Residential class of 2019 graduates on Watts Lawn

Nearly 350 cap-and-gown-clad members of the Durham residential Class of 2019 of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics received their diplomas beneath the school’s century-old oaks on Saturday, May 25, 2019.

Each year the ceremonies at NCSSM provide a concentrated snapshot of the intellect found throughout North Carolina’s schools. Three-quarters of the state’s counties and every region in the state were represented by the graduating class, with the student body hailing from 181 urban, suburban and rural high schools. Students complete their first two years of high school in their home community before living on campus at NCSSM-Durham as juniors and seniors.

Graduates reported more than $14 million in scholarship offers. Among them were a number of full scholarships to institutions such as UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State University, East Carolina University, Appalachian State University, Duke University and the United States service academies.

Preethi Konduri, who came to NCSSM from Morrisville and delivered the student address, will be attending UNC-Charlotte in the fall. “The state has invested so much in me throughout my elementary, middle, and high school education,” she said prior to addressing her fellow graduates. “It doesn’t make sense for me personally to go to a different college [out of state] and work somewhere else.”

Preethi experienced a range of emotions as she grew personally and academically during the last two years. Sharing that experience with others in a setting as unique as NCSSM sparked her desire to connect one final time with her classmates. “We reached out to each other, empathized with each other’s backgrounds and struggles, and received a glimpse of the lives of other driven students from all over the state,” she said to her classmates gathered under the sun on the school’s Watts lawn. “We had three-hour conversations with teachers who truly care about our futures and provide compassionate advice. From the mountains in the west to the beaches in the east, our stories have converged and blossomed into a narrative that we should all be proud of.”

In his remarks to the graduates, NCSSM Chancellor Dr. Todd Roberts expressed greatest pride not in the impressive academic accomplishments of the students under his charge, but in the bonds they forged with one another in their time at NCSSM. “My favorite thing about the end of the year,” he said, “is the two days prior to commencement where I get to see our students, seniors and juniors, enjoying each other’s company, relatively stress-free, reminiscing about their shared experiences. Whether you recognize it at this point or not, many of these experiences and friendships will be ones that you will carry with you and for years to come, with many only growing more meaningful over time.”

Dr. Keith Gray ’90, now the Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of the University of Tennessee Medical Center — Knoxville, delivered the commencement address. He recalled a scene from his time as a Unicorn basketball player when an unselfish pass from a teammate allowed him a moment on the court he has held dear ever since — the first in-game slam dunk ever by an NCSSM player. “Although I had dreamed of that moment my entire basketball life. . . what stands out the most is [my teammate’s] willingness to pass the ball and make my dream come true. . . . That’s what makes him, that’s what makes this place, and that’s what can make you so very special.

“Be instrumental,” he continued, “in making someone else’s dreams come true and tearing down obstacles that interfere with their destiny.”

With new opportunities set to unfold before the graduates, Gray cautioned them against losing themselves in pursuit of academic and professional accomplishment, saying that if he were given the opportunity to relive his academic life, he would seek more balance and cultivate more friendships.

“I want to give you one last assignment,” he said, “one that you may not appreciate today, but you will in coming years. I ask you to write down the fun things you like to do on the left half of one page; and on the right half, how frequently you want to do them. Email it or text it to your best friend in this class and have them hold you accountable.

“Take time to love more, laugh more — to eat well. Live large!”

NCSSM’s graduates now look ahead. Come fall, they will head off to 81 different colleges and universities. Nearly 70 percent of those graduates will remain in North Carolina to begin their collegiate careers.

Those heading out of state will span the country, from the Ivy League to public and private universities on the Pacific coast. Beldina “Bel” Orinda of Durham will soon be packing her bags for America’s Midwest where she will be enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis as a QuestBridge Scholar. It’s an opportunity she nearly missed. Bel’s initial plans were to remain in-state and close to family, but the path to Washington University through the QuestBridge program now seems “providential;” the university was the first school to send her promotional materials before she had even enrolled at NCSSM.

Though sad to be leaving family, Bel gives NCCSM credit for preparing her for what’s ahead. “When I think back to the school, I’ll think of this community of people that are willing to push boundaries, willing to grow, willing to take on challenges, willing to struggle,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, but I look back and I look at the friends I made; I look at the things I’ve done, and I can completely say it was worth it.”

Bel’s long-range plans are to return home to North Carolina for graduate school and work.

A number of students, including Caroline Brewton of Pinehurst, are taking a unique academic approach to the next step in their lives. Caroline will spend the coming year immersing herself in Russian language studies in Chisinau, Moldova, as one of seven graduates studying foreign languages abroad as U.S. Department of State National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholars. This will be her second stint in Moldova, having won the same scholarship two years ago.

“My interest in Russian started during the eighth grade, when I wanted to become a United States ambassador to Russia,” Caroline says. Though her career plans have since changed, her affection for the language and culture led her to continue her Russian studies. “I fell in love with studying Russian when I was in Chisinau in 2017, [fell in love] with the deep history of the language, its absolute lack of logic, with how much you can learn about Eastern European culture just by studying Russian grammar.”

Caroline will remain in Europe for college where she will attend Sciences Po in Menton, France.

Graduate Benjamin Bomze of Durham is one of NCSSM’s brand-new alumni who are delaying college enrollment to explore personal interests around the world during a “gap year.” “Buddy,” as he is known to friends and family, will be leaving for Ecuador this coming fall to participate in the Global Citizen Year program for eight months before returning to enroll in Clarkson University in upstate New York. While in Ecuador, he will immerse himself in local culture by living with a local family while also spending time in an apprenticeship program — hopefully, in environmental conservation. If resources and location allow, he may also teach robotics in a school.

“I could see myself going to college and then starting my career and just, like, 40 years going by and then, suddenly, ‘Where am I?’” Buddy said of his decision to take a gap year. “So I want to take a break and go get some world experience somewhere else.”

With the day’s heat and the graduates’ eagerness to embrace friends and family both intensifying, Dr. Roberts stepped to the podium once more to close the ceremony with a final thought for the newest members of NCSSM alumni.

“I love a quote from a teenager, Anne Frank, who was just a little younger than you when she wrote, ‘Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.’ We have been fortunate to have had the light of so many very bright candles in the Class of 2019 who have helped define what it means to serve your classmates and your community with great character, passion, and a commitment to what is right, not only for self, but for others. I will miss you; our community will miss you, but I am heartened to know that your light will brighten so many more communities in the years to come and for that, I am very grateful. Go Unis!”