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How they did it: Q&A with Morehead winners

Catherine Swift and Andrew Wells Catherine Swift and Andrew Wells

They both showed an insatiable appetite for learning at a young age. Both had older siblings they tried to match or best. Both said they wouldn't think of blowing off a homework assignment, even though one was ordered to do so once — by the teacher who gave it. Both had teachers who taught them a really important lesson that made a difference in their attitude toward schoolwork. Both won Morehead-Cain scholarships to UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the most prestigious full scholarships in the country. Parents of toddlers, tune in. These bright students, in their own words, give insight into ...

The making of a Morehead

Andrew Wells: Parents: Kathryn and Dr. Andrew Wells
Sisters: Katie and Annie Wells
Highlights: Governor's School (math), National Honor Society, Mock Trial attorney, Carolina Panthers Community Captain for outstanding student-athletes showing strong leadership skills on and off the field.

What did you learn from the Morehead interviewing process?
It really made me excited that there were professors and alumni from the Morehead that were as excited about my future as I was. Because the people who interviewed on the regional level were Morehead alumni from the area and the people who interviewed on the final level were Carolina faculty and Morehead alumni who had come in for the weekend.

What is your earliest memory of school?
I remember going to school and trying to learn, first because I saw my sisters do it really really well. They seemed to enjoy school and I always wanted to be like them or better than them because I was just at that age where I could keep up with them. They really enjoyed school so I was excited about it. I really just enjoyed learning and enjoyed what really good teachers had to offer me.

How did you form your study habits?
From watching my sisters. I would say my sisters are much more studious naturally than I am. I saw them come home and do their homework. My parents were very adamant. When you get home, do your homework, then you can go outside and play or then you can watch TV but you've got to make sure your homework's done before you do any of that. My study habits were really built by the environment that I was in because of the way that my sisters work and the way that my parents engendered it within us to want to work and to want to do well.

How would you approach homework you didn't really like.
When I was in third through fifth grade we had math superstars, and math superstars were practical applications of math concepts. I would do all the easy ones really quick and the ones I would have to work on I would say I don't want to do it, I know how to do it but it's too much work. I don't want to have to write all that down. My mom really had to tell me, just because you can see where it's going doesn't mean you don't have to show it and make sure you document it. When I understood the value of being able to see where an assignment needs to go and then actually doing it, that was a big step, and it helped me a lot going into middle school and high school.

Do you ever watch TV?
I do watch television when I find the time. It wasn't all crackin' the whip.

Why do you think HHS nominated you?
I think because I had expressed an interest in being nominated for the Morehead, and I think I would say that I'm the most well-rounded male student in the class. I'm the only guy in the top 5 GPA-wise, I was a multisport athlete (football, basketball and shot put and discus in track), I had competitive SAT scores. I did request that they nominate me.

Do you have a sense that the class of 2012 is a strong one?
I would say that our class has a sort of fraternity at the top of these people that are all taking extremely hard classes. It's not really a fraternity because the vast majority of them are girls. It's almost a sorority. Our class I would say is the most ambitious because there are people who have decided to challenge themselves even through their senior year, which sometimes isn't the case.

Who are some of the teachers who influenced you?
I think the teacher in high school who had the most profound effect on me was Mr. (Walt) Cottingham because I had him freshman year for AP world history and that class was a bear. I was coming off an eighth grade when I didn't really work much and didn't think I was going to have to work much in high school, and coming in first quarter to an AP world history class was just a monster. But it really taught me how to use my time very wisely, and that was one of the best lessons that I learned in high school.

What do you plan to do?
Just yesterday I found out I was going to be part of the inaugural class of freshman service corps members at Carolina (one of 20, chosen based on a survey of admitted students), so I'm going to be in a two-day immersion project (for service).

How did your parents instill in you the value of work?
Even as little kids I remember being treated very much like adults but that also came with the idea that honesty and responsibility were adult things that we had to have before we could be treated like an adult.

What has the HHS experience meant to you?
(He considered going to the NC School for Science and Math.) I have to say I am really glad that I didn't go to Science and Math because I feel like the environment at HHS and the administration, the diversity of things that I got into because I was at HHS really helped me create a resume that was strong enough to get the Morehead. The kind of teachers that I had, the support that I got, would not have been there.

Catherine Swift: Parents: Rebekah Ellsworth and Tom Swift, stepfather Rex Ellsworth
Sister: Emma Swift
Highlights: Governor's School (social sciences); student body president, editor of Wingspan, West High's school newspaper; dancer

You won a scholarship to Governor's School. What did you study?
I went to GSA in social science. I love writing, then I thought, I love drama, I want to go for drama; that would be really fun. Then I thought about all the things I want to pursue for the rest of my life. Psychology and politics and government, all of that really interests me, and I thought this may be a chance if that's something I want to seriously study in the next four years of college.

