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By James Dean
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  • Animal Science
  • Department of Global Development
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Nutritional Sciences
  • Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Food Science
  • Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Department of Entomology
  • Department of Communication
  • Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Yunyun Wang ’21 remembers arriving at Cornell as an “overeager freshman” who wanted to study everything but wound up feeling lost.

The College of Engineering student found her academic footing and forged a new major as a junior with help and inspiration from Drew Margolin, associate professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“He took a chance on me as a research assistant and is a testament to how a really lost student only needs one teacher to believe in her, and for her to be successful in that field,” Wang said.

Wang thanked her most influential academic mentors during a virtual ceremony May 24 honoring this year’s 37 Merrill Presidential Scholars. Representing the top 1% of the graduating class, the scholars were selected by deans of the university’s eight undergraduate colleges and schools based on their extraordinary academic achievement, strong leadership and potential to contribute to society.

Each spring, the Merrill scholars are asked to recognize the high school teacher who most inspired their academic development, and the faculty or staff member who contributed most significantly to their Cornell experience. The students and educators typically gather for a luncheon in Ithaca, but because of the pandemic the program hosted its 33rd annual convocation on Zoom.

The two-hour ceremony included introductory remarks from President Martha E. Pollack and welcomed participants from 15 U.S. states and Canada, China, Singapore and South Africa.

Recognizing outstanding educators who prepare students for and help them succeed at Cornell was the late Philip Merrill ’55’s mission when he created the Merrill Presidential Scholars program in 1988.

“He believed that a good education matters, and that a key to good education is top quality educators, teachers and professors,” said Doug Merrill ’89, M.Eng ’90, MBA ’91, one of three Merrill children – all Cornell graduates – who support the program through the Merrill Family Foundation. “The real honorees … are the high school teachers and professors that our scholars have chosen to recognize.”

Since 1989, STAR (Special Teachers Are Recognized) Scholarships named in honor of the teachers recognized by Merrill Scholars have been awarded to Cornell students with financial need from each scholar’s hometown, a program established by the late Don Berens ’47 and his wife, Margi Berens ’47.

Wang credited Tim Spence, her Latin teacher at Hidden Valley High School in Roanoke, Virginia, for encouraging the curiosity and love of learning that made it so difficult for her to choose a course of study initially.

“He’s been a supportive and caring friend for many students and made Latin more popular than the living languages at my high school,” Wang said.

At Cornell, her work with Margolin led her to craft an unusual double major in information science, systems and technology in the College of Engineering, and government in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Thank you both, again, so much for helping me make the most of my Cornell education,” Wang said. “I really owe it all to you both.”

Merrill Scholars expressed gratitude to educators who had pushed them out of comfort zones, helped them see the big picture, and opened their eyes to beauty in math or poetry. They said they felt indebted to the teachers who had believed in them when they lacked confidence and gone out of their way to help.

Tyler Rodriguez ’21 of Staten Island, New York, said coming to Cornell as a first-generation, low-income student was “super-scary,” and that some of his most valuable lessons occurred outside the classroom. The School of Industrial and Labor Relations student thanked Devonn Saunders of the afterschool program Council for Unity, and Kristin Dade of Cornell’s Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, who helped him develop a sense of home and community.

“I wanted to especially honor two people with whom I've never actually been in a class with,” Rodriguez said, “but have taught me everything about what it means to be a leader and what it means to be a member of my community.”

Natalie Neamtu, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences from Webster, New York, thanked Jamie Fagan, a teacher at Webster Thomas High School, for helping her discover a talent for math computer science, and Robbert Van Renesse, professor of computer science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, whose mentorship made her feel she belonged in the field.

“I’m grateful to him for seeing something in me from before I saw it in myself,” Neamtu said.

Closing the convocation, Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, thanked the “magnificent” group of students for sharing stories that were “incredibly good for us to hear this at the end of such a tough year,” and for the opportunity to give them an appropriate sendoff heading into commencement weekend.

The 2021 Merrill Presidential Scholars are listed below by college and hometown, followed by the names of the secondary school teachers and Cornell faculty members the scholars selected.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

  • Isabelle Amlicke, Westport, Connecticut; Michael Aitkenhead, Staples High School; Neil Mattson, School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section
  • Robert Bossong, Cumberland Foreside, Maine; Daniel Lavallee, Cheverus High School; James Blankenship, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Madelin Brown, Troy, New York; Michelle Szakmary, Troy High School; Jeremy Allen, Department of Animal Science
  • Jack Elstner, Annapolis, Maryland; Thomas “Doc” Heslin, Severn School; Charles Greene, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Xing Gao, Shanghai, China; Rong Yang, Shanghai High School; Connie Yuan, Department of Communication and Department of Global Development
  • Mikaela Matera-Vatnick, Washington, D.C.; Emily Veres, Washington International School; Mariana Frederica Wolfner, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Angela Shen, Fremont, California; Yunor Peralta, Mission San Jose High School; Laura Harrington, Department of Entomology
  • Molly Smith, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania; Kristen Eppley, Lower Moreland High School; Robin Dando, Department of Food Science

