Kexin (Phyllis) Ju ’24, center, honors her high school mentor, Chuan Du of China, left, and her Cornell faculty mentor, Kyle Harms, right, a senior lecturer in the Department of Information Science, at the 36th Annual Merrill Presidential Scholars luncheon at Willard Straight Hall on Tuesday.

Merrill Scholars honor mentors who inspired them

Though she’s among the top seniors in her college, the most important lesson Jasmine Guarin ’24 learned from her favorite high school teacher was, “You do not have to be perfect to be successful.” 

“I’m grateful for that – it’s given me such confidence and encouragement,” said Guarin, a nutritional sciences major in the College of Human Ecology, who honored Matthew Sohl, who taught her history at Toms River High School South in New Jersey, during the 36th annual Merrill Presidential Scholars luncheon on May 21. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without you.”  

Guarin was among the 42 Merrill Scholars who celebrated the high school teacher or mentor with the greatest influence on their early education and the Cornell faculty or staff member who contributed most significantly to their college experience. The scholars are graduating seniors selected by deans of the university’s 10 undergraduate colleges and schools based on outstanding scholastic achievement, evidence of leadership and their desire to positively affect the world beyond Cornell.

The high school educators and mentors are brought to Cornell, all expenses paid, for the two-day program, which consists of an informal dinner with students and high school mentors, a professional development program led by Cornell staff on a topic of broad interest and a celebratory luncheon. 

This year, 42 Merrill Scholars attended, along with high school mentors from 15 U.S. states, China, South Korea and Canada. Among the mentors were two French teachers, two Spanish teachers, two music teachers and a fencing coach. President Martha E. Pollack welcomed the mentors in opening remarks.

During the ceremony, each college and school dean took to the stage to recognize students and their impact at Cornell. Students then had the opportunity to publicly thank the people they chose to honor.

Ambrose Yang ’24, a computer science major in Cornell Ann S. Bowers Computing and Information Science, credited his high school mentor, physics teacher James Schafer of the Montgomery Blair High School in Potomac, Maryland, for piquing his interest in the world beyond our perception.

“He taught us that physics wasn’t just about equations and calculations,” said Yang, who has conducted research on number theory, optimization algorithms and superconducting quantum computing devices. “But about seeing the world around us and being able to describe the phenomena that we can and can’t see around us.”

Margot Treadwell ’24, in the ILR School, honored Colleen McCoy, a history teacher at Iroquois High School in Elma, New York, for her dedication to broadening the student experience beyond the walls of the classroom. 

“She probably has the most diverse profile of extracurriculars in this room – she’s on everything from Model United Nations to the rifle team,” Treadwell said. “She’s at school from before sunrise to after sunset most days making sure those opportunities exist. And she taught me to not just say yes to those opportunities but also make those opportunities available for other people.”

Recognizing outstanding educators who prepare students for college and help them succeed at Cornell was the mission of the late Philip Merrill ’55 when he created the program in 1988.

“My father started this program because he thought that many universities put too much emphasis on research,” said Cathy Merrill ’91. “There wasn’t enough emphasis on what universities are really about – which is teaching and teachers. So today – for the students, I hope you know – is about the people sitting next to you.”

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 Margi Berens ’47 and the late Don Berens ’47. 

Information science major Kexin (Phyllis) Ju ’24, whose high school mentor, Chuan Du, flew in from China, acknowledged the role he and her Cornell faculty mentor played in giving her the confidence to explore a STEM field. 

“Before I had Mr. Du, I was often discouraged by my teachers for my engineering ability, but he encouraged me to keep going and challenge myself,” said Ju, who started a research project this spring focusing on human-AI research with a focus on human-AI educational technology and also developed a new course in Cornell Bowers CIS (INFO2310) with her Cornell mentor Kyle Harms, a senior lecturer in the Department of Information Science. “Without these two teachers, I couldn’t be a woman in the STEM fields.” 

The 2024 Merrill Presidential Scholars:

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

  • Hanrui “Freya” Fu ’24
  • William “Will” Hooker ’24
  • Siobhan Hull ’24
  • Viveka Jain ’24
  • Sofia Lorente ’24
  • Caila Low ’24
  • Claire Schmucker ’24
  • Shieana Xie ’24

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

  • Desai Wang ’24

College of Arts and Sciences

  • Sara Abbasi ’24
  • Hannah Drexler ’24
  • Theodore Goldman ’24
  • Alicia González ’24
  • Sterre Hoogendoorn ’24
  • Andie Kim ’24
  • Eva Phair ’24
  • Yichen Qiu ’24
  • Hui Yuan ’24

Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science

  • Prithwish Dan ’24
  • Kexin “Phyllis” Ju ’24
  • Zak Kent ’24
  • Archit Mehta ’24
  • Esther Wang ’24
  • Ambrose Yang ’24
  • Naiqi Zhang ’24
  • Tairan Zhang ‘24

Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management

  • Adrian D’Souza ’24
  • Miranda Price ’24

Cornell Engineering

  • Aodhan Beattie ’24
  • Polina Ermoshkina ’24
  • Varun Gande ’24
  • Rongyi (Caroline) He ’24
  • Aidan McNay ’24
  • Karen Nortz ’24

Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration

  • Hali Dietsche ’24
  • Ellie Scherping ’24

College of Human Ecology

  • Jasmine Guarin ’24
  • Ashley Herrera ’24

ILR School

  • Grace Kwon ’24
  • Lily Mackey ’24
  • Margot Treadwell ’24

Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy

  • Andreas Psahos ’24

Bryan Chambala is a communications lead for Student and Campus Life. 

Media Contact

Kaitlyn Serrao