ROBBIE HENRY: Part of the 26th Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team. Brian Chilson

The 2020 Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team, the 26th team the Times has honored, is made up of debaters, musicians, scientists and championship athletes. 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. This year’s Academic All-Stars are exceptional in yet another way: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these seniors will not process to receive their diplomas at the end of their school year. Nor will the Times be able to honor them with a ceremony, as has been our tradition. But their superlative high school careers will not be forgotten. Read on for stories of inspiration in these troubled times. And see lists of All-Star finalists and nominees.

VANESSA ARAUJO

VANESSA ARAUJO
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Springdale High School
Parents: Patricio and Marta Araujo
College Plans: Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Vanessa Araujo is fulfilling her father’s dreams as well as her own. Vanessa’s father, Patricio, grew up in Mexico, where he got only an elementary school education before moving to the United States. Two years ago, he applied for permanent residency in the U.S. and Vanessa wrote an inspiring letter on his behalf that his attorney credits as a major factor in the application’s success. “He was the one who inspired me to go to college,” said Vanessa, who will be the first in her family to attend college when she enters Brown University in the fall. “He told me I could do anything in the U.S.” Vanessa has proved her father right. She is ranked first out of 607 students at Springdale High School and excels in the International Baccalaureate program. Excited by the possibilities of science, Vanessa plans to pursue biomedical engineering and computer science in college. “I like [science], because there is so much out there that we have yet to discover,” Vanessa said. “There is endless possibility.” Vanessa has also been active in the community, where she raised money for cancer research through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and is leading a Teens for Jeans drive to provide clothes for teens in homeless shelters. As Vanessa has excelled in and out of the classroom, she knows her father is pleased with all she has accomplished. “He’s just really proud of me,” she said. “I think it’s like his dream come true. He never got to attend school, so I get to do that for him.” GC

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KEELEY AUSBURN

KEELEY AUSBURN
Hometown: Maumelle
School: Maumelle High School
Parents: Jeremy and Danielle Ausburn
College Plans: Hendrix College, Conway

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In addition to holding an incredible academic record, Keeley Ausburn is also the author of a one-act play based on her own childhood and has directed her peers in the story. But of all the accomplishments of her high school career, Keeley is most proud of her work with the Peaceful Syrian Initiative. Keeley founded the student advocacy group after learning of Syria’s struggles from Natalie Larrison of Little Rock, the outreach director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force and the main coordinator of the Wisdom House Project, a secret school for orphans in Idlib, Syria. “I had to do my part,” Keeley said. Not only did Keeley begin to volunteer, but she decided she wanted to motivate her peers to get involved. The Peaceful Syrian Initiative has done just that: made change in the world and allowed Keeley to see her friends and classmates “light up at a new opportunity for activism.” Keeley plans to maintain her advocacy as she attends Hendrix College this fall. She wants to continue educating Arkansans about the Syrian civil war and to study abroad while pursuing her studies in political science and English literature. After Hendrix, her sights are set on the Clinton School of Public Service and law school to continue to work to fight for human rights. One secret to accomplishing so much and caring so deeply about the difficult issues of our world? Baking. Keeley says she’s able to relax some by “consuming [herself] in a recipe,” whether cakes, custards or delicate macarons, and sharing the delicious treats with her friends. NG

KEELING BAKER

KEELING BAKER
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Little Rock Central High School
Parents: John and Kristine Baker
College Plans: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

By the time he set foot in the halls of Central High School, Keeling Baker had already formed a simple model for success in life: an unyielding work ethic. “My parents instilled in me from a young age that you’ve got to work as hard as you can,” he said. “You can take the lazy route and just get through, but you can really change some lives if you put all your effort into it.” That hard work paid off at Central. He was elected student body president and was special teams captain for the football team. A National Merit Finalist, Keeling also served as president of Central’s Young Democrats Club, was a member of the National Honor Society and recipient of the James Street Exceptional Sportsmanship Award. He was elected lieutenant governor at Arkansas Boys State, an accomplishment that mimics his life’s ambition to go into public service, as does his extensive community service. These roles include serving as junior counselor at Camp Aldersgate and as a student aide at the Summer Laureate University, and volunteering with Tree Streets, a local organization that plants trees to improve Little Rock neighborhoods. He said he gauges success by how much one benefits others as well as oneself. “Helping other people is what I’ve always tried to do. The No. 1 thing that you can do is live the fullest life. Doing well by yourself is extremely respectable and a completely honorable thing to do. But what’s even more honorable and respectable is to do well for yourself, get to a level and then use that to help other people.” DH

