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2022 Arkansas Times Academic All-Stars team


The 2022 Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team, the 28th team the Times has honored, includes a renowned crossword constructor, budding activists, enterprising craftspeople and tireless volunteers. 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. Read on for stories of inspiration in these troubled times. And see lists of All-Star finalists and nominees.

BENTLEY BENNETT

BENTLEY BENNETT
Age: 18
Hometown: Newport
High School: Newport High School
Parents: Gary Bennett and Dana Howard Beard
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

Bentley Bennett was ready to compete at a young age. She won the Jackson County spelling bee, for example, after an eighth-grader misspelled a word and she spelled it correctly — and she was only in second grade at the time. “[I was] definitely nervous, but it’s more so because I was really shy, and it was just scary being on stage,” Bentley said of the first of her four county spelling bee championships. She has gone on to finish at the top of her class at Newport High School, score a perfect 36 on the ACT and earn a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she will study psychology next year. While Bentley loved her high school English classes, her passion is in health care, especially mental health. The Newport senior wants to become a mental health therapist and help people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. “I kind of deal with that stuff, so it’s just really interesting to me,” Bentley said. The aspiring therapist already enjoys helping others work through their problems. “I just really like analyzing people,” Bentley said. “If someone has something going on or I have something going on, I can kind of identify the cause of it.” Bentley amassed hundreds of hours volunteering for various clubs and events over her high school career, but she really enjoyed working with HOSA-Future Health Care Professionals. Bentley traveled to state and international competitions with HOSA and served as the secretary for the statewide chapter. Bentley’s teachers and principal at Newport High School praised Bentley’s work ethic, dependability and character, but the school district’s director of special programs Ronnie Kay Erwin may have said it best: “We, at Newport Schools, are so proud of her … but not surprised!” GC

BRADY BILLINGSLEY

BRADY BILLINGSLEY 
Age: 17
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Har-Ber High School
Parents: Kristen and Bryan Billingsley
College plans: Undecided

When Brady Billingsley says he “got involved in music really young,” he doesn’t mean age 9 or 10. By kindergarten, he was playing piano. “In high school, I got more comfortable with English and literature, and got more interested in law,” Brady said. Brady’s ranked No. 1 in his senior class of 635 students at Har-Ber High, and has been accepted to 18 colleges. He’s looking for “institutions that have good music programs and also strong academics.” One plan is a dual degree from Harvard University and the nearby Berklee College of Music, but Yale and Stanford are also near the top of Brady’s list. “Being a musician myself, I think entertainment law would help me make more connections, and be able to network even better with music — combining those.” Until the pandemic hit, Brady shared his musical gift at nursing homes and hospices. During lockdown, he shifted his performances to digital platforms and found an audience beyond Northwest Arkansas. Piano remains his main instrument, but Brady was at a state choir competition when we finally tracked him down. He also plays oboe. “I started in middle school on French horn, then later I wanted to try oboe, and no one else played it, so the band director pushed me toward it,” he said. “Double reed instruments, people either are really apt to play them or they aren’t, once you get past those first notes.” Brady got past those first few notes and became adept. When asked what he does in his spare time, it’s also music, he joked: “The great thing about music is it’s so versatile — it can become a career and a hobby.” SK

EVA CASTO

EVA CASTO
Age: 18
Hometown: Maumelle
High School: Maumelle High School
Parents: David and Cindy Casto
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

Eva Casto developed a knack for helping her classmates with their assignments back in grade school. “It made me proud to be able to help them learn and to gain knowledge,” she explains. After scoring a perfect 36 on the ACT, Eva turned her tutoring talent into a business by helping other students prepare for the test. She earned $1,000, which she promptly donated to the Arkansas Foodbank. Eva plans to major in computer science and hopes to one day create a nonprofit educational platform. In her All-Star essay, Eva wrote: “Whatever my future holds, I want to bring joy to the people and the community around me, just as I did for my students who I personally knew and the local kids in need who I never met.” School counselor Allyson Horton, who nominated Eva to be an Academic All-Star, commends the senior for her tenacity and compassion: “Eva is committed to service and determined to make a difference for the issues she cares about and for her community.” Horton also noted that Eva plans to minor in political science with the hope of addressing education inequality. Eva already is active in local politics, serving as an alderman of the Maumelle Youth Council. In this role, she’s able to approach and engage city leaders. Eva’s advice to her peers seeking academic success: “Use every minute wisely.” CF

