Hanna Gebremichael ’21, left, visits the Duke University campus; Ekwueme Eleogu ’22 volunteers at an animal shelter in Richmond County.


At NCSSM, NC students “find your people to grow with”

Ekwueme Eleogu’s classmates at Sun Valley High School in Union County were packing up their stuff, right in the middle of class. “Where’s everybody going?” the sophomore asked as his friends began streaming out of the classroom.

They were going, his teacher said, to a presentation being delivered by someone from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. 

A presentation? About what? Somehow Ekwueme had missed the memo. But whatever the presentation was about, it would surely beat sitting in the classroom by himself, so he stuffed his own books into his backpack and followed his friends. 

“Everybody else was going,” he says.

The “someone” the students were going to hear was Mattie Gaddy-Parks, an Associate Director of Admissions at NCSSM. Ekwueme filed into the room with the others, took a seat, and pretty much zoned out. “I wasn’t really paying attention at all,” he says.

But when Gaddy-Parks asked if anyone in the room could name all the schools in the University of North Carolina system, Ekwueme spoke up, perhaps a bit too confidently. He could name them. 

Go for it, Gaddy-Parks said.

Ekwueme rattled off the names of 16 schools. 

You’re forgetting one, Gaddy-Parks said.

Ekwueme ran through the list again in his head. There was no way he was forgetting one.

“It took me five minutes,” he says, “before it dawned on me that the school she was there to talk to us about — NCSSM —  was part of the UNC system.”

Still, Ekwueme remained generally dismissive of the information session.

“Nobody from my school goes to Science and Math,” he recalls rationalizing, so why bother? But the idea of going somewhere new and being a part of a group of people with a particular focus did seem appealing.

When the presentation was over, Gaddy-Parks asked the students if they would gather with her for a photo. As they positioned themselves, she sought out Ekwueme. Would he stand here in the middle, she asked, and hold the NCSSM pennant she had brought along? 

Ekwueme decided it wouldn’t hurt to stick around a few minutes after it was all over and ask a couple of questions. Simply out of curiosity, of course.

Why not consider NCSSM, Gaddy-Parks asked him. 

Because he didn’t want to leave his mother and friends, he replied.

That wasn’t the whole truth. Or even most of the truth. The real reason was that Ekwueme, who by nature is very competitive, was afraid of “flopping.”

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “Maybe I’ll think about it. But I don’t know.”

Back in class, Ekwueme resumed his usual routine. NCSSM, which he had essentially stumbled across, moved to the back of his mind.

Across town, a friend of Ekwueme’s from another school who had recently visited NCSSM began flooding his phone with texts. “He was telling me all about how awesome the school was,” Ekwueme says. “He kept saying, ‘You have to apply, you have to apply.’”

Ekwueme’s mother encouraged him to apply as well.

It was still a tough sell. The fear of failing — an incredibly common worry among NCSSM applicants — continued to plague Ekwueme. And it was true that he would miss family and friends.

“I was like, ‘I do want to go; I don’t; I do; I don’t,’” Ekwueme says.

And then it became clear to him: his academic life was routine. That did not square with his competitive nature. “Do I really want to do this?” he asked himself. “Do I really want to keep doing the same thing over and over?”

He didn’t. So on the very last day of NCSSM’s application period, Ekwueme submitted his own application. And then, for someone who had for so long been so uncertain about NCSSM, he did something that revealed his truest desire.

“I prayed,” Ekwueme says. “Me and my mom prayed. For a while.”

Hanna Gebremichael’s path to NCSSM from Wakefield High School in Wake County was very straightforward. As a sophomore at Wakefield, Hanna had already exhausted most of the school’s advanced science courses. With two years of high school to go, there was not much left for her to take.

One of Hanna’s science teachers, aware of her situation, asked her if she had thought of applying to NCSSM.

Not really, Hanna said. At the time, she was fairly certain she wanted to go out of state for college.

Except it wasn’t a college. Hanna found that out when, out of curiosity, she searched the school online and found NCSSM’s website. 