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BRADLEY BALTZ

BRADLEY BALTZ
Age: 17
Hometown: Pocahontas
High School: Pocahontas High School
Parents: Kyle and Karen Baltz
College Plans: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

When Bradley Baltz was in eighth grade, he ranked among the lowest in the weight room of any athlete at the school. He dedicated himself to his training and, after four years, he’d risen to post the second-highest weightlifting marks of anyone on the school team. It’s a typical response from the talented senior, when faced with a challenge. “My main thing is work ethic,” he said. “Anything I do, if I put my full effort into it, then I will be successful at it at least in some aspect. I participate in a lot of sports and there’s some years where I focus more on some sports than others and those years I always do better.” In addition to three varsity letters and being named All-State in football, Bradley also lettered three years in baseball and is an accomplished competitive trap shooter. He graduated Pocahontas High School with a 35 on the ACT and a super score of 36. Multiple years in the National Honor Society, Future Business Leaders of America and student council are just a few items on Bradley’s stellar resume. He was also a key player in four state Odyssey of the Mind championship teams. There, he developed into a master of design, creating vehicles for competition that landed the team a third-place national ranking each of the past two years along with individual creativity and engineering awards. This year, he taught himself to code, specifically to improve his designs. “I always try to make sure when I do an activity, I put my maximum amount of effort into it,” he said. “If I can’t do that, then I don’t do [the activity]. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person.” DH

ANH CAO

ANH CAO
Hometown: Bentonville
School: Bentonville High School
Parents: Hiep Cao and Sherry Lingenfelter
College plans: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., or Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

When Anh Cao went to a debate camp the summer before her sophomore year, she not only started her path to the Olympics of high school debate, she found a place to shine and give back to others. Anh’s interest in joining Team USA for debate soon led her to the world championship team, representing America in the prestigious event in Bangkok. This monumental trip was a highlight of Anh’s experience on Team USA. While awaiting the team’s prize for making it to the quarterfinals, Anh received the additional honor of ranking in the top 10 for individual debaters. In the male-dominated world of debate, Anh became the highest-ranking young woman at the world championship — just a year after joining the team. Anh said that this moment was a “difficult, strenuous experience” but also exciting and fulfilling. Her place on Team USA led to more travel to Germany and Singapore as team captain during her senior year. Anh and a teammate knew that “debate can be something besides arguing about issues” and so they created a day camp, Project Dialogue, to work with younger Asian-American students. Not only did they educate these younger students, they donated the camp’s proceeds to charities, including the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter and the ACLU. With Project Dialogue, Anh reflects that “our defining characteristic isn’t championship titles — it’s creating life-changing opportunities.” NG

CLAIRE FRANCO

CLAIRE FRANCO
Age: 18
Hometown: Tontitown
High School: Springdale Har-Ber High School
Parents: Jon and Monica Franco
College Plans: Hendrix College, Conway