BRADSHAW CATE

BRADSHAW CATE
Age: 18
Hometown: Fayetteville; born in Little Rock
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Brandon and Laura Cate
College plans: Georgetown University

So many Academic All-Stars seem as if they’ve been perfect since birth. But Bradshaw Cate says he and his sister “were two hellions, for lack of a better word. We were definitely a handful for my mom, so she took us to the library a lot to work off excess energy.” Bradshaw found his passions in the library’s nonfiction stacks, with his twin loves being dinosaurs and American history. Another factor in Bradshaw’s early life was his sister’s Asperger’s diagnosis, which came when he was in second grade. “Her getting that diagnosis, and the family figuring out the best way to accommodate her, was a big part of my childhood,” he said. “It was challenging at times.” As for his college plans, Bradshaw said he thinks Georgetown’s school for foreign service “is a pretty done deal” — his parents have already gotten Georgetown sweatshirts, he explained. Either way, he said, “I do plan on having a career in the foreign service in the State Department.” He’s interested in specialized diplomacy and economic development. “Probably the biggest other thing that’s helped me was listening to my parents about working hard,” he said. “Mom was incredibly strict about chores; almost a military discipline. You always have to work hard at the task at hand.” Teddy, the dog that he’s had since middle school, takes up his spare time, and Brandon’s unlikely to revert back to his hellion days: “I still spend a lot of time reading.” SK

CHAD GREENWAY

CHAD GREENWAY
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Catholic High School
Parents: Chad and Kari Greenway
College plans: Harvard University

Chad Greenway touts role models as the key to inspiring his academic and social successes. “My parents and their friends have played a vital role in anything I’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. Volunteering as a counselor at Camp Aldersgate gave him “motivation to make the world a better place.” Chad also touted his time helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 in his native Texas as formative: “We were knocking walls out, bringing furniture out, with 20 other guys — none of whom I knew. It really motivated me to help people.” Chad moved to Little Rock in ninth grade. Since his freshman year, he’s ranked first in his class at Catholic High, and is at the top of his senior class of 168 students. He honed his interest in public speaking and politics at Boys State and Boys Nation. His academic preferences at Catholic High span the disciplines, from straightforward mathematics to the more contemplative social sciences. “I love calculus and AP government and journalism — how we can apply lessons of the past to solve problems of today,” he said. With plans to major in economics at Harvard, Chad is interested in health care technology, specifically “the investing and finance side.” And when he’s not doing that, he loves working out and going to the lake. SK

ELISE HARRIS

ELISE HARRIS
Age: 18
Hometown: Jonesboro
High School: The Academies at Jonesboro High School
Parents: Eric Harris, William (Jeff) and Korillene Flanigan
College plans: Vanderbilt University

