Two Johnson County teens have received one of the highest academic honors in the country: Seniors Luke Conners of Blue Valley High School and Clara Ma of Shawnee Mission East High School have each been named a 2015 U. S. Presidential Scholar.
Conners and Ma are the two Kansans chosen this year to receive the award. Each year, the prestigious honor is given to one boy and one girl from each state.
Both Conners and Ma will receive an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., from June 21-23, where they will be given a medallion at a ceremony.
The U. S. Presidential Scholar program was established in 1964. Students can be selected for the U.S. Presidential Scholar award based on achievement in academics, the arts, school or community activities or by demonstrating strong character.
For Conners, a strong academic record was key to his success for the award. He received a perfect score of 36 on his ACT. Conners was going about his normal day at school recently when he learned that he had received the coveted U.S. Presidential Scholar honor.
“I was coming back from lunch when I got a text from my math teacher telling me I had won,” said Conners. “I was pretty excited. My friends and I all exchanged high fives.”
Conners first learned about the U.S. Presidential Scholar competition in January. He then began the thorough application process which required him to write six essays, among other things. Part of the application process also involved one of his teachers writing about how Conners has influenced the student body at Blue Valley High School.
It’s not the first academic honor for Conners. He’s also been named a National Merit Finalist, an ACT Scholar and last year received the National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in Writing.
In the fall, Conners will go to Rice University in Houston, where he will study math and physics. He said he’s proud of the awards that have resulted from his academic success, but it’s not the reason he works so hard.
“It is definitely nice to get this recognition, but I’m not always going for the next big award,” said Conners. “I’m really just trying to overcome challenges and develop as a student and a person.”
For Ma of Shawnee Mission East High School, finding out that she had received the U.S. Presidential Scholar award came as a shock.
“I guess I was really humbled and surprised,” said Ma. “There are so many extraordinary young people in our state and the fact that I was one of the two people they ended up choosing meant a lot to me.”
Since Ma didn’t receive a perfect score on her ACT, but came very close with a score of 35, she believes the U.S. Presidential Scholar committee looked at her overall academic record as well as her long list of community service work that she has been involved in throughout high school.
Among other things, Ma has volunteered her time locally at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, the Women’s Foundation and with the Prairie Village Environment/Recycling Committee.
Like Conners, Ma has received a string of academic honors. She is a National Merit Scholar and a Coca-Cola Scholar. In addition, she received widespread recognition for winning an essay contest when she was in the sixth grade that resulted in her earning the right of naming NASA’s Mars Rover, which Ma chose to name Curiosity.
Since that time, Ma has continued her relationship with NASA. For the past two summers, she has worked as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Next year, Ma will take her love of science to Yale University, where she will likely study astrophysics or planetary science.
Ma is looking forward to beginning her studies at Yale, but said she will miss the people that she has made connections with throughout high school and that have helped pave her road to success.
“I just have been so lucky to have amazing teachers and parents who have been incredibly supportive of me,” said Ma. “I’ve had people in my life who have just wanted the best for me.”