Since Claire Franco was a child she’s always wanted to help people. As a teenager, she wants to do that by defending them in court. “The law is meant to protect and uphold society, but it’s also meant to represent the majority of the people,” she said. “I’ve just seen how there’s a lot of people who seem to be looked over and who don’t have fair representation. I want to be someone who tries to help fix that. I’m really inspired by the civil rights lawyers of the ’60s and people who fight for those who don’t have a voice and fight for the underdogs.” She’s off to a good start. She’s ranked first in her class with a 4.22 GPA. She’s an AP Scholar with Distinction, a National Merit Finalist and she’s won several awards in debate, including first place at the Arkansas Mock Trial Regional Competition. She also participated in Arkansas Student Congress and won the Mary Ingalls Award for Parliamentary Procedure. Claire participated in stagecraft for four years and was the student scene designer chosen to design her school’s fall production. She was also a member of the winning team at the Arkansas State Thespian Festival’s Scenic Design Challenge. Claire also plays the clarinet and has been in the All-Region Band for five years, where she received five solo superior ratings and five ensemble superior ratings. Claire says she’s looking forward to voting in the presidential election in November. Voting “is really the only way that we as average citizens have a say in the political arena,” she said. “So it’s important; if you want to see some kind of change, you have to step up and make a statement. This is the most basic form of that. And I have been watching the world around me for so long, and I’m so excited to finally have my voice heard.” RB

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ROBBIE HENRY

ROBBIE HENRY
Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: LISA Academy West High
Parents: Robert and Cherika Henry
College Plans: Rice University, Houston 

Robbie Henry credits the STEM-forward curriculum of LISA Academy for putting him on the path to a career in computer science. “I got a much more focused education on mathematics and science [at LISA Academy], which are important for computer science,” he said. “We have really small class sizes so it’s easy to get better education and more personal connections with the teachers, which I think is really important.” Robbie became interested in computer science early in his high school career and has been a standout in that field ever since, fueled by a strong work ethic and initiative. “I took a computer science course first when I was in ninth grade. That’s where I learned about coding. It was really fun for me and relaxing,” he said. “I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve done before, so I really want to make that into a career for myself.” From that simple beginning, Robbie participated in the exclusive MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) Program last summer. The six-week curriculum included the study of physics and neuroscience and culminated with a presentation at an MIT symposium. During his senior year, he’s been a part of the high school underwater robotics team. Other accolades include receiving a letter of commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Corp., denoting he ranked in the top 50,000 out of over 1.5 million students who took the 2018 PSAT. He was also elected president of his school’s National Honor Society and is a College Board AP Scholar. He’s also a co-founder of the school’s gardening club; board member of LISA Health Committee; and served in Volunteer Jaguars, through which he completed campus improvement and beautification projects. DH

VICTORIA HWANG

VICTORIA HWANG
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts
Parents: Charlie and Madison Hwang
College Plans: Undecided

Victoria Hwang’s interest in biology started as a child when she learned that family members suffered from various medical conditions. “I wanted to know what was happening, why it was happening and what solutions were available?” Once she got to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, she was exposed to more in-depth classes that heightened her interest in the subject. She researched glioblastomas — the most common primary brain tumors. Her approach involved removing proteins that help the tumor cells go through the replication process. For her research, she was awarded the top prize at the West Central Regional Science Fair and an automatic bid to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim, Calif. She was a semifinalist in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, selected as one of the top 300 high school senior researchers in the nation. She and some ASMSA friends also decided to enter the Governor’s Cup, a business plan competition. “We thought it would be interesting to see how we could bring our specialties in the STEM field and look at it in terms of entrepreneurship.” They made it to the finals, the first high school team to make it that far in the competition. Victoria, whose parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea in the ’90s, has also seized the opportunity to connect with her family history and culture. After learning about the Korean War in school — as well as from her grandparents’ firsthand accounts — Victoria sent letters of appreciation to Arkansas veterans of the Korean War. Some of them even wrote her back. A lifelong violinist, Victoria placed sixth chair in the All-State Orchestra. She was also a volunteer at CHI St. Vincent’s Oncology Unit. In a touching moment, Victoria met a glioblastoma patient. “It put in perspective what my research could do, how it could really impact the patient if I’m able to continue,” she said. RB

JED JOHNSON

JED JOHNSON
Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Episcopal Collegiate School
Parents: Jim and Suzanne Johnson
College Plans: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 