There’s pushing yourself to the limit, and then there’s pushing yourself to debilitating tendonitis and arthritis in your foot at the tender age of 18. Jonesboro High School senior Elise Harris found herself on a doctor-ordered rest in April, healing up after years of blue ribbon-level sprinting and triple jumping on her school track team and in the Junior Olympics. Prescribed physical therapy and at least six weeks of rest, Elise was amazed at all the time there is in a day when your afternoons and evenings aren’t booked with extracurriculars. Not that this lull in the action will last. Elise ships out to Vanderbilt this fall, a school she chose largely because it offers so much to do. “It came down to all the clubs they have, all the groups and activities,” she said. “There are more than 800 social groups and clubs, and I saw so many that I knew I would love to join.” The financial aid package they threw her way was a selling point, too. Vanderbilt floats among the most expensive universities in the country, with a price tag of about $80,000 per year. But most of that is covered for Elise, and she’s quickly racking up more scholarships to make up for the roughly $20,000 a year her financial aid doesn’t cover. The daughter of educators and next-to-youngest of six children, Elise said the pressure to succeed is fully self-inflicted. She has high expectations for herself, and also for those around her. A burgeoning journalist with plans to possibly pursue a career in law, Elise used her platform as editor of her school newspaper to take peers to task for letting up on academics during the pandemic. “COVID has become the new ‘my dog ate my homework,’ ” she said. Harsh! Elise certainly didn’t let up, even though she lost close family members. A poet as well as a journalist, Elise found that putting her thoughts on paper helped. “I just feel like I’ve always expressed myself best through writing.” AB

ASH HONG

ASH HONG
Age: 18
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts
Parents: Tommy and Suk Hong
College plans: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Video games have long been a central part of Ash Hong’s life. Growing up, they were obsessed (Ash uses they/them pronouns), and as they’ve moved into more rigorous academic work, video games have served as a stress reliever. “Video games rejuvenate me,” Ash said. They’ve also made a lot of friends through games, perhaps because Ash prefers co-op games, such as Overwatch and Battlerite, where you have to work together with others to reach a common goal. Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts in Hot Springs has been an ideal fit for Ash as they begin down the path of becoming a professional game designer. The arts programs, especially, have been rewarding. Ash got to delve deep into using gouache paint. They’ve made cups and bowls in ceramics class, and though Ash was already fairly well-versed in digital art, the ASMSA course exposed them to new techniques. Competing in a regional Science Olympiad’s Circuit Lab event, Ash and their partner spent months learning about circuit boards and their history and researching concepts like Coulomb’s law. When it came time for the competition, Ash’s team got a circuit board unlike the one on which they’d been practicing and the rest of the field’s. “Welp, we’ll see how it goes,” Ash remembered thinking. All the practice paid off, as Ash’s team was the surprise top finisher. Why, with so much natural intellect, does Ash work so hard when taking it easy would likely yield high marks? “At the beginning, it was trying to make my parents proud. Since ninth grade, I’ve wanted to go to MIT. I knew the acceptance rate was like 4%. So I wanted to push myself. I think being productive is really good for me. It feels really satisfying.” In the fall, Ash will follow their dream and head to MIT, where they plan to major in computer science.  LM

CAROLINE HUYNH

CAROLINE HUYNH
Age: 18
Hometown: Cabot
High School: Cabot High School
Parents: Thinh Hoang and Anh Tieu
College plans: Rice University

Senior year is, for many graduates, a time for reflection, and it was in that nostalgic spirit that Cabot High School senior Caroline Huynh found herself in her family’s attic, looking for some of her old childhood clothes her mom, Anh Tieu, was prone to saving as keepsakes. Instead, Caroline’s eye was caught by something else: a dusty, beige-colored vintage sewing machine. She asked her mom about it. “I guess it probably sparked a lot of memories,” Caroline said. “She started telling me about how she made all of these things to fund her family when she was back in Vietnam, and she was, like, ‘the seamstress.’ I asked her to teach me a bit and she helped me set it up. … It was a really cool bonding moment.” It was also a vehicle for one of many volunteer opportunities Caroline leapt at during her senior year, as she used templates to begin churning out neck pillows, travel pillows and teaching dolls for patients at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Caroline noted in her submission essay that while her hands are small, that’s proved to be an asset — when she was able to maneuver tiny mechanical components as a student of robotics, for example. Or in her detailed artwork — digital, watercolor, pen and pencil, and on a 12-foot mural of endangered animals she and her classmates completed for the Cabot Foundation for Arts and Culture. Though Caroline plans to keep art part of her world — “to generate creativity and using it as an outlet for whenever I’m stressed or feeling overwhelmed” — she’ll study biosciences and nanotechnologies at Rice University this fall, “studying bonds and stuff like that, certain materials, tiny little things that make up big mediums, basically, and how they can help us create new tools for medicine, or transporting drugs, or skin care.” SS

