-fetched as it seems, they’d be more likely to earn a Nobel Prize.
Still, it’s possible you’ll be hearing more about these talented youths as they make their way through life: Katja Max, Berkeley Davis, Elle Rathbun, Kaylee Blevins, Haakon Sigurslid, Kristen Bjorlin and Rachel Rossi, just to name those interviewed for this story.
“This year’s class is extremely gifted,” said Deb Medenwaldt, college and career coordinator at Durango High School. “Very intelligent children. Very high achieving.”
And those mentioned are just a sampling. There are easily three or four dozen more worthy of recognition, said Medenwaldt and Kurt Zeiner, a DHS teacher involved in college planning.
During an interview in her small office, Medenwaldt pulled out a list of colleges and scholarship amounts – some worth hundreds of thousands – that Durango students have been offered. Keep in mind, some of these colleges were turned down:
Stanford, Harvard, Brown, Penn, Purdue, Pepperdine, Southern Cal, Cornell College. You want more? OK, there’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cal-Poly, Drake, Bowdoin, Colorado College.
About 83 percent of DHS’s 255 grads will attend four- or two-year colleges. Similarly, Bayfield, Ignacio, Big Picture and Animas high schools all attempt to open their students’ eyes to future possibilities.
Animas High’s second graduating class is 43 students, all of whom have been accepted to a college – a graduation requirement. Not all will attend college. Collectively, the Animas class of 2014 has been offered $1.5 million in scholarships.
Elaine Ehlers, longtime counselor at Durango High, has spent the last couple years at Animas High helping students with college choices. She’s impressed with the youths’ pioneering spirit – the best example being 2014 Animas graduate John Rhodes’ acceptance to NYU-Shanghai. But he deferred entry there to complete a 10-month scholarship program in Morocco called National Security Language Initiative for Youth. He’ll be immersed in Arabic.
“They kind of find these unique programs that interest them,” Ehlers said. “It’s an amazing class of kids.”
It’s one thing to be smart, but it’s another to be accepted to your college of choice – and still another to rake in a good scholarship offer. Unlike the olden days, this process takes a ton of planning and work.
“College has changed,” Medenwaldt readily agreed. “It’s a complete 180. It’s almost as if the kids market themselves now. The students that (market themselves) really well are more likely to go to their college of choice.”
Kids and their parents start early, much earlier than we did in, say, the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. DHS is not abnormal in that it gets students to start thinking about college between eighth and ninth grades. And although colleges still recruit, now youngsters seek.
“We would turn family vacations that were near possible schools into (scouting visits) starting freshman year,” said DHS graduating senior Katja Max.
A family trip to see her brother at NYU, for instance, became an occasion to visit seven of the eight Ivy League schools (Those in the loop just call them “the Ivies”). Max ultimately visited around 25 schools, including 12 in California; she chose Southern Cal.
In early May, just as the students were making their final official commitments, this reporter (college class 1983) visited DHS with the seven previously mentioned. One of the issues that drove this story was the disparity between recognition for academic vs. athletic achievement.
These students were gracious, without a hint of jealousy, in giving athletes their due.
“I get excited when I hear about people going somewhere for sports,” says Berkeley Davis, who has entered Cal-Poly’s mechanical engineering program. “I think the general attitude is that we’re all very supportive of each other.”
On the academic side, one of the most impressive scholarships among the DHS class of 2014 belongs to Elle Rathbun. Her QuestBridge scholarship, awarded to some of the nation’s brightest low-income students, is worth $262,000. After considering Northwestern and Columbia, she’s headed to the University of Chicago, whose list of grads and Nobel laureates reads almost like a who’s who in scientific and academic achievement.
For the students, it’s probably the biggest decision of their lives to this point. But not all of them spent agonizing days and months figuring it out.
Haakon Sigurslid will study at Harvard and compete with the cross country ski team. He visited several New England schools, but during an outing with Harvard skiers, someone lost the car keys, and they got stuck in the woods for six hours at night. It turned into a bonding experience. He decided on Harvard by the end of October.
“Once you get accepted to Harvard, it’s hard to turn it down,” he said.
Kaylee Blevins and Rachel Rossi are both headed to Palo Alto, California. Rossi applied to “fall-back” schools before learning in April she’d been accepted to Stanford. Blevins, who’d visited more than once since she has relatives in the area, found out in December she was in.
“The energy that is around the campus, and the type of people you meet is really different and really cool,” Blevins said. “And everybody is so happy. It was really hard to not just fall in love with it.”
While A’s came easily for everyone interviewed for this story, that might not be the case as competition stiffens at the next level.
“You’re in a class full of the leaders. You can’t all be on top,” Kristen Bjorlin said.
Bjorlin didn’t like the feel of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., so she instead ended up at Penn’s renowned Wharton business school in Philadelphia. Penn officials were pretty blunt with her:
“You’re going to get B’s in college. And you’re going to have to accept it,” they said.
College-bound DHS grads will be spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific to dozens of points in between. They’re not exactly afraid of leaving home, but have mixed feelings about the challenge of finding new friends.
“In some ways, it’s a fresh start,” Rossi said. “But that familiarity is nice.”
Said Sigurslid, “It’s really exciting to go off to school ... but also we’re all going to miss each other when we leave.”
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So there it is: a story about academic achievement. Don’t get used to it. But do know that your local high schools are pretty serious about your kids’ futures.
There is no team competition for college placement and churning out well-balanced, successful graduates. But if there were? DHS knows it would fare well.
“We’d be state champs every year,” Medenwaldt bragged without hesitation from her office. “There’d be crowns and big trophies out there every year.”
email@example.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.