COLUMBIA — It was a normal day — and then she learned the news.
Jenny Yao, a senior at Rock Bridge High School, found out on May 5 that she was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar. The national program selects 141 students each year and honorees get a trip to Washington, D.C., where they will meet state representatives and the president.
Of the 3 million students expected to graduate high school this year, only about 3,900 qualified based on academic achievement and nominations, according to a Department of Education news release.
The application process was long and drawn out, said Yao's gifted education teacher Kathryn Fishman-Weaver.
"It's a lot like college," she said. "It's a waiting game."
Yao began applying for the presidential scholar recognition early this year. During the application process, she nominated Fishman-Weaver as the distinguished teacher who would accompany her to Washington, D.C., should she win the award.
"She's the teacher who provided me with the most support and advice, and I've known her the longest," Yao said. "It was a clear decision."
Yao said she had to write a few essays for her application. One essay was about the lessons her grandfather taught her while she was growing up. After submitting the essays, she had to wait until mid-April to learn she was a semifinalist, she said.
When she learned she was selected as a presidential scholar, Yao immediately hugged Fishman-Weaver and shared the news with her parents and the school principal.
"Jenny said, 'Mrs. Weaver, I'm a presidential scholar finalist,'" Fishman-Weaver said. "I remember the look on her face. She was so happy and so surprised. She has this humility about her, and she had this sense of being honored."
Yao said she couldn't believe she was chosen. She said all the other students were outstanding and to be ranked among them is an honor.
The program recognizes a male and female high school senior in each state and an additional 41 students. Three students from Missouri were recognized — Yao and students from the Kansas City and St. Louis metropolitan areas.
Two of the four female semifinalists from Missouri, including Yao, were from Rock Bridge.
District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said that Yao is the 21st student from Columbia Public Schools to receive the honor.
"We've had a long history of success when it comes to students being acknowledged with the presidential award, and we're certainly proud of that accomplishment," Baumstark said. "It speaks well to our students that they're well prepared, and that they're able to be supported in their academic enrichment and in their community."
Yao said the research, internships and advanced placement classes available to her helped her excel in school. She worked in a bio-engineering lab the summers going into her sophomore and junior years of high school.
She also earned a perfect score on her ACT and SAT, she said, and was named a semifinalist in the Siemens Competition.
Next year, Yao is planning on attending MIT and possibly majoring in biological engineering, she said.
For now, though, she's happy just to have been selected as a Presidential Scholar and will continue celebrating that achievement.
"My parents agreed to fix my computer now that I won," Yao said, laughing. "And that's awesome."
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