Carumey Stevens, middle, offers a spirited account of teacher Marissa Rantinella’s influence in high school and said Human Ecology’s Tony Burrow, left, “was the coolest professor in the room.”

Merrill scholars honor their mentoring teachers, professors

The arc of educational continuity and inspirational teaching was celebrated May 22 at the 31st annual Merrill Presidential Scholars convocation in Willard Straight Hall. Thirty-four seniors – among the very best of the Class of 2019 – honored beloved, guiding-light high school teachers and inspirational Cornell faculty members.

Nick Comly, right, tells how College of Engineering’s Farhan Rana, left, and teacher Norm Dea, of Acalanes High School, California, provided mentorship.

Carúmey Stevens ’19 brought Marissa Rantinella, her ninth-grade English teacher from Marlboro Central High School in Marlboro, New York, and Anthony Burrow, associate professor of human development, whom she termed “the coolest professor in the room.”

Days before she entered high school, Rantinella assigned Stevens some light summer reading – Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” Said Stevens: “It ended up being a great class. We had so much discussion. Mrs. Rantinella told us the class would be really hard, but we’ll come out OK.”

Rantinella spoke about her own reaction when Cornell sent a letter inviting her to the Merrill Presidential Scholars event. “This is my 20th year teaching, and this is the first time something like this has ever happened,” she said. “I received this letter inviting me to Ithaca, and I was floored.”

Merrill scholars – all in the top 1% of their class – are selected by their college deans for their intellectual vigor, leadership skills and potential to help society. The scholars’ high school teachers are invited to Cornell for two days of events as guests of the university, and this year they came from across the U.S., Canada, China, Indonesia and Hong Kong. The high school teachers are joined by the Cornell faculty members, also chosen by the seniors.

The program was created by the late Philip Merrill ’55 and is supported by the Merrill Family Foundation.

Akshay Kadhiresan, middle, enjoys a few minutes with College of Engineering’s Charles Williamson, left, and teacher Timothy Leicht, of Montgomery High School.

The scholars and their honored educators were recognized by Cornell President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, and were introduced by the deans of the undergraduate colleges and schools.

At the luncheon, Pollack spoke about the important roles teachers play in the lives of their students.

“We are … recognizing the powerful impact that secondary teachers have, so we hope that this program encourages others to follow your example,” said Pollack, who also invoked one of the phrases at the heart of her academic philosophy. “[W]e have in this group today a really great example of ‘educational verve.’ … All of you create that every single day.”

Nancy Merrill ’96, representing her family’s foundation, spoke about the importance of teaching and education. “Teachers influence students for their entire lives,” she said, “so the next time you have the best and the brightest, send them to Cornell.”

Tenacity, determination, coolness and music were recurring themes. Fletcher Passow ’19 spoke of how science teacher Dan Falcone of Hanover High School in New Hampshire urged him to join the school’s barbershop quartet.

Cynthia Leifer, right, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, enjoys Ali Aygun describe her influence on his academic career.

Jillian Whiting ’19 learned teamwork, respect and commitment from her band teacher Dawn Russo from Randolph High School in New Jersey.

Nicole Kwok ’19 said that band director Tim Gavlik of the Hong Kong International School “inspired us to tackle life with vigor and purpose.”

Able to debate in English, Spanish and Portuguese, Brittany Garcia ’19 started Cornell’s successful Spanish Debate Team, with guidance from ILR’s Samuel Nelson. Garcia honored track coach Michael Webb from Blue Valley West High School in Kansas by recounting the last lap of a 3,200-meter race. While other coaches urged their runners to go faster, Coach Webb called out, “Brittany, I am so proud of you!” This motivated perseverance, she said.

Linda Wickersham of Lubbock High School, left, and the Dyson School’s William Drake, listen to Sonya Chyu, describe her high school and college academic experience.

Charles Williamson, the Willis H. Carrier Professor of Engineering, extended his record by being honored for a 19th time at the Merrill luncheon. Rosemary Avery, professor of policy analysis and management, kept pace with a 17th Merrill honor.

The 2019 Merrill Presidential Scholars are listed below by college and hometown, followed by the names of the secondary school teachers and Cornell faculty members the scholars selected.