SHREEYA KHULLAR

SHREEYA KHULLAR
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Little Rock Central High
Parents: Denesh and Huma Khullar
College plans: Boston University

The longer you listen to Shreeya Khullar talk about how she’s spent her time at Little Rock Central High, the more remarkable it seems that such fully formed ideas about social justice and policy are coming from the mouth of someone who’s barely old enough to vote. She founded Central High’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance at the beginning of her senior year, which grew from two members to around 150 in a matter of months. She is a senior representative for Student Council and the Principal’s Cabinet and a passionate mobilizer and canvasser for Central’s Young Leftists Club. “After the whole quarantine/virtual school thing hit, and we were finally able to do things, I was like, ‘I’m not gonna let go of this chance, ’cause we don’t know if there will be another two years that we’re stuck in our homes. I really wanted to use my time on things that could cause real, tangible change within the communities I’m a part of.” In early April, the Alliance was planning an on-campus health and wellness conference focused on LGBTQ health care, and Central’s National Coming Out Day celebration, Shreeya said, was a hallmark moment in her organizing endeavors. “Everybody was taking pictures, posting on Instagram, putting it on their stories. It was just really fulfilling. … We’ve changed the queer culture at Central. When I was a ninth- and 10th-grader, if you were LGBTQ, you were in the closet, and nobody really talked about it. It was just a really super straight place to be.” Other ventures and passions of Shreeya’s include: crocheting in the Amigurumi (tiny toys) style, doing custom embroidery designs through her side business, Shreeya Stitches, and combating political vitriol with honest conversation. “As we ease away from COVID restrictions and find ways to talk to each other again, even with strangers — I’m pretty optimistic about what we can accomplish. Even in a red state like Arkansas.” At Boston University, which she’ll attend on full scholarship as part of the school’s Trustee Scholar Program, Shreeya will study sociology, something she hopes will help make her a more well-rounded future health care provider. And, she said, “I definitely think I plan on being politically involved in Boston the way I am now in Little Rock.” SS

ELISE KNIGHT

ELISE KNIGHT
Age: 16
Hometown: Jonesboro
High School: Valley View High School
Parents: Matthew and Amanda Knight
College plans: Considering Ouachita Baptist University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Rice University

Elise Knight approaches education in the same way she approaches long-distance running and track. She relies on grit, persistence and motivation, explaining, “You just have to know that you have to get up and run. With school, if I start it and get it done, I do my best work.” School counselor Jordan Loebach agrees that Elise’s mindset — along with her participation on the school’s cross-country team — enabled her to achieve a lot during her time at Valley View. “This has taught her teamwork, self-discipline, endurance and strength to push through anything,” Lobach wrote in the nomination essay. Elisa also takes ballet, reads to elementary students and is active in her church community. The counselor noted: “She realizes the importance of intellectual integrity as well as community service and helping others. Elise is constantly looking for ways to further her academic career. I presume she will be very successful in her future endeavors.” Asked what it takes to forge a path to academic success, Elise said, “I really think just trying to find as many opportunities as you can.” Elise said she’s been interested in science since fifth grade. Over the next few years, she devoured nonfiction books about influenza and other infectious diseases. When the coronavirus pandemic began, she closely followed scientists’ efforts to create an effective vaccine. She plans to work toward a doctorate in biochemistry. CF

HARRISON MCCARTY

HARRISON McCARTY
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Pulaski Academy
Parents: Mark and Jennifer McCarty
College plans: Undecided

