By Isabel Ruehl
Aaron Orbey ’14 was named a 2014 United States Presidential Scholar this spring, beating out over 100 other students in the state and becoming the fourth in school history to secure the honor. One of only 141 students distinguished nationwide, Aaron has been invited to an awards ceremony at the White House later this month.
The Commission on Presidential Scholars judges students based on school evaluations and transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, evidence of community service, leadership, and overall academic and artistic excellence. Students whose standardized test scores qualified them for the award—over 100 in Massachusetts, thanks to the state’s high concentration of independent preparatory schools—submitted their applications in late January. In April the Department of Education announced semifinalists, and on May 5 it released the list of Presidential Scholars. Those selected “represent the potential of all young citizens to lift up America,” United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said.
Aaron’s application included a recommendation written by College Counselor Fred Coyne and six essays focused on his experience heading The Vanguard as editor-in-chief, acting in various theater productions at the school, and researching neurological trials at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also wrote about his Turkish heritage and his father, who passed away when Aaron was young but remains a constant source of inspiration.
As for his “most influential teacher,” Aaron named his adviser, English Teacher Althea Cranston, and she, too, received a personal letter from Mr. Duncan as well as a formal invitation to the awards ceremony from June 22-25.
While the essays made up a key component of the application, Ms. Cranston said this award differed from Aaron’s numerous other accolades because its scope was not confined to excellence in English and the arts but instead reflected Aaron’s mastery of a wide variety of subjects. She attributed Aaron’s success to his well-rounded character, powerful presence, and unique ability both to see the big picture and to grasp nuance and mind details. His writing skills served their purpose not only in the application but in all areas of study, she added.
“He has a powerful voice in whatever he writes,” Ms. Cranston said. “He knows the power of words and is willing to craft, polish, rethink, and reorganize.”
Head of School Rebecca Upham, also Aaron’s Senior Spring Project adviser, said that the school is “enormously proud” of Aaron and his accomplishments and noted that his success reflects well on the caliber of the school’s programs.
“He’s very committed to his studies,” she observed. “I’ve always been struck by Aaron’s pursuit of ideas and his engagement with intellectual endeavors.”
Aaron’s friends Rachel Deal and Bunnard Phan (both ’14) said they are always impressed by Aaron’s productivity, thoroughness, and drive.
“I think all BB&N students are very motivated and conscious about what they want to achieve later on in life, but Aaron’s work ethic and discipline set him apart,” Bunnard said.
“He puts an incredible amount of energy into everything he does,” Rachel added. “He’s in a lot of productions and does improv, and sometimes I think being theatrical can spill over into his other areas of interest.”
Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg said he enjoyed working with Aaron, whom he called an “engaged and engaging actor.”
“Since first encountering him his freshman year, I’ve found Aaron to be intense, inquisitive, willing to take risks,” he said. “He is a demanding critic of his own work.”
Faculty Adviser to The Vanguard and English Teacher Allison Kornet said that Aaron’s initiative and follow-through set him apart.
“So many kids here are talented, but to actually polish work and seek out opportunities to get it in front of others makes the difference. That’s what differentiates the ‘talented’ and the ‘successful’ in the real world, too,” she added. For his part, Aaron said he feels the time-consuming application process has paid off—he is proud to share his award with the school and his teachers. He added that Ms. Cranston, Ms. Kornet, Mr. Lindberg, English Teacher Sharon Krauss, and French Teachers Brigitte Tournier and Cecile Roucher-Greenberg have been instrumental to his success.
“[The award] is a testament to the support of my teachers and to the quality of the education I’ve received here,” he said. “They have expanded my creative vision, taught me a lot about myself, and taught me to pursue what I love.”
During the awards ceremony and several days surrounding it in Washington D.C., the scholars are encouraged to initiate lifelong connections with each other while meeting politicians, activists, and hopefully President Obama—a once-in-a-lifetime networking opportunity that Aaron said he appreciates.
“I’m really humbled to get to know the other students,” Aaron said. “I’m lucky for the chance.”
Aaron plans to take a gap year before joining the Class of 2019 at Yale University, where he intends to major in computer science and English. He said that at Yale and beyond, he hopes to maintain connections with other Presidential Scholars as well as with those he has come to know over his 12 years as a lifer at BB&N.
“For Aaron, senior year has been about bringing his considerable talents to bear for the benefit of the community,” Ms. Kornet said. “It’s easy for us to keep our heads down as we develop skills, but Aaron has recently been challenging himself to look around and make connections that he’s been craving and that he knows the community has been craving, too.”
Skylar Smith and Sam Miller-Smith (both ’14) also qualified for application to become Presidential Scholars, but Sam chose not to apply and Skylar was not named a finalist.