College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

  • Felix Chin, East Amherst, New York; Michael Belling, Williamsville East High School; Nicholas Taylor, Department of Physics.
  • Molly Huber, Belchertown, Massachusetts; Jeffrey Stauder, Amherst Regional High School; Joseph Yavitt, Department of Natural Resources.
  • Tiffany Kei, Roslyn, New York; Michael Imondi, Herricks High School; Ranio Abdu-Kandil, Department of Microbiology.
  • Aaron LaViolette, Liverpool, New York; James Petercsak, Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam; Kifle Gebremedhin, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering.
  • Sheng Qian, Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, China; Wei Yan, Zhejiang, Jiaxing Middle School; Hugh G. Gauch Jr., Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.
  • Adam Riesenfeld, Rye Brook, New York; Julie Hensley, Blind Brook High School; Sahara Byrne, Department of Communication.
  • Yutong Zhou, Haidian District, Beijing, China; Zhimin Liu, Beijing National Day School; Andrea Stevenson Won, Communication and Information Science.


College of Architecture, Art and Planning

  • Zhisheng (Ivy) Deng, Dallas, Texas; Juliette McCullough, The Hockaday School; Lucinda Ramberg, Department of Anthropology.


College of Arts and Sciences

  • Ali Aygun, Lutherville, Maryland; Cheryl Nkeba, Gilman School; Cynthia Leifer, Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
  • Jinshi Chen, Haidian District, Beijing, China, Pengzhi Liu, High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China; Peter Diamessis, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
  • Sara Keshavjee, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Petrusia Kowalsky, Havergal College; Iwijn De Vlaminck, Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Todd Lensman, North Canton, Ohio; Margie Blake, Hoover High School; Maxim Troshkin, Department of Economics.
  • Alex Lugo, Rochelle Park, New Jersey; Gerard Porto, Hackensack High School; Samantha Zacher, Department of English.
  • Katherine Lynch, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; Eileen Flanagan, Waldron Mercy Academy; Kendra Bischoffm Department of Sociology.
  • Ronni Mok, Taipei, Taiwan; Thomas Drake, The Hotchkiss School; Thomas DiCiccio, Department of Statistical Science.
  • Lauren Prisco, Pound Ridge, New York; Hillary Dowling, Fox Lane High School; Laura Harrington, Department of Entomology.
  • Zhiling Zheng, Cangshan, Fushou, China; Jinying Yang, Fuzhou No. 1 Middle School; Kyle Lancaster, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.


College of Engineering

  • Praveen Bagavandoss, Ballwin, Missouri; Edward Bolton, Marquette High School; T. Michael Duncan, Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
  • Nicholas Comly, Lafayette, California; Norm Dea, Acalanes High School; Farhan Rana, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • Carol Hung, Palo Alto, California; Suzanne Antink, Palo Alto High School; Nozomi Nishimura, Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Akshay Kadhiresan, Arlington, Massachusetts; Timothy Leicht, Montgomery High School; Charles Williamson, Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
  • Nicole Kwok, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong; Tim Gavlik, Hong Kong International School; Fang Liu, School of Hotel Administration.
  • Fletcher Passow, Etna, New Hampshire; Dan Falcone, Hanover High School; Francis Vanek, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
  • Jillian Whiting, Randolph, New Jersey; Dawn Russo, Randolph High School; Monroe Weber-Shirk, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.


College of Human Ecology

  • Nina Acharya, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Karima Tagnit-Hammou, Westboro Academy; Pilar Parra, Department of Nutritional Sciences.
  • Nathaniel Lee, Billerica, Massachusetts; Tanya Lee, Home School; Rosemary Avery, Department of Policy Analysis and Management.
  • Carúmey Stevens, Newburgh, New York; Marissa Rantinella, Marlboro Central High School; Anthony Burrow, Department of Human Development.


School of Industrial and Labor Relations

  • Julia Allen, Binghamton, New York; William Egan, Susquehanna Valley High School; Anu Lyons, School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
  • Niyyah Barber, Mansfield, Texas; Debbie Stevenson, Mansfield High School; Allison Weiner Heinemann, School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
  • Brittany Garcia, Nolensville, Tennessee; Michael Webb, Blue Valley West High School; Samuel Nelson, School of Industrial and Labor Relations.


SC Johnson College of Business

Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management

  • Sonya Chyu, Lubbock, Texas; Linda Wickersham, Lubbock High School; William Drake, Dyson School.
  • Frederick Kauber, Pleasantville, New York; James Kennedy, Regis High School; Cindy van Es, Dyson School.


School of Hotel Administration

  • Justin Leff, Livingston, New Jersey; Colleen Cornell, Livingston High School; Alex Susskind, School of Hotel Administration.
  • Rebecca Lim, Batam, Indonesia; Wee Swee Lian Adalene (Mrs. Cheong), St. Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School; Bradford Wellstead, School of Hotel Administration.

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