Harrison McCarty says he has “never been a quiet person, per se.” So when his parents strongly suggested he take a model United Nations class and he didn’t want to, it became “a big family argument.” As it turns out, Harrison found his passion in model UN. “Politics and social justice have always been interesting to me,” he said, “and from there, my interest just grew.” Harrison is still deciding between a trio of worthy options: Tulane University, Georgetown University and the University of Virginia. “I’m so lucky to have to make this decision,” he said. “Wherever I go, social justice and community organizing will be a part of my studies. I’m somebody that really likes to embrace discomfort, and sit in discomfort,” he said. “But I want to enjoy my college time, too.” After college, he’s considering joining the Foreign Service. “I love the social sciences,” he said, “how history intersects with geography; that’s super cool.” Harrison’s senior thesis, on felon voting disenfranchisement in the U.S., is a topic that “affects more than just felons,” he noted. In addition to travel and being outdoors — he’s beginning his third summer as a camp counselor — Harrison loves music in his down time, and has taken up piano. “I love stories; I think music tells stories in such a unique and cool way,” he said. “I have a massive vinyl collection,” he added, touting his latest acquisition, a Harry Styles album. “In middle school, I was not an ‘Academic All-Star,’ if you will,” he admitted. In math, “I would pull Bs!,” he said, aghast now at the thought. But “something happened between eighth and ninth grade,” putting him on his trajectory to being second in his class at Pulaski Academy. “The best thing I can do is see where my heart leads me.” SK

SIMON MAROTTE

SIMON MAROTTE
Age: 17
Hometown: Conway
High School: Conway High School
Parents: Mary Ruth Stewart and Jeff Marotte
College plans: Undecided

Simon Marotte has an almost unbeatable “What new skill did you develop during the pandemic?” answer: During the early part of quarantine in 2020, he learned how to construct crossword puzzles — and several months later, at age 16, had a puzzle accepted by The New York Times Crossword. According to an online database that tracks crossword constructor prodigies, Simon is the 16th-youngest person to have a puzzle accepted by The New York Times (13 years, 4 months is the record). After he told his grandmother, early in the pandemic, that he’d constructed his first puzzle by hand, she connected him with Little Rock District Court Judge Vic Fleming, a longtime renowned crossword constructor, who mentored Simon and co-created that initial puzzle. He’s since had five more published by the Times, a themed edition in the Oxford American’s Southern Music issue, several for Universal Crossword and two forthcoming in The Atlantic. Simon says his love for language comes from his mom, an English professor at the University of Central Arkansas, who gave him a word of the day every day in the car on the way to middle school. He attributes his affinity for puzzles in part to “The Mysterious Benedict Society” books written by his stepfather, Trenton Lee Stewart. His work ethic he gets from his father. When he’s not studying for his advanced classes at Conway High School, where he’s ranked No. 2 among 671, or swimming the backstroke on the school’s swim team, he enjoys playing the piano and is especially interested in jazz and improvisation. Last year, he composed music for an outdoor production of “The Tempest” in Conway. “I was overwhelmed sitting in the audience opening night, watching other artists bring Shakespeare to life,” Simon wrote in his All-Star essay, “witnessing my music weave between each scene, each line, each word. It all evoked a sense of community and vibrancy that I had not yet experienced alone at the piano.” LM

SAAHAS PARISE

SAAHAS PARISE
Age: 18
Hometown: Bentonville
High School: Bentonville High School
Parents: Aruna and Sreenivas Parise
College plans: Duke University, Georgia Tech or University of Washington