Do you play a sport?
No. The Morehead has changed. Rather than wanting athletes, they want people who are physically active and committed to living a healthy lifestyle, and I feel that I fit that pretty well. I spend as much time outside as possible, walking and hiking when I can but I also love to dance and that's a big part of my physical activity. Recently, this semester I've been taking aerial dance classes in Asheville, with trapeze and silks and all these kinds of circus things, which is extremely challenging because it takes a lot of strength and flexibility. That's definitely pushed me physically.

How did you find out you had won?
I didn't want to find out at school. I wanted to find out at home, and Mom came home early from work so we could be together when I opened the email. So I came home early, opened up the laptop. It said your status has been updated. I read I think the first six words and stopped breathing, and mom read the whole first sentence out loud, just trying to reassure us that that's what it said, because I think we were both kind of in disbelief. We spent the next 10 minutes sobbing and laughing and dancing ... I'm not the kind of person that expects things like that. It's just such a huge honor, such a huge opportunity.

What did you learn from the Morehead interview process?
One thing I learned is that it's very difficult when someone asks you a question that is a superlative, what's the best accomplishment, what's the biggest challenge? It's very hard to come up with the right example for that because I have a lot of challenges, I have a lot of successes. The way those interviews are set up, they're formal but they're also very relaxed. I could tell that they were interested in what I was saying. It made me feel a little more confident and made those answers come a little more easily because I knew that they were interested, that they weren't looking for a checkmark list, they were looking for a person.

When they asked about challenges, did you mention your dad and his ALS?
Definitely, that's been a big part of who I am, and how the last six or seven years of my life has gone. It's a big challenge but it's also in some ways, because of who my dad is and who my family is, the network of friends and supporters, there have also been blessings that have come out of that. So I was able to talk about that some.

How do you help your dad?
It's evolved. Now he's living in a nursing home and has 24-hour care. When I'm with him I'm often making sure he's comfortable. I'm better at translating for him than most people, so I help with that. But another big part of it is just trying to be his daughter because I think that's something that's very important not only to me but to him.

What was your attitude toward school?
I know that from the very beginning I was very concerned with trying to do everything the right way. To get in trouble even the tiniest bit seemed like the end of the world. I was very concerned about following the rules and doing my best at everything, which is something I struggled with learning. Sometimes it's more important to just be myself, you don't have to be perfect.

How did you form your study habits?
I think my study habits are very erratic (laughs). I have so much on my plate, I have so many things that I want to do, sometimes my homework gets done right when I get home from school and sometimes it doesn't get done until way late in the evening, and I think the thing that has made it possible for me is that I'm committed to getting it done. No matter when I make time to do it, I will make time to do it, because it matters to me, and I don't know how I learned that, or how you teach someone that, but I think it's always been a part of me. It's a responsibility that I have, and so I'm committed to it.

Was your sister a role model?
Definitely. Emma (a senior at UNC) is very disciplined and she's also very intelligent so I kind of followed her as much as I could. She was often the person in my early years who made sure I got my homework done.

How do you approach homework that you don't like.
Math. I sit down at the counter with tea or a small plate of cookies or little candies, and I reward myself. OK, if I get five problems done then I can have a piece of candy. That's the way I have to trudge through stuff that I really don't like, because I'm still going to do it and I still want to get it done but, yeah, I don't love all my homework, that's for sure.

Who were the teachers who influenced you?
Every teacher that I had at Mountain Community School, there were only four of them, but they had a huge impact on me because I think the role of elementary school teachers is very big and very important because they kind of help you figure out what it is that you might be interested in and what you might be good at. ... In middle school I had some great teachers that helped me with my writing and pushed me with my math. I think the teacher that had the greatest impact on me was my eighth grade algebra teacher, Sam Henry, at Rugby. He taught me something that's completely outside, in a way, of the subject. He taught me that I don't have to be perfect and that nobody expects me to be. There was a time I would make myself physically sick over my homework. Because I wanted it to be perfect, and I wanted to be perfect, and that's all because I don't want to let people down, and he helped to show me that I'm not going let people down by being myself, and that it's good to be myself. There was actually one day that he told me, "Catherine, if you turn in your homework tomorrow I'm going to give you a zero. Do not do your homework tonight." He was trying to stretch me and let me know that it's OK to take a break sometime and it's OK to not always do what everyone expects you to, to do what's right for you. That's something I still struggle with but he kind of opened my mind to that idea. I don't know where I'd be right now if I still thought that I have to be perfect in order to please people.

What was the most amazing, memorable thing about Catherine when she was little?
Rebekah: She's always had a great deal of intensity, even as an infant, and that's different than me, a lot different, so I always have kind of admired it, and wanted not to squelch that.