“That an opportunity like this had gone over my head is incredible,” Hanna says, still surprised that a high school like NCSSM, with an outstanding advanced curriculum in the sciences that she loved so much, was just one county over from her own, and yet she had never heard of it.

Though they knew of Hanna’s interest in this newly discovered school, her parents allowed her the space to consider the opportunity without much influence. They had always fostered her strong independence. It was Hanna’s decision to make, not that she needed to think about it. Her mind had been made up almost immediately after exploring the school’s website.

“My school had a lot of opportunities and programs and AP classes, but… NCSSM was enticing because it had [even] more options as far as courses. Also, the opportunity to be away from home at a boarding school seemed incredible. When I looked at all that, I thought, ‘I can’t do anything else — I MUST apply.’”

Hanna found out she had been accepted to NCSSM in the middle of a spring semester AP Biology class at Wakefield High. She was the only sophomore in a class full of seniors applying to college. Throughout class she had been refreshing the website where decisions were to be posted. She shared the good news with her classmates, many of whom had recently been accepted into college. “It was,” Hanna says, “my own little triumph.”

Hanna kept her good news secret from her parents until dinner, when she surprised them.

“They were very happy for me,” she says. “My mom was in tears.” 

Ekwueme made it onto NCSSM’s waitlist. It was a disappointment for the young man who had wandered so half-heartedly and skeptically into Gaddy-Parks’ presentation. In the months since she had given him that pennant to hold in the very center of the group photo, he had begun to believe that maybe NCSSM really was where he belonged.

Such a disappointment.

Then his phone rang. NCSSM was on the line. Completely surprised, Ekwueme let it go to voicemail. 

It was Gaddy-Parks. He should call her back, she said. So he did.

He was no longer on the waitlist, Gaddy-Parks told him. He was now a Unicorn.

“I was so happy,” Ekwueme says. “And I was so happy that it was Mrs. Gaddy-Parks who called to tell me.”

NCSSM has been everything Ekwueme, now a junior, had hoped it would be — and more. He made new friends quickly, became involved in NCSSM’s African cultures club, soccer club, and Student Government. But most exciting for the future biology major was getting into NCSSM’s rigorous Research in Biology program.

“I never thought I’d be able to delve into research in biology [while in high school],” Ekwueme says. “I never thought I’d be able to go into a lab for several hours each week and work on a project I want to work on.”

Hanna, now a senior, has been equally pleased with her NCSSM experience. Most surprising has been the joy she has found outside of class, particularly through her participation in Student Government and NCSSM’s cultural festivals, which she has helped organize through her participation in the student group H.O.P.E (Heritage Opportunity and Progressive Education).  

“Originally I imagined myself coming into the school and jumping right into the Science Olympiad or all of the other immense number of science clubs, math clubs, things highly focused on STEM that I thought would enrich me the most,” she says, but “it was really finding activities outside the classroom that I really enjoyed but had nothing to do with my science ambitions that I think helped me develop the most as a person as well as with meeting people who I would develop great bonds with.” 

As much as NCSSM’s academic and extracurricular environment led to her growth as a person, it’s that sense of community and family cultivated among friends that Hanna will remember the most years from now.

“NCSSM really is a place for anyone” with the drive and determination to work hard and be the best version of themself, she says. “The school will welcome you, and the school will be an amazing place for you, and you will find your people to grow with and become a better individual with. It’s just a matter of taking that leap of faith.”

It was the leap of faith that Ekwueme struggled with before finally taking it. “Looking from the outside in, you think that everybody’s the same, that everybody is just a studious kid,” he says. “But once you get inside you just see tons of different personalities. I still think it’s amazing that you can bring together all these people from all over the state and everybody finds their group. When you really sit down and think about it, going somewhere and becoming a better version of yourself always, always has a positive outcome.”

For more information about the application process or to host an Admissions presentation, please email admissions@ncssm.edu, visit our webpage, or follow us on social media (FacebookTwitterInstagram), @NCSSMAdmissons.