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Merit finalists eager to take next step
Four area students advance in national scholarship competition
West Hall High School senior Savannah Schneider is a National Merit Scholarship finalist. - photo by Tom Reed

Savannah Schneider said most of her actions these days are driven by her desire to earn college scholarships.

After she graduates from West Hall High School this spring, she intends to major in pharmacology but isn’t sure yet where she’ll be going to college.

Schneider hopes that being one of four local students who have been named finalists in the National Merit Scholarship program will land her in a better college situation.

“That’s a big deal for me,” Schneider said. “Hopefully it means being able to get into a better school and maybe a better scholarship.”

National Merit Scholarship provides 2,500 individual scholarships of $2,500 toward the student’s first year of college.

The 18-month-long competition among the nation’s top students is steep. This year’s finalists entered the program after taking the Preliminary SAT in 2011. After scoring highly on the SAT, the students were ranked alongside 15,000 other finalists nationwide. Each student also had to submit scholarship applications that included letters of recommendation, an essay and consistently high grades in their high school classes. The scholarship recipients will start to be announced nationwide in April.

Along with Schneider, Andrew Barnett, senior at Chestatee High School, Austin Montgomery, senior at Lakeview Academy, and William Morris, senior at Gainesville High School, also made it into the final rung of the competition.

Barnett, who hopes to study chemical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology this fall, said he’s excited about the opportunities just being named a finalist will present. Many schools and other scholarships look favorably on students who have made it so far in the competition.

“I think I’ll have a lot of opportunities,” Barnett said. “I’m looking forward to taking advantage of as many as I can like getting a good education and eventually getting a good job. And taking advantage of everything the world has to offer me.”

Montgomery said being recognized as national finalist is “kind of crazy” and something he never really dreamed of.

But he is very thankful for the opportunities it will provide.

He plans to study biomechanical engineering in college after spending two years on the mission field.

Montgomery said the process of applying for the scholarship wasn’t entirely difficult but the essay portion was certainly the hardest. The other students agreed that coming up with a good essay topic was challenging.

Montgomery wrote about what it’s like to grow up Mormon in the South.

He said it can be somewhat challenging at times because he’s always explaining what his beliefs are to people because it’s such a big part of his life. Ultimately, Montgomery said he wants to use his abilities and opportunities to help others.

“Helping people makes me feel good because they feel good,” Montgomery said. “Just seeing someone else smile is definitely something that makes me smile. It brightens everyone’s day. It’s better for everyone.”

Morris also drew inspiration from his Southern heritage for his essay. After reading a biography about Malcolm X, Morris said he started to reflect on how his life as a Southern white male fits into the civil rights movement.

Morris will attend Harvard University, where he will study history, in the fall.

He said his essay focused on how much he appreciates the past and the roles people played to make social changes. He said he hopes to be able to use his opportunities to improve upon the past during his life.

Morris said he’s nervous about starting the new phase of his life but he feels confident and prepared because of the great community he grew up in.

“There is no other place in the world I would rather have grown up,” Morris said.