2017 Merrill scholars honor their teachers and mentors

Kevin Kowalewski ’17 was home-schooled for his entire K-12 education before coming to Cornell. This week, as a graduating senior and a Merrill Presidential Scholar, his choice of whom to honor as the high school teacher who made the biggest impact in his life was an easy one: his mother, Julie Kowalewski.

He was one of 33 outstanding seniors recognized May 24 at the 29th annual Merrill Presidential Scholars Convocation luncheon.

Since 1988, each group of Merrill scholars, approximately 1 percent of each year’s graduating class, are selected by their college deans for their intellectual drive, leadership abilities and potential to contribute to society. The seniors, in turn, each nominate a high school teacher and a Cornell faculty member who have been most influential in their development as students and scholars.

While Cornell students from a home-schooled background have been Merrill scholars before, Kowalewski is the first to have chosen a parent as his honored high school teacher (rather than a community college tutor or teacher from a home-schooling cooperative). The Buffalo native is a government major in the College of Arts & Sciences and is planning on applying to law school this fall while doing a gap year.

“It’s pretty clear that the reason I’m here today is because of my mom, and all of the work she did raising me and educating me, so it was a natural choice,” he said. He credited her with prioritizing self-discipline and allowing him to explore his interests and build educational goals that transferred seamlessly to Cornell.

Each year before Commencement Weekend, the nominated high school teachers are invited to participate in two days of events as guests of the university, culminating in the luncheon, where they are joined by the Cornell faculty members also chosen by the seniors. The program was created by the late Philip Merrill ’55 and is funded by annual support from the Merrill Family Foundation.

The scholars and their honored educators were recognized by President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, and were introduced by the deans of the undergraduate colleges and schools.

Pollack said that when she first learned about this program a few weeks ago, she thought the premise was amazing. “I really wish I had been able to do this when I was a college senior,” she said. “I immediately thought of Mrs. Moss, my 12th-grade calculus teacher, and Professor Alverson, my freshman anthropology professor – and boy, they would have been sitting right here with me if I’d been honored by being chosen.”

“As we at Cornell strive to give all our students a world-class education, the key ingredient, of course, is our educators,” Pollack said. “By recognizing some of our finest teachers through the Merrill Presidential Scholars program, we hope to remind all of our faculty members of the important role they play in young lives.”

Cathy Merrill Williams ’91 attended on behalf of the Merrill family and the foundation. Quoting author and historian David McCullough, she said: “‘I think teachers are the most important people in our society; they’re doing the work that matters most and matters in the long run.’ My late father agreed with that greatly; it’s why he started this program 29 years ago.

“We feel so honored to get to honor the teachers that are here,” Williams said.

Highlights of this year’s event included: an honored teacher coming from as far away as Singapore; George Smith, a high school teacher in Rochester, being chosen by two Merrill scholars; one honored high school teacher, Laura Humphrey, is a Cornell alumna (Human Ecology, Class of 1993); and Cornell professors Charles Williamson, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Rosemary Avery, policy analysis and management, being honored for the 17th and 15th times, respectively.

The university also honors the high school teachers with Special Teachers Are Recognized (STAR) scholarships, a one-time, $4,000 need-based scholarship in each teacher’s name for a Cornell student from the teacher’s high school or geographic area. STAR scholarships were established in 1989 by the late Donald Berens and his wife, Margaret Berens, both Class of 1947.

The 2017 Merrill Presidential Scholars are listed below by college and hometown, followed by the names of the secondary school teachers and Cornell faculty members they selected.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Nola Booth of Ithaca; Alexis Lord, Ithaca High School; Courtney Roby, Department of Classics.

Parth Detroja, Knoxville, Tennesee; William Parker, Farragut High School; Deborah Streeter, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Laura Kaminsky, Rochester, New York; George Smith, Brighton High School; Antonio DiTommaso, School of Integrative Plant Science.

Li-Sha Lim, Singapore; Michael White, Hwa Chong Institution; Mark Wysocki, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Jaclyn Melvin, Willoughby Hills, Ohio; Maureen Wahl, Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin School; Matthias Wieland, Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences.

