Cornell University senior Chandler Kemp was recently selected as a Merrill Presidential Scholar, an honor bestowed on the university’s most outstanding graduating seniors. It also recognizes the teachers who played a role in their success.
Kemp, a 2008 graduate of Haines High School, chose school science teacher Mark Fontenot to join him at the Ivy League university during graduation week for events honoring the scholars and their teachers. Cornell will cover Fontenot’s travel.
The Merrill award goes to about 1 percent of the senior class and scholars are chosen based on their “outstanding scholastic achievement, demonstrated remarkable intellectual drive, energetic leadership abilities and a propensity to contribute to the betterment of society,” according to the Merrill Scholars website.
Fontenot says the award is fitting for Kemp, whom he describes as “one of the most apt learners I have ever known. He has an incredible problem-solving mind and an insatiable desire to learn.”
Fontenot realized that participating in the Cornell events would cause him to miss this year’s Haines High graduation. In 18 years, he’s never missed one.
Fontenot was torn about missing the local ceremony – “I didn’t want the students to feel abandoned” – but decided to go after talking to seniors, who encouraged him, telling him he could see the ceremony on video.
Kemp’s award, says Fontenot, is an honor for the Haines School as well because it gave Kemp “the tools to succeed.” Kemp also cited the influences of English teacher JoAnn Ross Cunningham and math teacher Matt Davis.
“I applied for this award because I knew that I had more than one extraordinary high school teacher that I wanted to honor and thank,” Kemp said. “I would invite them both to this event as well if I could.”
Kemp chose Fontenot, however, because his “clear explanations of concepts and hands-on approach to science helped make me the scientist I am today… (Fontenot) remains one of the best science teachers I’ve ever had.”
Both Kemp and Fontenot are looking forward to touring Cornell’s physics lab together. “It’s totally new, discovery-level science Chandler is doing. Not many people get the opportunities he’s had to do completely novel kinds of research,” says Fontenot. “I’ll be in nerd heaven.”
The award comes with a one-time $4,000 scholarship given in Fontenot’s name to the Cornell student with the closest connection to Haines High School next year.