In March of 2020, Saahas Parise co-founded Tech-Kno, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit comprising a new generation of technologists from Bentonville aiming to get students interested in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cybersecurity and applied robotics using beginner-friendly virtual workshops and blog posts. Saahas describes his own journey into computer science as self-guided and hard to follow without help from someone with experience. “I feel like school was only scratching the surface of how amazing computer science could be,” he said. In a world infused with emerging technologies, Saahas felt it was a vital time to begin teaching children as young as 10 years old. Saahas is currently conducting research at the University of Arkansas Computer Vision and Image Understanding Lab, exploring the intersection of artificial intelligence and quantum physics by studying how AI can identify handwritten digits. “In the future I hope this research can expand to super relevant domains like identifying tumors from X-rays,” he said. In 2020 he won first place in the business plan category for the Future Business Leaders of America state conference, qualifying for the nationals. He finished in the top 2% of 24,000 entrants in the 48-hour National Cyber Scholarship Competition. He’s a certified robot operator and is obtaining a Remote Pilot Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration to be able to fly drones. Saahas loves to play tennis and is a guitarist in the Bentonville High School Jazz Band, which recently won third place at the Drury Jazz Festival. Inspired by his heritage and the lack of Indian guitar players in Bentonville, Saahas is interested in combining classical Indian music with jazz, a musical style known as Indo Jazz, and hopes to join an existing group or found one when he gets to college. “What I’d like to do in the future is continue to use AI for educational purposes, create better multilingual tutoring systems. I want to one day be able to implement these tutoring systems in developing countries and for communities in need for better education.” RB

DYLAN PATEL

DYLAN PATEL
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Parkview High School
Parents: Sarika and Rakesh Patel
College plans: Undecided

Dylan Patel didn’t know he was being nominated for the Presidential Volunteer Service award for the 700-plus hours he put in, and when he saw his picture pop up on social media and news sites after winning, he felt embarrassed. “I wasn’t volunteering for the recognition,” he said. “But I’m glad I received it because I’ve used it to demonstrate that it takes one person to make a meaningful difference,” he said. A member of the North Little Rock Mayor’s Youth Council since 2019, Dylan volunteers at the Canvas Community Church providing clothes and serving meals to people experiencing homelessness. He also volunteers for the Centers for Youth and Families, Arkansas Foodbank and AR Recycle Bikes for Kids. Volunteering at mobile health fairs in underprivileged communities inspired Dylan to study public health in college. He won first place in the Arkansas Medical Dental & Pharmaceutical Association 2020 Student Essay Contest on health disparities. “I want to create outreach programs to make healthy eating more equitable for the underprivileged communities where complications from diabetes, heart attacks and strokes are significantly higher,” he said. Dylan is the captain of Parkview’s debate and mock trial team. In middle school he founded a chess club that now has over 100 members. In spring of 2020 he created the YouTube channel “Math With Gloves,” to help students adjust to home learning, focusing on concepts on the ACT that might be difficult to grasp. His video “How to subtract meters from kilometers” has over 2,000 views. A self-proclaimed sports journalist, Dylan runs the Instagram page “nfl_outlines” focusing on NFL draft analysis and player injury analysis. He also plays rugby on the Little Rock Junior Stormers Rugby team. Dylan said he doesn’t see his time volunteering ending when he goes off to college. “If I can help other people, if I can improve other communities using my own efforts and the skills I’ve learned, I know that’s a job well done and that my life has purpose.” RB

ASHTON RODRIGUES

ASHTON RODRIGUES
Age: 17
Hometown: Paragould
High School: Paragould High School
Parents: Isaac and Barbara Rodrigues
College plans: Mississippi State University  

Ashton Rodrigues is accustomed to winning — and leadership. The Paragould senior served as the drum major of the Paragould High School band for the last two years. And it’s not just any band. His school has won the state championship six years in a row. As the drum major, Ashton was responsible for organizing his bandmates and serving as a middleman who delivered instructions to the band from the band directors. Ashton, who also plays the alto saxophone in the concert band, said being the drum major allowed him to develop his leadership skills in a practical way. “You have people depending on you,” Ashton said. “You have a real responsibility and real consequences if you mess up.” Band isn’t the only place where Ashton excelled. The aspiring physician is ranked first of 182 students at his school and scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. He plans to study biology at Mississippi State University next year and pursue a career in medicine like his mother. “[My parents] kind of pushed me for that [career], but I also just want to help people and I want to have an active role in helping people.” Rather than just studying theories, Ashton prefers to see things come to fruition. From the time he helped build a school in Peru to the projects he worked on in his AP computer science class, Ashton likes seeing a project come together. “It could be really frustrating at times,” Ashton said of the computer science projects. “But once you actually got it to start working, it made it worth it.” GC

