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Scholars Leading the Nation

Four semi-finalists for the National Merit Scholarship are seniors at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies


Above: From left, Lily Lin, Vanessa Deering, LACES Principal Kimberly Lesure, Noah Schechter and Colin Wire.

by Samuel Gilstrap, Oct. 4, 2019

MID CITY, LOS ANGELES – The National Merit Scholarship Foundation released its list of semi-finalists for 2020, which includes students from each of the 50 states scoring highest on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) qualifying test. Approximately 16,000 semi-finalists from 21,000 U.S. high schools made the list, representing the top 1 percent of current high school seniors in the nation. Among these are about two dozen students from Los Angeles Unified, of which four are from the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES).

Vanessa Deering, Lily Lin, Noah Schechter and Colin Wire are as diverse a group of students as you can imagine, coming from different communities, following different courses of study and having different dreams of what they want for their futures.

What they share in common, however, is a firm belief that LACES played a key role in their success.

"I remember being really shy when I was younger," Lily said. "It didn't help that I was a girl who was interested in guy things like math, science and engineering. Plus, I attended a really big middle school where it was easy to get lost in the shuffle. Here at LACES we have a smaller, close-knit environment, where everyone can connect with others who are passionate about the same things. It's really turned my world around."

Her classmates agreed, reflecting on their experiences.

"I went to another school for middle school and then switched to LACES in eighth grade," Colin said. "I remember it was a hard transition. But, the fact that LACES is a magnet, and there are kids from all over the's not homogenous. There are so many different kinds of people. So, it's not hard to find others with similar interests and passions."

Concerning their new status as National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists, the students say they feel proud but have little time to think about what it means.

"We were excited when we heard the news," Noah said. "But, honestly we hadn't been thinking about this that much. We had been taking the PSAT since 7th grade, so it's something that is part of our routine here."

Vanessa agreed explaining, "The National Merit is definitely something we're proud of, but taking the PSAT has mainly been in our peripheral vision as we keep looking toward the future."

Their college counselor, Candace Mackey, said that starting students on college admissions preparations when they are young is part of what leads to the kinds of success these students are experiencing.

"Since LACES spans grades six through twelve, we're able to provide guidance on college-entry prep exercises like the PSAT very early on," she said. "Plus, they have access and exposure to a high school curriculum and high-school level course work at a younger age. So, by the time they reach freshman year, they're miles ahead. It’s all about access and exposure."

All four students are extremely active with clubs, organizations and extra-curricular activities aligned to their interests. Noah has been very active in the Model United Nations and in speech and debate. He says it's fueled his interest studying international relations. Vanessa has been passionate about physics since a young age, citing her family as a strong inspiration.

Lily is also excited about math and science, though her career interests are more along the lines of social justice.

"Although the hard sciences are my strength, I may minor in more social sciences," she said. "I am really interested in what our schools are doing with Restorative Justice, finding more pro-social ways of dealing with those who violate the rules. It's where our society is headed as well, and I see myself being a part of shaping that."

Also interested in math is Colin, who says his aspirations come from the realization that there aren't a lot of people around who get as excited about the subject as he does.

"I don't really have a solid idea of what my career will look like at this point," he says. "But, I do see myself as a teacher or in some role that allows me to share my enthusiasm about the complexities of math with others."

While he has yet to do some fine-tuning on his course of study after high school, Colin is unequivocal about where he wants to study.

"I want to go to Brown University," he said. "I am already applying now Early Decision, because it's definitely my top choice. But, if not then U.C. Santa Barbara. I want to do go somewhere where I can play baseball as well as major in math."

Though Colin is the only one applying Early Decision, all students agree they are nervous about the upcoming coming college application season.

"We talk a lot about preparing here, so there is definitely a lot of anxiety in the air," Noah said. "We know it's going to take a lot of time and energy and it's going to be a really busy senior year. But, I think they do a great job at LACES helping us prepare."

Colin agreed.

"Given that the process is already underway, I can definitely attest to the anxiety," he said. "But, what they really teach us here is that wherever you do end up going to school, it's meant to be. What is important is that you make it your own. It's stressful, yes, because so many years of what we have been doing is leading up to this point. But, it's also very exciting, so we do our best to keep everything in perspective."

Finalists, to be announced in February, 2020, will go on to compete for a share of 7,600 scholarships worth more than $31 million. Winners will be announced nationally between April and July.

“We could not be prouder of these four outstanding scholars,” LACES principal Kimberly Lesure said. “They represent the drive and commitment to success all of our hard-working students exhibit every day. What's really exciting is that they serve as role models to their younger peers, which contributes to our ability to prepare more and more top scholars every year.”