Andrea Stevenson Won, assistant professor of communication, was never able to learn all the students by name in her large, entry level Visual Communication class – but she did remember the face of Isabelle McLeod Daphnis ’22.
“She was always in the front row with another student,” Won said. “They always had really good, tough questions to ask, asking questions in a really thoughtful way.”
Won eventually enticed the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences communication major to join her Virtual Embodiment Lab, where she studied the clinical applications of virtual reality. Daphnis thanked Won for her mentorship during a ceremony May 24 honoring this year’s 42 Merrill Presidential Scholars.
“She has trusted me with a lot of responsibilities that are unusual to give to an undergrad student,” Daphnis said. “She allowed me to pursue the things that I'm interested in.”
The scholars were selected by deans of the university’s 10 undergraduate colleges and schools based on their outstanding scholastic achievement, their strong leadership and their desire to positively impact the world beyond Cornell.
Each spring the Merrill scholars are asked to recognize the high school teacher who impacted their early education and the Cornell faculty or staff member who contributed most significantly to their college experience. The high school teachers are brought to Cornell, all expenses paid, for this two-day program, which consists of an informal dinner with their students, an academic program led by Cornell faculty on a topic of broad interest and this celebratory luncheon.
This year the students and educators gathered in-person at Willard Straight Hall for the first time since 2019.
The two-hour ceremony included remarks from President Martha E. Pollack and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, and welcomed participants from 13 U.S. states as well as countries including Tanzania, Thailand, China and the Republic of Korea.
Recognizing outstanding educators who prepare students for and help them succeed at Cornell was the late Philip Merrill ’55’s mission when he created the Merrill Presidential Scholars program in 1988. It began under the late President Frank H.T. Rhodes, who had a similar vision.
“At the time [Rhodes] was concerned that Cornell got too caught up in going after the big research dollars, and had lost sight of the importance of teaching,” said Nancy Merrill Sullivan ’96, one of three Merrill children – all Cornell graduates – who support the program through the Merrill Family Foundation. “And he requested that the leadership of the university be at this luncheon as an annual reminder that teaching is as important as groundbreaking research, and that the two are not mutually exclusive.”
Since 1989, STAR (Special Teachers Are Recognized) Scholarships named in honor of the teachers recognized by Merrill Scholars have been awarded to Cornell students with financial need from each scholar’s hometown, a program established by the late Don Berens ’47 and his wife, Margi Berens ’47.
During the ceremony the deans called the students and their honorees to the stage for a round of applause. During an open-mic portion, students had the opportunity to talk about the people they chose to honor.
Daphnis credited Dennis Reynolds, her guidance counselor at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, for helping her persevere through issues that caused her to miss a lot of classes.
“He had the biggest impact on my four years of high school, which was an incredibly difficult time for me,” she said. “There were times where I thought I wasn't going to graduate, but because of him, I was able to pull through.”
Daphnis will be staying on at Won’s lab as a paid research assistant for the summer until she applies for a graduate school program in psychology. She thanked her professor for turning her into the researcher and student she is today.
“You are the kind of person who will do something for someone if you can, just because they need it,” Daphnis said. “And I want to carry that with me the rest of my life.”
Merrill Scholars expressed gratitude to educators who had opened their eyes to racial justice, gave them a sense of belonging and believed in them when no one else did. Sullivan implored attendees to remember that mentorship can happen in many ways.
“If you want to pay it forward today, the next time you have the opportunity; answer somebody's question,” she said. “Every week you have opportunities to mentor and, as people pointed out today, it's often the small things that make big differences.”
The 2022 Merrill Presidential Scholars are listed below by college.
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
- Elise Boisvert
- RaeAnne Carpenter
- Jacob Geitner
- Isabelle McLeod Daphnis
- Cecilia Msogoya
- Srishti Tyagi
- Audrey Vinton
College of Architecture, Art and Planning
- Sabrina Haertig Gonzalez
College of Arts and Sciences
- Youssef Aziz
- Helena Brittain
- Luke Detlor
- Aliou Gambrel
- Anna Hu
- Wesley Kang
- Andrew Lorenzen
- Willow Martin
- Caledonia McQuilkin
- Alexandra Saylan
Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science
- Bonnie Akhavan
- William Bekerman
- Victor Butoi
- Anna Effenberger
- Yiqi Jiang
- Alisha Kewalramani
- Caroline Lui
- Stephen Yang
Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
- Sadie Ravnitzky
- Yasmin Watt
College of Engineering
- Yuhui Gu
- Sarah Huang
- Kaitlyn MacGillis
- Maria Martucci
- Jade Pinkenburg
Nolan School of Hotel Administration
- Bernadette Gunther
- Kyra Roach
College of Human Ecology
- Jackson Kwon
- Taeyoung Park
- Madeline Silva
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
- Oliver Eccleston
- Daniel James
- Catherine St. Hilaire
Brooks School of Public Policy
- Matthew Sheen