Many high schoolers distinguish themselves in one particular area; Jed Johnson has taken a much broader approach, excelling in sports as well as in the classroom and taking part in learning opportunities outside school. “I like to develop all aspects of myself,” he said. “I would hate to leave one part underdeveloped or under-explored just in case I was missing out on something great. So, I put myself out there a little bit, to see what I like and see what I enjoy instead of just focusing on one thing.” During his high school experience, Jed was an All-State runner on Episcopal’s cross-country squad, played baseball for four years and was part of its state championship golf team. He also helped lead the school Quiz Bowl team to a state title and served on ECS’ Honor Council. Jed said a major highlight of his high school career came last summer as a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Summer Research Fellow, serving as a lab technician in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “I am intrigued by the critical thinking it requires and its ability to answer fundamental questions about the real world,” he said. “Over the course of the summer, I designed experiments, learned how to handle live cancer cell lines, attended lectures and presentations, developed my scientific skills and had a blast along the way. … Medical research, I discovered, is an avenue for me to pursue my passion for science while effecting positive change in the lives of others. I look forward to studying biology and continuing medical research in the years to come.” DH

MADELINE JOHNSON

MADELINE JOHNSON
Age: 18
Hometown: Cabot
High School: Cabot High School
Parents: Chris and Charlotte Johnson
College Plans: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 

Madeline Johnson understands the importance of community. She earned the President’s Volunteer Gold Service Award for 250 hours of community service over the course of a year. During her junior year, she dedicated over 90 hours to leading craft activities at a local nursing home, an endeavor called “An Art Display to Make the Day.” She was one of 400 student ambassadors chosen to attend the Hugh O’Brian World Leadership Congress in Chicago. It was there that she was “moved by the universal idea that one should think globally and be unafraid to take community action, not based on the grandeur of service, but the meaningful effects it has on its community members.” A Girl Scout since second grade, she’s now a Gold Award-winning ambassador. “Girl Scouts opened my eyes to both the importance of camaraderie and also service to the community as well,” she said. Madeline was a member of U.S. Sen. John Boozman’s Congressional Youth Cabinet. She was on a team of 12 on the cabinet. “After coming together we realized a huge problem in Central Arkansas was the current opioid epidemic.” Her team “talked to pharmacists, medical professionals and even some individuals who have been personally impacted by the crisis to see how that’s manifested over the years, as well as conducting empirical research.” She also volunteers at an animal shelter. Despite all of her work in the community, she was able to maintain a 4.26 GPA and earn a perfect score on her ACT. She’s a National Merit Finalist and an AP Scholar with Honors. She plans to study political science with a minor in Spanish on a pre-law track at university. “The experience in Senator Boozman’s Congressional Youth Cabinet really opened my eyes to the power of policy-making and legislation and just the law route in itself,” she said. RB

ISAAC KHOUNBORINE

ISAAC KHOUNBORINE
Age: 18
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Springdale High School
Parents: Sonny Khounborine and Oudone Phanthao
College Plans: Hendrix College, Conway, or University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 

A gifted thinker and standout academic, Isaac Khounborine looks forward to a future in which he uses his considerable talent for the benefit of others. The senior has served as an ambassador for the Holocaust Conference in both his junior and senior years. He also volunteers at a homeless shelter, where he stocks and organizes items, and tutors students, something he found particularly rewarding. “It’s one thing for me to be excelling at school and education, but I also take joy in seeing others that also succeed and exceed,” he said. “In the tutoring, I want people to also feel that same joy. Whenever I help others out, it just feels gratifying.” In the classroom, Isaac has excelled at the International Baccalaureate program at Springdale High. As part of his IB internal assessment, he developed a program that helps fellow students review AP material in a game-like way, improving the learning experience. He’s weighing his college options, and says he’s grateful for the opportunities his high school experience has given him. “I will miss my interactions with my friends and teachers I’ve come to know over the past four years,” he said. “It’s been a long journey, and the fact that I’ve known the people in this small International Baccalaureate community since ninth grade, it’s kind of sorrowful to let that all go. In the future, I really want to use my talents to make a better world.” DH

ANNE LI

ANNE LI
Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Little Rock Central
Parents: Xuyang Li and Hui Zhang
College Plans: Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif. 

