Elizabeth Hochberg '21, left, works in NCSSM's biology lab; Josie vandeKlashorst '21 walks on Watts Lawn on NCSSM's Durham campus.


How two NC high school students found their way to NCSSM

Elizabeth Hochberg always thought it likely she would follow in the footsteps of her older sister, Mary, who graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2018. Since middle school, Elizabeth had listened to Mary’s stories of life at the school, of the friends she had made there, and of the academic opportunities she had taken advantage of. So when Elizabeth could finally apply to NCSSM as a sophomore at J.H. Rose High School in Greenville, she eagerly submitted her application, then waited nervously for a response.

When it finally came, she was deflated. Her application had been declined. 

But Elizabeth didn’t give up. All student applicants may indicate they’d like to be considered for the waitlist should their initial application be denied. Elizabeth did so, and made it to the list.

Though not an official enrollment offer, being waitlisted was a positive development. Elizabeth remained hopeful, but pragmatic. NCSSM would be great, but she was doing well at J.H. Rose, too. There was nothing to lose.

“I got a second chance,” she says. “All I could do was wait and see if it worked out, and if it didn’t, I’d be fine at my home high school.”

That’s one of the wonderful things about applying to NCSSM: there is nothing to be lost in submitting an application, no sacrifices to be made, no upfront commitment required. The decision to apply is simply a decision to explore an opportunity and see what happens.

That’s a sentiment that Elizabeth’s classmate, fellow senior Josie vandeKlashorst, emphasizes. The Hickory, NC, native and product of South Caldwell High School knows that not every applicant will decide that NCSSM is where they belong. In fact, each year a number of students who get accepted ultimately decide they are happiest where they are. What matters is that you give yourself options.

“Just do it,” Josie says to those considering an application to NCSSM. “If you’re thinking of applying, just do it. You’ll have plenty of time afterward to decide if it’s really somewhere you want to be.”

There was no doubt in Josie’s mind that she wanted to be at NCSSM. On a visit to NCSSM as a seventh-grader with a neighbor who was visiting his older brother, she met another NCSSM student who gave her an informal tour. “Oh my goodness,” Josie recalls thinking. “It seemed so weird that they were living with other students in high school.”

As novel an idea as living on campus seemed, it was the school’s FabLab, a makerspace that Josie toured on an official visit to NCSSM the following year as an eighth-grader, that set her mind. Though her academic focus has since changed, as a middle schooler Josie was very interested in 3-D printing and coding. Thanks to a Google grant her middle school received, she was involved in a makerspace back home. But it was not like NCSSM’s space, which housed more advanced equipment. Josie knew, too, that once she got to high school at South Caldwell, there would be no more access to her middle school lab. She returned home, determined to apply to NCSSM once she was old enough.

“From a very young age I’ve been very independent,” Josie says, “and I thought: A, it would be fun” to live on her own at NCSSM away from home, “and B, it would be really cool to learn about things I’m very interested in in STEM.”

In her sophomore year of high school, Josie applied to NCSSM’s residential and online programs. She was accepted into NCSSM Online, but her residential application was declined.

“I still had hope,” Josie says. “I still thought I could get in.” 

And so, like Elizabeth, Josie was considered for and added to the waitlist. 

Life continued, and before long Josie found herself in Europe on a school trip. On the next-to-last day, she stood on the Charles Bridge in Prague, trying to decide which side of the bronze statue of St. John of Nepomuk to rub. Rub one side if you hoped to return to Prague one day. Rub the other side for good luck. She reached out her hand and touched the centuries-old metal. 

The following day, while having dinner in Switzerland with her classmates and even some teachers who had supported her application to NCSSM, she looked down at her phone to see she had received a phone call from the 919 area code. NCSSM was in the 919 area code. She checked her message. It was NCSSM’s Admissions Office. She immediately called back.

She was in. If, that is, she still wanted to come to Science and Math. She immediately accepted.

As for the statue, “I rubbed the lucky side,” Josie says, “so maybe it was that.

Back in the states, Elizabeth Hochberg was still waiting. The new school year at NCSSM had started, and while Josie had made it back from Europe and was now on campus in Durham starting class, Elizabeth was still in Greenville. And that was fine. She was happy to still be with her friends at J.H. Rose. 

One week after classes at NCSSM got underway, Elizabeth received a call she was no longer realistically anticipating. On the other end was NCSSM’s Admissions Office. Another enrollment spot had opened up. A little late, but better late than never. Was she still interested in being an NCSSM Unicorn? Yes. Could she be there by 8 a.m. the next morning to begin class? Again, yes. Short notice, but absolutely, she would be there.

“It was surreal,” Elizabeth says of that moment. In an instant she went from being a junior at J.H. Rose High School to a junior at NCSSM. She and her family rushed to pack her up and get her to Durham. By night’s end she was sleeping in a dorm room in her new home away from home, the very first moments of what would be one of the greatest adventures of her young life.

Now halfway through her senior year, Elizabeth is already looking back on all that she’s been able to do, both socially and academically. Swing dance — something brand new to her —  became a big part of her extracurricular activities. But she also brought with her from J. H. Rose her involvement in Future Business Leaders of America, where she is now one of the vice presidents of NCSSM’s chapter. She also carried forward her joy of playing tennis, joining an NCSSM team in her junior year that won the conference championship and went well into the state playoffs. That mix of the familiar with the new helped Elizabeth quickly feel at home.

But it was intimidating at first, Elizabeth says. Having “never won a national academic competition before,” she wondered how she might fit in with a student body known for its academic prowess.

That concern faded quickly as she soon realized that she had stepped into one of the most supportive environments she had ever been a part of. Instead of a competitive environment where students are trying to outdo one another, what she found was a “warm environment” where everyone — from her teachers to her many new friends and classmates from all across the state — has always been there for her, eager to support her in any way they can. 

Josie agrees. As amazing as the school-based experience has been for her, with a new interest in chemistry and a full schedule that has included band, soccer, and dance, it’s the personal relationships that she has formed with her classmates that top them all.

“Everybody is so nice here,” Josie says. “It was surprising to me when I first came to campus. There were seniors here who were so excited to meet me and help me unpack all my things.

“I look at things different now,” Josie says of her time at NCSSM, pointing in particular to the diverse group of friends she has made and her experience in NCSSM’s American Studies course, the only class at NCSSM that every student takes. “I look at how we live now much differently than the way I looked at it before.

 “The [NCSSM] experience is so worth it,” she says. “‘I’m so glad I came here.”

So is Elizabeth. Even in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that sadly has infringed upon her NCSSM experience, Elizabeth is still thrilled to be a Unicorn. “You can really find a sense of independence when you go to NCSSM and learn a lot about yourself and take control of your education and your future,” she says. “Because of the community aspect of NCSSM, and because I got to take classes that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and because I got to personalize my high school experience for the past two years, I really do think that NCSSM is everything I had hoped for. It’s something that’s really special to me.”

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