October 2, 2010


Homer seniors compete for National Merit Scholarship

MeritBob Ellis/staff photographer
National Merit Scholarship semifinalists Aaron Gustafson, left, and David Harris, center, and honorable mention Matt Swenson stand in the hallway of Homer High School.

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Two Homer High School students are semifinalists competing for National Merit Scholarships, making it the only district in the county with contenders this year.
Seniors David Harris and Aaron Gustafson received notification that their scores on the PSAT, taken last October, qualified for the National Merit Scholarship competition.
Harris and Gustafson, both 17, are applying to compete for several National Merit Scholarships, including $2,500 scholarships.
The scholarship competition selects about 16,000 students with the top scores to be semifinalists.
About 15,000 of those students will win scholarships. Last year, 1.5 million students took the PSAT in hopes of qualifying for the scholarship competition.
Fellow Homer High School senior Matt Swenson received commended student status. There are 34,000 students who received commended status, which is equivalent to an honorable mention.
Dryden High School had seven commended students: Aiden Cortell, Michael Kirsch, Jonathan Mead, Marcel Merwin, Annelise Nentwick, Samuel Rugg and Caleb Wakeman.
The PSAT has two 25-minute critical reading sections, two 25-minute math sections and one 30-minute writing skills section. There are 240 possible points.
Gustafson was selected for his score of 225; Harris for his score of 221 and Swenson for his score of 202, said Darlene Latten, a guidance counselor at Homer High School.
Harris and Gustafson did not believe they qualified for the competition because it took months before they heard anything. The district was notified this month that the students were semifinalists.
“I thought I must not have made it, because it had been so long,” Gustafson said Tuesday afternoon.
To become a finalist, a semifinalist must have an outstanding academic record throughout high school, be endorsed and recommended by the high school principal, and earn SAT scores that confirm the student’s earlier performance on the qualifying test, according to the competition’s website. The winners will be announced in April.
Both students said they are writing an essay, a required part of the application, about the influence their grandfathers had on their lives.
Gustafson is writing his essay on his grandfather, John A. Gustafson, a retired SUNY Cortland biology professor.
“He really taught me to revere and respect nature,” Gustafson said.
Harris is writing about his grandfather, Charles Curtis, a retired logger. Curtis, in his 80s, was logging a few years ago when a tree fell on his leg. Harris pulled him out from under.
The event painted an indelible picture of his grandfather’s spirit and perseverance, because his grandfather retired from logging about four years ago, he said.
“His whole ordeal has taught me not to worry about the small things, like tests. You just work your way through it,” Harris said.
The students admit they are intelligent, but they are not perfect; their academic achievements come because they work.
In 10th grade, Harris took an Advance Placement European history class. He failed the first test.
“I never failed a test until that class,” Harris recalled.
To succeed in the class, Harris met with other students in the class and the teacher, Joe Cortese, and discussed with them his difficulty in the class.
In the end, Harris received four out of five possible points on the AP exam.
Procrastination burdens Gustafson. Usually, he waits until the night before a long term project is due to complete it, he said.
He usually scores well on the projects, but he said he has to sacrifice time he could have been sleeping to work on an assignment he was given weeks before.
“I inadvertently put in a lot of hours,” Gustafson said. He said he is not going to procrastinate this semester because he is grooming himself for college, where procrastination might not work as well.
Harris and Gustafson have applied to Cornell University. Gustafson wants to major in computer science, Harris in its China and Asia-Pacific Studies program.
Swenson said he is applying to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study robotic engineering.
All three students are self-proclaimed nerds, because they like stereotypical nerdy activities, they said.
Gustafson said he enjoys playing piano, playing tennis, editing videos and seeing which movies he can download before they are released on DVD.
Harris likes Japanese cartoons, is the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and studies Chinese as a foreign language.
Swenson is an Eagle Scout who enjoys video games, and sci-fi television shows.
All three follow the online comic XKCD which has math and science themes and they prefer PCs over Macs.
“They say you shouldn’t label yourself, but we do. I think all teenagers do,” Harris said.
Although they claim to be nerds, Harris and Gustafson said they are interested in the same things as typical teenage boys, like sports and girls.
Harris and Gustafson both have girlfriends and play sports. Harris runs track, and Gustafson and Swenson play tennis. Swenson also runs cross country. Gustafson is also active in his church, Grace Christian Fellowship, and he participates in Youth in Government, where he is the liaison to the assembly and Swenson is secretary of state.
Tuesday night, Harris and Gustafson were honored at the Board of Education meeting at Hartnett Elementary School, Truxton, receiving a standing ovation.
Board President Scott Ochs told the students they exemplify student leadership.
“It’s nice to have students achieve on this level,” said Doug VanEtten, Homer High School principal.
“They are exceptional leaders for the school district because of their academic achievements,” Superintendent of Schools Doug Larison said.
In 2008, Homer High School student Piyali Syam was a National Merit scholarship winner, accepting a $2,000 annual scholarship from Fordham University, according to the high school guidance office.

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