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

  • Xin Yue Wang, West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; Angela Walsh Noble, Collingwood School; Peter Ballman, Department of Architecture

College of Arts and Sciences

  • Elizabeth Heffern, Carversville, Pennsylvania; Brian Loving, New Hope-Solebury High School; Ramaswami Balasubramaniam, School of Industrial and Labor Relations
  • Sukhmani Kaur, Claremont, Cape Town, South Africa; Linda Kotze, Reddam House Constantia; Sam Nelson, Department of Labor Relations, Law and History
  • Rachel Kim, Herriman, Utah; Hilary Thirlwell, West High School; Martha Field, Division of Nutritional Sciences
  • Nicholas Krasnow, Bedford, New York; Hillary Dowling, Fox Lane High School; Ailong Ke, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Jiali Liu, Haidian District, Beijing, China; Shuangping Li, Beijing No. 8 High School; Chris Barrett, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and Department of Global Development
  • Hannah Marks, Hanover, New Hampshire; Anna Gado, Hanover High School; Vida Maralani, Department of Sociology
  • Natalie Neamtu, Webster, New York; Jamie Fagan, Webster Thomas High School; Robbert Van Renesse, Department of Computer Science
  • Carina Shiau, Houston, Texas; Gin-Chi Wuu, Clear Lake High School; Mingming Wu, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering
  • Vishal Sundaram, Solon, Ohio; Nanci Bush, Solon High School; Jeanne Moseley, Division of Nutritional Sciences
  • Sterling Williams-Ceci, Ithaca, New York; Lana Craig, Ithaca High School; Michael Macy, Department of Sociology
  • Annabel Young, New York, NY; Timothy Ree, Brooklyn Technical High School; Ella Maria Diaz, Department of Literatures in English

College of Engineering

  • Alex Coy, Silver Spring, Maryland; David Stein, Montgomery Blair High School; Alyosha Molnar, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Hannah Doyle, San Mateo, California; Chris Stallings, Hillsdale High School; Peter McMahon, School of Applied and Engineering Physics
  • Angela Jin, Acton, Massachusetts; Brian Dempsey, Acton-Boxborough Regional High School; Jose Martinez, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Alexa Podolsky, Princeton, New Jersey; Robert Corell, Princeton High School; Jan Lammerding, Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering
  • Yunyun Wang, Roanoke, Virginia; Tim Spence, Hidden Valley High School; Drew Margolin, Department of Communication
  • Anders Wikum, Maineville, Ohio; Lynn Brant, Kings High School; David Shmoys, School of Operations Research and Information Engineering
  • William Xu, Falls Church, Virginia; Jonathan Osborne, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology; Lena Kourkoutis, School of Applied and Engineering Physics

College of Human Ecology

  • Lauren Forstenhausler, Randolph, New Jersey; Sandy Kessell, Randolph High School; Huiju Park, Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design
  • Isabella Harnick, Great Neck, New York; Jennifer Hastings, Great Neck South High School; Sharon Sassler, Department of Policy Analysis and Management
  • Paul Soden, Rye Brook, New York; Julie Hensley, Blind Brook High School; Kathleen Rasmussen, Division of Nutritional Sciences

School of Industrial and Labor Relations

  • Terrill Malone, Belleville, Michigan; Melissa Thompson, Canton High School; Brigid Beachler, ILR Off-Campus Credit Programs
  • Tyler Rodriguez, Staten Island, New York; Devonn Saunders, Susan E. Wagner High School; Kristin Dade, Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives
  • Leah Rosner, New York, New York; Heather Denbow, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School; Kate Griffith, Department of Labor Relations, Law and History

Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management

  • Roger Hyman, Great Neck, New York; Jeffrey Gilden, John L. Miller Great Neck North High School; Jawwad Addoum, Dyson School
  • Ruth Park, Fort Lee, New Jersey; William Mendelsohn, Bergen County Academies; Brian Dillon, Department of Applied Economics and Management

School of Hotel Administration

  • Samay Bansal, Singapore, Singapore; Gopika Jadeja, United World College of South East Asia (Dover Campus); Andrew Quagliata, School of Hotel Administration
  • Carol Wang, Nanshan District, Shenzhen, China; Katie Awadalla, Ecole Secondaire Robert A. McMath Secondary School; Daniel Lebret, School of Hotel Administration

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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