Three students from West Orange-area schools earned the title of National Merit Scholar.
Earning the status of National Merit Scholar is no simple task.
It begins during a student’s junior year, when they take the PSAT/NMSQT test, which serves as an initial screening program of the National Merit Scholarship competition. Students who score the highest in each state are named semifinalists. Of the 16,000 semifinalists for this year’s competition, 15,000 advanced to the finalist level. From there, 7,600 finalists earn the title of Merit Scholar and receive a $2,500 scholarship.
Of the 7,600 students who earned the title of Merit Scholar, three attend West Orange-area schools. Those students are Jonathan Richardson, of Foundation Academy; Griffin Willman, of Windermere High; and George Braxton Tomecek, of West Orange High.
Willman, 16, is the valedictorian of Windermere High’s first senior class. He’ll be going to the University of Florida, where he’ll double-major in biochemistry and mathematics.
“(I love) playing in the orchestra,” Willman said. “We just had our season finale concert with the FSYO (Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra) … and I just love getting to play music.”
In addition to the Merit Scholarship, because Willman will be staying in-state to attend college, he also will be getting the Bright Futures Scholarship. With the Merit Scholarship and Bright Futures, most of his college expenses will be covered.
“I was pretty happy about it,” Willman said his selection as a National Merit Scholar. “It’s just comforting to know that I won’t have to worry about paying for school. … I’m ready to get started with college. It will be more fun than high school, and I’m just excited for the course work that I’m going to be able to do because it’s going to be more directed toward what I really want to study and what I want to focus on.”
Richardson, 18, is the first Foundation Academy senior to earn the title of National Merit Scholar. He will be attending the University of Alabama to study law. He said he’s interested in studying law because he wants to help people and make a difference.
“I’ve always had an interest in politics and government,” Richardson said. “I see a lot of changes in the political world and a lot of changes in the political sphere, and I think that there needs to be strong leaders. … Not only do I have an interest (in that), but I also have a desire to make a difference.”
Richardson added that he has a particular interest in practicing constitutional law. He said his interest in government and politics began at an early age and was sparked by his dentist.
“When I was about 8 years old, I really didn’t know what government and politics were about, but my former dentist … actually ran for Senate in Florida,” Richardson said. “He won, and my family and I went up there (to Tallahassee), because my mom was childhood friends with him. We went up there, and we got to sit in on some of the sessions and sit on the (Senate) floor, and it was just a really cool experience.”
Richardson wasn’t always a fan of the University of Alabama. Bu after touring the school and finding out it offered the program he wanted, his opinion changed.
“A year and a half ago, I would have told you there’s one school in the country I’m not going to, and it would have been (the University of) Alabama,” Richardson said with a laugh.
George Braxton Tomecek
Tomecek, 18, is the valedictorian of West Orange High’s senior class of 2019. He’ll be attending the Georgia Institute of Technology to major in chemical and biomolecular engineering. He’s always been passionate about math and science, and although he’s not certain of what type of job he wants to do after college, he does know that he wants to help people.
“Ideally, I want to work for myself and be self-made at the end of the day,” Tomecek said. “(I want) to just be able to retire early and (do) a humanitarian-type thing where you go and help the less fortunate. ... I don’t necessarily know that I have a specific dream job; moreso an end goal … to be in a position to help others.”
During his years at West Orange, Tomecek has been involved in a number of clubs and organizations. He’s the president of the National Honor Society, AP Ambassadors and Cornell Club. He’s the treasurer of Interact Club and also is involved in the Ping Pong Club, Beta Club and Science National Honor Society, among others. He’s also an Eagle Scout. He said the work he’s done through scouting and through the National Honor Society helped fuel his passion for helping others.
“Everybody, obviously, has challenges, but I come from a very fortunate family,” Tomecek said. “Overall, (I) had just a very fortunate life, and to be able to help people that, maybe, weren’t in that same position or are going through a lot more than I’m going through … it’s just extremely fulfilling. It makes you feel good.”