WATERVILLE — Waterville Senior High School student Ursula Hebert-Johnson has been named a United States Presidential Scholar as part of a program that honors seniors from across the country for academic excellence, artistic accomplishments and civic contributions.
Hebert-Johnson, 17, is scheduled to go to Washington, D.C., next month to be recognized for the accolade and take part in other activities as part of an all expenses paid trip.
Also invited on the trip is her math teacher and mentor, Scott Rivard, chairman of the high school mathematics department. Hebert-Johnson and about 120 other seniors who were named Presidential Scholars from about 3,000 candidates select an exceptional educator who has helped them achieve academic excellence. Hebert-Johnson chose Rivard, who says his student is bright, inquisitive and motivated.
“The government got it right when they gave this to her,” Rivard said. “I don’t know anybody who would be more deserving. If you spend any amount of time with her and talk to her about anything, you will see her exuberance, her passion, her love for knowledge.”
High School Principal Don Reiter echoed Rivard’s sentiments.
“Ursula is an exceptionally smart young lady and a great school citizen,” Reiter said. “She is the first Waterville Senior High School student to be named a Presidential Scholar in the seven years I have been at the school. She has a great future ahead of her, and we are all very proud of her.”
Hebert-Johnson will graduate June 5 and in the fall attend Stanford University where she attended math camp last summer, she said. She plans to major in math and biology.
Her lifelong interest in math began when she was in preschool. Her father, Colby College biology professor Russell Johnson, and her mother, Michele Hebert, a stay-at-home-mother, taught her addition and subtraction.
In addition to excelling in math during high school, Hebert-Johnson also currently is taking a class at Colby entitled “Topics in Abstract Algebra” and last semester took linear algebra at Colby. She did research in linear algebra at Colby as part of the college’s Jan Plan program.
“I am very thankful to have had the chance to take math classes at Colby,” she said. “All of my professors there have been extremely encouraging, and the department has been very generous in making their classes available to high school students.”
Hebert-Johnson also tutors students in math and plays violin for Waterville Senior High School’s orchestra.
“Through high school I’ve been tutoring in math,” Hebert-Johnson said. “I’ve really enjoyed helping people in their math classes. It’s very rewarding, especially once somebody understands something they didn’t understand before. That’s just really gratifying.”
A review committee of The United States Presidential Scholars Program, established in 1964, considers student achievement, personal characteristics, leadership and service activities when determining who becomes scholars, according to the program website. About 560 candidates are named semifinalists and, after further commission review, about 121 are named scholars. They are honored at the National Recognition Weekend in Washington, D.C.
As commission guests, they and their chosen educators meet with government officials, educators, authors, musicians, scientists and other accomplished people and have opportunities to visit museums and monuments and attend recitals, receptions and ceremonies. The seniors also receive U.S. Presidential Scholars medals at a ceremony sponsored by the White House.
Hebert-Johnson said she got a call from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office telling her she had been chosen as a U.S. Presidential Scholar. She was so surprised, she checked the program website to make sure it was real.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King also commended Hebert-Johnson and the other Maine student chosen as a Presidential Scholar, Kyle A. Hietala of West Bath, for their achievements.
“Their impressive records demonstrate both excellence in the classroom and a commitment to service,” Collins and King said in a joint, prepared statement. “This honor signifies their hard work and dedication, as well as the important role that exceptional teachers have played in guiding their paths.”
Rivard recalled meeting Hebert-Johnson when she was an eighth-grader and came to an open house at the high school.
“She came in with her parents and was just this bubbly, energetic girl with a smile on her face,” Rivard said.
He was taken aback when she said she wanted to enroll in his honors pre-calculus class, as he had only seen one student that young take a course at that level, he said.
When he asked about her background, she told him she had been doing independent study with the gifted and talented program and taking online courses in Algebra II through Johns Hopkins University.
In his letter of recommendation for Hebert-Johnson when she applied to Stanford, Rivard wrote that in the honors pre-calculus class, she demonstrated a passion and knowledge for mathematics that far exceeded his expectations. The next year, she was the top advanced placement calculus student and earned a 5 — the highest score possible — on the AP calculus test.
She convinced Rivard to start a math team at the high school, and last year she ranked second in the state for junior girls and 35th overall. She also made the alternate team for the American Regional Mathematics League championship tournament in Pennsylvania.
Rivard said he will miss Hebert-Johnson when she leaves for college.
“She’s had an incredible influence on me,” he said. “I’m five or six years away from retiring, and I truly love coming to work every single day — it’s not even work to me.”