Anne Li is the co-founder of Allgirlithm, an organization she started with two students she met at an artificial intelligence conference at Stanford the summer after her high school freshman year. The goal of Allgirlithm is to make A.I. more accessible beyond tech hubs. “We have an outreach program,” she said. “We created a curriculum for a 20-week high school club. We connect with people around the world and help them start clubs and events at their own schools.” She’s also the captain of the Zero Robotics Team at Central High. “The goal of Zero Robotics is to program a satellite to perform different maneuvers, so I think it’s a really good learning experience for students new to programming.” Anne won the Congressional App Challenge by designing an app that uses temperature data to alert users when they’ve left their children in the car, and she traveled to Washington, D.C., to present her app to Congress. An op-ed she wrote on women in STEM was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Women in STEM are very underrepresented,” she said. “I think a lot of women are interested in tech, but a lot do end up leaving the industry.” Anne is a National Merit Semifinalist and an Apple Worldwide Developers Scholarship recipient. She’s ranked second in her class and earned a perfect score on her ACT. She plans to study Symbolic Systems at Stanford. “It’s basically a major that’s built around computer science, but it also involves linguistics, philosophy and a couple other interdisciplinary things. One of my goals is to combine technology with the humanities,” she explained. “Throughout this quarantine, I’ve been talking to a lot of my future classmates on our Facebook group. Seeing all of their interests — some of them are passionate about LGBT issues, some are passionate about feminism and all these different things — it makes me feel hopeful for the world. I’m really excited to be able to interact with people with very diverse interests.” RB

ETHAN MAROTTE

ETHAN MAROTTE
Age: 17
Hometown: Conway
High School: Conway High School
Parents: Mary Ruth and Jeff Marotte
College Plans: Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa. 

If you think a record-setting state swimming champion is a student with only swimming on his mind, then you haven’t met Ethan Marotte of Conway. Yes, he has been swimming competitively for more than half his life. But when he turned his attention to acting, he nabbed the lead in the Conway High School production last year of “Newsies.” “Prior to swimming in meets, I usually have a few butterflies in my stomach, but nothing could have prepared me for how nervous I was on [the play’s] opening night,” he said. “However, as soon as the overture began to play, my anxiety morphed into an excitement that I had never experienced before.” He dipped a toe in acting at a young age, but said he “kind of fell out of it. I wasn’t one to put myself out there.” When he “kind of quit thinking about what people thought of me,” it was a sea change, he said. Ethan is looking forward to heading to Swarthmore this fall. “I’m swimming for them. I just clicked with the swim coaches there,” he said. “Unfortunately, being a [NCAA] Division III school,” he noted, “they don’t offer athletic scholarships.” But Ethan won’t be confined to merely being a swimmer at Swarthmore. “I’m definitely going to act in college. I think the perk of attending a small liberal arts college is you are able to explore,” he said, “and you’re encouraged to.” Despite his 4.39 GPA, Ethan said he’d liked to have explored more classes in high school than he did. “I really regret taking as many AP classes as I did. I wish I’d taken some drawing classes, or debate. You don’t have to declare your major until sophomore year at Swarthmore. And that’s good, because I’m an indecisive person. I kind of want to try a lot of things.” Hence, Ethan’s advice to underclassmen? “Don’t strive for a perfect GPA. Challenge yourselves, but follow your passion.” SK

AHMED MOUSTAFA

AHMED MOUSTAFA
Age: 17
Hometown: Bentonville
High School: Bentonville West High School
Parents: Amal Soliman and Rida Moustafa
College Plans: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