KATIE RUPERT

KATIE RUPERT
Age: 17
Hometown: Greenwood
High School: Greenwood High School
Parents: Shon and Sally Rupert
College plans: Oklahoma State University

Katie Rupert’s love for working with young children suggests a possible career as a teacher. After graduating from her church’s children’s program, she missed the younger kids so much that she started volunteering for vacation Bible school. She’s been a stage manager for the Christmas program and spent afternoons walking elementary-age students from their school to her church’s aftercare program. But Katie also loves anything and everything to do with space and plans to become an aerospace engineer. “Right now I think I want to work on rockets and rocket engines in particular,” she said. Maybe she’ll end up at NASA, she mused, or a private space organization. School counselor Lisa Dean wrote in her nomination that Katie has adeptly juggled the many organizations in which she is involved. “She has maintained her high GPA while being a part of our award-winning competitive dance team in which she currently serves as captain,” Dean wrote, adding that Katie plans to pursue dance at the collegiate level as well. By graduation, Katie will have taken eight honors courses, six AP classes and three college-concurrent courses. She credits her successes to setting goals for herself and following through. “I had to push myself and make myself study when I didn’t want to,” she says. “But it all paid off.” CF

JAYA SHARMA

JAYA SHARMA
Age: 18
Hometown: Fayetteville
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Swati and Aneet Sharma
College plans: Dartmouth College

If you were one of the online shoppers who, early in the pandemic, sought out cloth face coverings from Arkansas-based makers, you might have happened upon j.lucki, where you’d have found an assortment of masks with “adjustable, elastic ear loops and a double woven cotton liner for extra safety, handmade from repurposed Sari fabrics from India.” The hands behind j.lucki belong to Fayetteville student Jaya Sharma, and whether you knew it or not, part of your purchase went to fund scholarships for girls in the small farming village from which Jaya’s grandmother — now a resident of Austin, Texas — hails. “It’s maybe once a year that I get a chance to get dressed up in traditional clothing, so I was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna take these and revitalize it, give it this new story and this new beginning.’ … The colors are just unlike anything I’ve seen in Western fabrics, so I just love working with them.” As a part of Arkansas United, Jaya was “a youth representative that went to Washington, D.C., to fight for student minority voices [earlier this year]. … We were there to put pressure on legislators to fight for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.” Time not spent sewing or marching this year was tightly managed, if Jaya’s stellar grades in the 16 AP classes she’s taken are any indication. She’s also on the Teen Leadership Board in partnership with the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce; completed a virtual internship with NASA last summer; volunteers to work with local refugees through the Canopy Project; and is president of the National Honor Society; secretary of Mu Alpha Theta and the Science National Honor Society; and a member of Fayetteville High’s Interact Club, French National Honor Society, volleyball team and crew club; and was crowned homecoming queen at Fayetteville High this year. She’s headed to Dartmouth College, where her older brother attends, and where she’ll likely study astrophysics or architecture. SS

ALEX SOTO

ALEX SOTO
Age:18
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Springdale High School
Parents: Daniel and Maria Soto
College plans: Stanford University

