Of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. students graduating from high school this year, a little more than 100 can claim the title “Presidential Scholar” – and St. Thomas senior Taylor Ladd is one of them.
Only 11 other students from the Virgin Islands have ever received the honor in the 48 years of the national program, and it’s been 14 years since the last time a V.I. student made the list.
The highly prestigious award caps off a stellar career for Ladd at Antilles School, where she has excelled in every academic subject and is a key member of the school’s championship sailing team. She is also one of a number of National Merit Scholars from Antilles.
The V.I. community got to know Ladd as a child when she distinguished herself in spelling bees and in MathCounts competitions. She’s also been active in music and the performing arts. Her family moved to St. Thomas from Connecticut when she was 7, and she has attended Antilles since second grade.
When she got the news from the Presidential Scholar program a few days ago, Ladd said, “I was so happy that I cried.” Word came via email. She happened to be babysitting at the time and had just put the kids to bed, then checked her messages.
“It’s definitely pretty cool,” she understated in an interview with the Source. Although she worked very hard on her application for the award, she said she tried not to think about it too much because, “I didn’t want to get my hopes up.”
Ladd was accepted early to Harvard University and was recruited to be on its sailing team. Already assured of a distinguished college placement, “She could have put her feet up and sort of coasted” through her senior year, said Antilles college counselor Chris Teare, “but she kept working.”
The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program operates under the U.S. Department of Education. Each year, based primarily on scores from the SAT and the ACT national college preparedness tests, the program invites about 3,000 students from across the country to apply for selection as a Presidential Scholar.
Applications include information about the student’s leadership and service activities, as well as academic performance. The applicant also must write several essays. A review committee evaluates all the applications and chooses about 560 as semi-finalists. Those applications are forwarded to the Commission on Presidential Scholars which makes the final decision.
Among the required essay topics is one about a person who has been a major influence on the student’s life; as her subject, Ladd picked her older brother, Jordan, who was also an academic star at Antilles, and who provided friendly but fierce competition for her. For the essay on the environment, she compared Connecticut with St. Thomas. And she chose Teare for the essay about an outstanding teacher. She described him as a good friend’s father and her own mentor.
The two worked hard on Ladd’s application, she preparing and he reviewing. He said when she lagged, he would appeal to her keen sense of competition, asking her, “Do you want to beat your brother?”
“He just never gives up,” Ladd said of Teare. “He never stops helping.”
Ladd hasn’t decided on a major, but neither she nor Teare are concerned about that. In keeping with her eclectic talents, she said she’s considering architecture, graphic design, engineering and psychology – among other fields.
“I tell her, ‘Find the best professors in the place and take their courses,’” Teare said. “She’s a great student across the board.”
Ladd will travel to Washington, D.C., June 22-25 to attend an award ceremony at the White House and receive a Presidential Scholars medallion along with other students from across the country.
Established in 1964, the Presidential Scholars program has honored more than 6,000 outstanding students over the years.
There is no annual minimum number of awards, but there is a maximum: 141. Up to 20 of those may be Arts Scholars; the rest are Academic Scholars. There are also restrictions on how many awards may be given in each state or territory, based on population.
For purposes of the program, the Virgin Islands is in a category called “Americans Abroad,” along with American Samoa, the Canal Zone, Guam and the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands. Simone Olson, executive director, explained the category was designed to keep some parity in population with other jurisdictions. (Puerto Rico, because of its large population, is in a category by itself, as is each state.) No more than two students may be selected to represent the Americans Abroad category each year, a male and a female, but as in other categories, the commission is not bound to award two.
Olson provided the following list of Presidential Scholars from the Virgin Islands:
• 1975 Deborah Brandstatter, Antilles School, St. Thomas
• 1979 Gregory Smith, All Saints Cathedral School, St. Thomas
• 1980 Harold Thompson, Jr., St. Dunstan’s Episcopal School, St. Croix
• 1985 Drake Borer, All Saints Cathedral School, St. Thomas
• 1986 Theodore Prince, St. Joseph Catholic High School, St. Croix
• 1987 Cynthia Clendinen, Charlotte Amalie High School, St. Thomas
• 1988 Joanne Adams, St. Joseph Catholic High School, St. Croix
• 1988 Rafael Muilenburg, All Saints Cathedral School, St. John
• 1989 Alison Nixon, St. Joseph Catholic High School, St. Croix
• 1990 Cyprian Gardine, III, St. Croix Country Day School, St. Croix
• 2000 Abraham Tarapani, Antilles School, St. Thomas.