For a high school senior with a GPA of 4.61, Ahmed Moustafa is already looking beyond university. “College is a stepping stone,” he explained. “I treat it as stairs going uphill.” Ranked first in his class of 446 at Bentonville West High School, Ahmed was in the first class to attend all four years at the new facility. He remembers his early days there as a freshman: “The school was brand new, and there was a great sense of community. We were underdogs!” Born in Virginia, Ahmed has lived in Arkansas since seventh grade. “But both my parents came from Egypt, from two rival villages,” he said. He visits Egypt with his parents every few years. “It’s definitely a culture shock,” he said. “But after I visit, I’m reinvigorated by how I want to treat people.” His name translates to “the thankful one,” he notes, and he wants this to be part of his identity. Outside of school, Ahmed volunteers at the Bentonville Public Library, the local Islamic center and the local food bank. “When I think of my legacy, I don’t imagine a world of influence or status, but one of actions and commitments,” he said. “I want to not just achieve academically, but to strive for knowledge, and have curiosity,” he said. As for his college years, Ahmed will be staying close by and attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville “for financial reasons and family reasons,” and plans a dual major of computer science and mathematics. “Modern times are transitioning — someone who wants more cohesiveness in America would normally go into politics, but it’s technology and science where this really happens,” he said. “My goal is to be a vanguard of computer science. Wars are being fought over data. Information predicts the future. People fighting for this data can lead to unforeseen risks. I want to protect the sanctity of computer science,” he said. His advice to younger peers: “You can’t rush it. And don’t prioritize the results. It’s more about the journey. It’s the extracurriculars that are important; the academics will come. Focus most of your time on understanding those around yourself — prioritize those connections.” SK

MICHAEL O’HEARN

MICHAEL O’HEARN
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Flock
High School: Rogers Heritage High School
Parents: Joel and Sheri O’Hearn
College Plans: Brown University, Providence, R.I.

“Before I started high school, I remember being absolutely terrified,” Michael O’Hearn of Little Flock said. “It was the thought that I wasn’t smart enough. Up until that point in my life, school had always been so easy and predictable, but when I looked at my brother’s calculus homework, my mind would swirl with terror at my ability to comprehend it.” With a perfect ACT score and GPA of 4.3, which put Michael in the top five of his class of 469 at Rogers Heritage High, he needn’t have worried. “My teachers have challenged me to think broadly and take risks,” he explained. Thinking broadly is what Michael does. Academics? Check. Swimming? Sure. Orchestra? Why not? He’s not entirely sure of what he’ll major in yet, but for now he’s thinking pre-med. “The first year, I just want to transition into being a college student,” he said. He’ll attend Brown this fall. “I wanted to apply to some Ivy League schools just to see if I could get in,” he said. “I felt like Brown spoke to me, and I also really liked the location.” A National Merit Finalist and an award-winner in both swimming and orchestra, Michael also finds time to do volunteer house painting, lawn care and home maintenance in the community. He also tutors students to take the ACT. “You definitely want to get involved, that’s a big thing, and show commitment,” he said. “I tried a lot of things out, then I stuck with a few things that were important to me, like orchestra, swimming and Quiz Bowl. Focus on what you’re passionate about.” As a graduating senior with lots of extracurriculars and volunteering under his belt, Michael can laugh now at his terror regarding entering high school. But he doesn’t find his fears at the thought “completely irrational. My success has not been because of natural ability. It’s because I have learned to work hard for my goals, and, thanks to the help of many excellent teachers along the way, I will continue to do just that.” SK

ETHAN PECK

ETHAN PECK
Age: 18
Hometown: Austin
High School: Cabot High School
Parents: Amanda and Jason Peck
College Plans: Rice University, Houston