Whether it’s tutoring his peers to help improve their ACT scores in the morning before school or building a candy bridge with students from his former middle school to help ignite a passion for STEM, Alex Soto is motivated to eliminate inequality. A first-generation Mexican-American, Alex sees his ACT tutoring sessions as more than just helping to bring up test scores. “My school is predominantly minority, first-generation and low-income students,” Alex said. “I noticed that it was definitely harder for people from my background to do better on that test.” Not only are tutoring services expensive, Alex said that by the time some first-generation students realize the importance of the test, it’s too late. Alex’s older sister stressed to him the importance of the test, and when he first took it in seventh grade he scored a 19. Using free resources in the library and online, he studied on his own and raised his score to a 35. “Being at a disadvantage I had to work a lot harder, and just knowing everything I know now I thought I was in a good position to help my peers,” he said. Alex is inspired by Stanford professor Manu Prakash and the idea of “frugal science,” creating inexpensive innovations to eliminate health care inequality all over the world. Alex is currently working on an affordable, high-functioning prosthetic arm in his engineering class that will be controlled by a NeuroSky Mindwave headset. He also mentors students at his former middle school in engineering, working to help spark a passion for STEM. “I see a lot of Hispanics underrepresented in STEM fields,” he said. When he was younger he would go to math competitions and notice that he’d be the only Hispanic person competing. “It intimidated me because it made me feel like I kind of don’t belong. But I just realized by doing it so much, by gaining confidence and breaking those social norms, that’s how you end the problem. You have to set the precedent for future generations.” RB

RACHAEL THUMMA

RACHAEL THUMMA
Age: 18
Hometown: Bentonville
High School: Bentonville High School
Parents: Paul Thumma and Anitha Samineedi
College plans: University of Notre Dame

Rachael Thumma joined Arkansas Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) during her freshman year in high school. Eventually, she became president and sought to get a better understanding of what classes and resources were available to Arkansas students interested in careers in the medical field. While some districts offered numerous prepaid medical certification courses, most offered only a few health care classes, Rachael said. This revelation prompted her to create the first-ever collaborative online platform. She wanted to make available a resource that could be accessed by students across the state. Rachael also found a way to share medical community initiatives, medical immersion resources and a series of guest speakers to help students identify specific careers in the field. Throughout this process, Rachael determined that she wants to be a practicing physician in a hospital setting. “I was able to rule out research,” she said, “but I’m still deciding on what my specialty will be.” College and career counselor Justin Horschig wrote in his nomination letter: “Rachael is a determined hard worker who is detail-oriented in all she does. Her brilliance is only complemented by her kindness and empathy.” Rachael credits HOSA for her achievements and future plans. “HOSA gave me so many things — friends, conferences and leadership opportunities,” she said. “I have so many cool opportunities. I’m working on my emergency medical technician certification right now.” CF

LOUIS WENGER

LOUIS WENGER
Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Little Rock Central High
Parents: Jennifer and Aaron Wenger
College plans: Rice University 

During the pandemic, Louis Wenger got really into math. (Though according to his resume, he had already reached unusual heights by taking pre-calculus as a ninth-grader and earning the top score on the AP calculus exam as a sophomore. With a perfect ACT score and slated to graduate atop his Central High class, consider “really into” as a relative distinction.) He spent most of the summer studying what he described to a layman as “creative, longform math” and competed in the USA Mathematical Talent Search, a month-long competition to solve difficult proof-based problems. He earned an honorable mention, but began to burn out on competitive math. “I didn’t enjoy getting a problem right, I enjoyed not getting a problem wrong,” he wrote in his Academic All-Stars essay. Meanwhile, he was working as a tutor of younger children at Mathnasium. “Helping kids solve addition problems definitely helped me unwind a little bit,” he said. When a reporter reached him in April, Louis had just returned from Central High’s robotics club, which he took up to try to build his kinesthetic skills. His future is likely in STEM, he figures. “Right now, I’m interested in physics, neuroscience, computer science — pretty much everything. I’m having trouble figuring out what I want to do next because I like all of it.” In his free time, Louis likes playing the piano, which he recently took up again. He’s learning jazz transcription, some classical repertoire and Earth, Wind and Fire. This summer, he’s taking a class trip to Greece. He’s been studying how to avoid jet lag. Greece is eight hours ahead of Central Time. “Eight days before you leave, you go to bed one hour early.” And so on. “The last day you’re home, you’re going to bed at 2 p.m. Everyone thinks you’re kind of crazy, but the first day, they’re suffering from jet lag and you look like a genius.” Louis conceded he was unlikely to follow through. “But I’m going to think about doing it,” he said. LM



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