Abhinav Parakh, West Bengal, India; Byoung-Hyoun Hwang, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Kyle Poorman, Eagleville, Pennsylvania; Andrew Merritt, State College Area High School; Sharon Poczter, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Rebecca Schwartz, Napa, California; Michael Douglass, Justin-Siena High School; Brooke Duffy, Department of Communication. 

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Hadar Sachs, Cupertino, California; April Scott, Monta Vista High School; Michael Tomlan, Department of City and Regional Planning.

College of Arts and Sciences

Rachel Armstrong, Lexington, Kentucky; Beth O’Grady, Phillips Exeter Academy; Eve DeRosa, Department of Human Development.

Patrick Braga, Osprey, Florida; Roma Jagdish, Pine View School; Robert Isaacs, Department of Music.

Kevin Kowalewski, Cheektowaga, New York; Julie Kowalewski, Cheektowaga; Dawn Chutkow, Cornell Law School.

Vivian Kuperberg, Davis, California; Lili Floyd, Davis Senior High School; Timothy Riley, Department of Mathematics.

Charlotte Levine, Newton, Massachusetts; Ashley Elpern, Newton South High School; James Kazukietas, Military Science in Vice Provost Initiatives and Army ROTC.

Elbert Mets, Hummelstown, Pennsylvania; John Walizer, Hershey High School; Joseph Fetcho, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.

Andrew Shi, Blacksburg, Virginia; Marissa Smith, Amity Regional High School; Joseph Margulies, Department of Government.

Cleo Siderides, New Canaan, Connecticut; Sam Savage, Deerfield Academy; Benjamin Anderson, Department of History of Art.

Lucy Whiteley, Yonkers, New York; Aline Voldoire, the Fieldston School; Colette Waldron, Department of Romance Studies. 

College of Engineering

Jonlin Chen, Ithaca; Deborah Lynn, Ithaca High School; Jim Blankenship, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Brendan Duffy, Chelmsford, Massachusetts; Matthew Bartos, Chelmsford High School; Charles Williamson, Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Robert Lee, Palo Alto, California; Jack Bungarden, Palo Alto High School; Matthew DeLisa, Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Yezy Lim, Wayne, New Jersey; Michael Shale Jr., Wayne Hills High School; David Gries, Department of Computer Science.

Sarah Malek, Bridgewater, New Jersey; Rachel DeVico, Bridgewater Raritan High School; Shane Henderson, School of Operations Research and Information Engineering.

Charles Wan, Rochester, New York; Jennifer Vibber, Penfield High School; Lynden Archer, Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Lucy Wang, Hockessin, Delaware; Rose Lounsbury, Charter School of Wilmington; Christopher Hernandez, Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. 

School of Hotel Administration

Claire Benninger, Hillsborough, California; Danielle Jensen, Menlo School; Jan deRoos, Center for Real Estate and Finance.

Ethan Gabany, Saint Michael, Pennsylvania; Patrick Kovalsky, Forest Hills High School; Reneta McCarthy, Department of Services Operations Management.

College of Human Ecology

Christina Drakeford, Buffalo, New York; Laura Howse, Kenmore West Senior High School; Rosemary Avery, Department of Policy Analysis and Management.

Sean Kim, Duluth, Georgia; Dennis Hembree, Peachtree Ridge High School; Jon Erickson, Department of Molecular Medicine.

April Sun, Clarksburg, Maryland; Suzanne Rescigna, The Charter School of Wilmington; Gary Evans, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

School of Industrial and Labor Relations

Charlotte Barszewski, Cohasset, Massachusetts; Laura Humphrey, Cohasset Middle High School; JR Keller, Department of Human Resource Studies.

Allison Considine, Rochester, New York; George Smith, Brighton High School; Kate Bronfenbrenner, Department of Labor Relations, Law and History.

Julia Krupski, Clifton Park, New York; Peter Merchant, Shenendehowa High School; Allison Weiner Heinemann, Department of Labor Relations, Law and History.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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