With an affinity for programming, mathematics, literature, music and more, Ethan Peck of Austin says the key to academic success is enjoying the learning process.Ranked No. 2 in his class of 767 seniors at Cabot High School, Ethan acknowledges he “always was set on doing well with grades.” He’s a National Merit Scholar, a Governor’s School attendee, an Arkansas State Coding Competition qualifier, AP Scholar with Distinction and an All-State Wind Symphony and All-State Chamber Orchestra member. “I’ve enjoyed high school, for the most part,” he said. “I kind of like branching out and trying other things,” Ethan said. “My mom had been pretty big into band when she was in high school,” and it was she who encouraged his participation in music. He’s since become one of the top young bassoonists in the state. “For the most part, I’ve done concert band music,” he said, “but I’ve enjoyed doing chamber music, and I’ve really enjoyed playing orchestra. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to major or minor in it.” He’ll be too busy. Instead, he’s going to study computer science or electrical engineering in Texas at Rice University this fall. Even for a scholar with a perfect ACT score, Ethan said applying to Rice was nerve-racking: “It was very scary. I by no means expected to get in.” To add to the anxiety, Ethan said he’s “been interested in Rice since eighth grade — and I was excited about the idea of attending college even before that.” He’s been watching virtual information sessions put out by the university, which is planning on being open this fall. As for his class at Cabot High, he said, “We’re not exactly sure about commencement.” As for his younger classmates back at CHS, Ethan advises something both basic and hard to achieve: “The biggest thing for me was I set goals early on and kept working towards those.” SK

KAUSHIK SAMPATH

KAUSHIK SAMPATH
Hometown: Fayetteville
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Sam Kumar and Geetha Ramaswamy
College Plans: Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Yale, New Haven, Conn.; Stanford, Palo Alto, Calif.; or University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Kaushik Sampath loves a challenge, especially when it comes to science. Kaushik has performed protein research at the University of Arkansas, he’s synthesized a therapeutic molecule at Boston University, he’s qualified for Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair and he’s participated in the national Science Bowl twice. His excellence in the classroom has also earned him the top rank in Fayetteville’s senior class. “He has been given a gift, and I told him with that gift brings great responsibility,” Staci Petrich, a Fayetteville High School counselor, said. After participating in Science Bowl, Kaushik was inspired to use the downtime during the coronavirus pandemic to practice his chemistry skills. “I’m really interested in chemistry’s applications to not only discovering drugs but also developing drugs,” Kaushik said. Kaushik plans to study biomedical engineering or chemistry in college. He is particularly interested in the use of artificial intelligence and computer algorithms to assist in finding drugs that can be beneficial to society. “I’m interested in helping to make the algorithms be more efficient and also create better ones.” he said. A well-rounded academic, Kaushik also wrote a history paper on the impact of the Civil War on the Cherokee Nation that was published in an academic journal. “I am really interested in history as well,” Kaushik says. “I think, for me right now, I’m more interested in pursuing a STEM career, but history is also an interest of mine.” Kaushik attributes his success to the intellectually engaging environment at FHS. “It’s a challenge not only to stand out amongst the great students there, but also to perform well there with the expectations the teachers have upon students.” GC

PRIYA THELAPURATH

PRIYA THELAPURATH
Age: 18
Hometown: Bentonville
High School: Bentonville West High School
Parents: Vish and Sangeetha Thelapurath
College Plans: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.  

“Judges were more likely to focus on the small hole in my tights or the volume of my voice … than the content of my argument,” Priya Thelapurath writes in her Academic All-Stars essay of her experience on the debate team. “On the debate stage I was told to ‘quiet down’ and be ‘less aggressive’ in cross examination, while my male competitors were praised for talking over me and ‘taking control of the round.’ ” Instead of buckling under the frustration, Priya channeled the injustice into action. In 2018, she founded LOUDwomen, a program teaching  debate skills to girls in fifth through eighth grade while addressing gender issues. “We talk to them about what they may face and what to do if they experience sexism,” she explained. Galvanized by both her award-winning love of debate and a three-week University of Chicago summer program where she received a scholarship to study gender studies and sociology, Priya now has plans to scale: “We created a website with resources for other schools and posted essays with the Bentonville mayor, school superintendent and executives at Walmart — all women who wrote about experiencing sexism.” Bringing on a younger peer to help continue the work, Priya has plans for an ambassador program for Arkansas schools in which student leaders will use the LOUDwomen resources to raise awareness for female students and increase debate participation in their schools. She even hopes to take the program to Harvard (though she is considering Yale University, too), perhaps interviewing professors and incorporating debate in some form. With a 4.56 GPA, a 35 on the ACT, an associate degree from Northwest Arkansas Community College and a laundry list of honors such as the national AXA Equitable Excellence scholarship under her belt, Priya is no stranger to success. She plans on studying sociology and gender studies, and eventually attending law school, potentially with a focus on public policy or government work. Because she loves “political parody and satire,” Priya admits to thinking that a potential dream job would be running Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live.” “I rewatch past skits with Michael Che and Colin Jost,” she said. With her ambition, savvy, activist spirit and sense of humor, Priya Thelapurath may well represent the zeitgeist for the ’20s. HC

CARLIE WATTIGNEY

CARLIE WATTIGNEY
Age: 17
Hometown: Monette
High School: Buffalo Island Central High School
Parents: Johnny and Sarah Wattigney
College Plans: University of Central Arkansas, Conway

Carlie Wattigney solves jigsaw puzzles and gardens with her family in her downtime: “I like looking for the clues … and working with my hands. It’s meditative and stress-relieving. Gardening is also a way to share something with family — aunts, uncles and grandparents.” Though she has the easy-going disposition of a small-town person, Carlie has outsized ambition. With 1,595 people and a graduating class of 53, Monette (Craighead County) has served as the backdrop for her values and the inspiration for her desire to see more: “We’re close,” she said. “Everyone knows everyone. We’re all connected, and the community has always been helpful and supportive.” The senior has also turned the scholar’s gaze back on her working-class farming community to better understand her heritage. Along with a couple of classmates, she collected oral histories about pre-mechanized farming in Monette for her school’s EAST program, creating a virtual map with videos and interviews that were featured on the Smithsonian’s website. “I never realized the hardships the community went through, all the labor that went into shaping the lands into farmland, starting irrigation and founding a town,” she said. Though she credits a teacher for instilling in her a passion and curiosity for science, Monette offers few professional connections and limited resources. “I noticed information on the ACT that I had never been presented in my math classes,” she said. “I went to outside sources and studied for over 20 hours for the math portion … raising my math score by four points from 29 to 33.” As a volunteer at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, she sought to make professional connections and get a firsthand glimpse of her future life. In the fall, she’ll head to the University of Central Arkansas to study biology with medical school in her sights, potentially focusing on internal medicine. This is a goal she connects to the values instilled in her by her parents: “They taught me to be a caring and compassionate person, ready to serve,” Carlie said. HC

JOSIE ZAKRZEWSKI

JOSIE ZAKRZEWSKI
Age: 17
Hometown: North Little Rock
High School: North Little Rock High School
Parents: J.T. and Angela Zakrzewski
College Plans: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

“Overcommitted, but passionate” describes many high school seniors, but for Josie Zakrzewski, it translates into community service, independent learning and a polymath’s curiosity. After self-studying the prerequisite chemistry course for AP Chemistry and enrolling in a college trigonometry class to take AP Calculus AB, she has been teaching herself AP Calculus BC. This drive solidified after Josie taught herself, at 15, enough conversational French for a family vacation to Quebec. “I’m interested in the world around me, and I wanted to be able to connect with people,” she said. “What better way than in their own language?” Her zeal for learning and connecting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For “fun,” she started a YouTube channel teaching school peers and students around the country how to prepare for AP classes and exams. In addition, in more than 500 hours volunteering for the North Little Rock Mayor’s Youth Council, she has worked at an animal shelter, at nursing homes during the holidays, and even served a stint as the Easter Bunny for the Burns Park Easter Egg Hunt. If that weren’t enough, she takes commissions as a graphite portrait artist and, to “relax with friends,” she helps lead her Drama Forensics team, writing and directing two first-place-winning reader’s theaters while winning titles in her own solo and duet performances. Though theater is a passion she hopes to continue as a hobby, Josie has medical school in her future. With an embarrassed chuckle, she admits that watching the “Call the Midwife” television series piqued her interest. “It’s fascinating seeing how much we have progressed in women’s health,” she said. Turning down Duke University in North Carolina for the University of Arkansas, she plans to pursue a career in maternal fetal medicine, with hopes of focusing on high-risk pregnancies. HC