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19 Seniors Honored as Merrill Presidential Scholars

As a senior elementary education major, Jennifer Lopez ’06 singled out her first-grade teacher for being an influential mentor, and even inspiring her to spend hours pretending she was teaching her own class.

Lopez, who honored teacher Mary Lee in a 2005 ceremony for a then-new program called the Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars, later went on to become a teacher herself.

Now she’s helping to bring a tradition of mentorship full circle as an honoree at today’s 19th annual ceremony honoring Merrill Scholars, where a UMD student will thank her for teaching him to love to read in her fifth-grade class.

In all, 19 Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars will recognize the K-12 teachers and UMD faculty who helped guide, inspire, coach, tutor and challenge them during their academic journeys. The program, named for the late university supporter and Washington-area publisher, recognizes the importance of mentorship and awards $1,500 scholarships, which are given in the K-12 teacher’s name to another student from that school district who will attend UMD the next academic year.

“The late Philip Merrill created this program to build a community of scholars, faculty members and K-12 teachers who recognize the importance of teaching and mentoring the next generation,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “We are grateful for a program that celebrates invaluable mentorship and for the many teachers who have a long-lasting impact on the lives of our students.”

The program also highlights the achievements of the graduating seniors, who are selected by the academic colleges and schools. Scholars’ internships and research work ranges from fighting climate change to addressing global mental health disparities.

One scholar, Joanna Hung, an Honors College Design Cultures and Creativity student, helped launch a college prep pilot program for high school students with Down syndrome and redesigned the curriculum for Girls Talk Math, a UMD summer camp for high school girls. Another scholar, Brian Tinker, is a midshipman first class in UMD’s naval ROTC program, researches lunar particles and serves as an undergraduate teaching fellow in the A. James Clark School of Engineering.

“These students’ accomplishments are a testament to the power of teachers and mentors in an academic journey,” said William A. Cohen, associate provost and dean for undergraduate studies. “The Merrill Presidential Scholars Program is creating an important legacy of teacher excellence—from K-12 through college—that leads to outstanding student achievements.”

Lopez (née Dodge) was in the second cohort of UMD Merrill Scholars, who are selected by the academic colleges and schools with undergraduate major programs.

“I remember wondering whether my first-grade teacher would come for the ceremony, whether she’d say, ‘Jenny who?’” said Lopez. “But now, I realize that she wouldn’t have missed it. It’s one of the greatest gifts to a teacher to say: ‘I remember your class and what you did mattered.’”

Nick Bailey ’23, a double major in operations management and business analytics as well as marketing, said the same about Lopez, who taught him at Westbrook Elementary in Bethesda.

“I remember reading the most I've ever read in my life during those class periods, and also how she pushed me out of my comfort zone,” said Bailey.

He was particularly touched by an assignment at the end of fifth grade: Each student had to write a letter to their future self. Lopez saved the letters and mailed them to her students when they finished middle school three years later.

“They would ask themselves questions like, ‘Are we on the iPhone200 now?’ or ‘Did you make that travel team?’ But they’d also write about their goals for themselves,” said Lopez.

The letters were a reminder, too, that their elementary school teacher was still thinking of them, reminding them what they could accomplish, said Bailey. “She cared about every student.”

The Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars for 2022-23 are:

Alexia Ayuk (Operations Management and Business Analytics)
Teacher Mentor: Renetta Herndon-Cintron, Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Olney, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Pamela K. Armstrong, Department of Decision, Operations and Information Technologies

Nick Bailey (Operations Management and Business Analytics, Marketing)
Teacher Mentor: Jennifer Lopez, Westbrook Elementary School, Bethesda, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Mary B. Harms, Department of Marketing

Janna Chapman (Environmental Science and Technology, Geographical Sciences)
Teacher Mentor: Kristyn Madeja, Broadneck High School, Annapolis, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Thanicha Ruangmas, First-Year Innovation and Research Experience

Kyra Cromwell Reed (Fire Protection Engineering)
Teacher Mentor: Rita Pascale, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Bethesda, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Kenneth Isman, Department of Fire Protection Engineering

Aimee Dastin-van Rijn (Economics, Theatre)
Teacher Mentor: Victoire D’Agostino, St. John’s International School, Waterloo, Belgium
Faculty Mentor: Stacy Kosko, Department of Government and Politics

Logan Daytner (Geographical Sciences)
Teacher Mentor: Lauren Gardenbelle, South Carroll High School, Sykesville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Sinead Farrell, Department of Geographical Sciences

Fred Angelo Garcia (Physics, Astronomy)
Teacher Mentor: Yolanda King-Davis, Oxon Hill High School, Oxon Hill, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Massimo Ricotti, Department of Astronomy

Maanasa Gurram (Biological Sciences)
Teacher Mentor: Mary Jane Sasser, River Hill High School, Clarksville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Najib El-Sayed, Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics

Joanna Hung (Mathematics)
Teacher Mentor: Harrison Toy, Robert Frost Middle School, Rockville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Dana Grosser-Clarkson, Center for Mathematics Education

Sterling Mullenix (Linguistics)
Teacher Mentor: Jenny Mey, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Bethesda, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Jeffrey Lidz, Department of Linguistics

Kuburat Oladiran (Psychology, Criminology and Criminal Justice)
Teacher Mentor: Michelle Snape, Northwood High School, Silver Spring, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Heather Yarger, Department of Psychology

Deborah Omotoso (Family Science)
Teacher Mentor: Dana Shieh, Bishop McNamara High School, Forestville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Scott Roberts, Department of Psychology

Pravalika Palavarapu (Psychology, Sociology)
Teacher Mentor: Bryce Coon, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Nicole DeLoatch, Department of Sociology

Bradley Polkowitz (Operations Management and Business Analytics, Marketing)
Teacher Mentor: Cindy Bravaco, Colts Neck High School, Colts Neck, N.J.
Faculty Mentor: Joseph Bailey, Department of Decision, Operations and Information Technologies

Rachel Robin (Government and Politics, Communication)
Teacher Mentor: Daniel McKenna, Poolesville High School, Poolesville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Jaclyn Bruner, Department of Communication

Racheal Ssentongo (Aerospace Engineering)
Teacher Mentor: Jack Stansbury, Poolesville High School, Poolesville, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Jarred Young, Department of Aerospace Engineering

Brian Tinkler (Aerospace Engineering)
Teacher Mentor: Andrew Milcic, Severna Park High School, Severna Park, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Jarred Young, Department of Aerospace Engineering

Katelyn Wang (Kinesiology)
Teacher Mentor: Danielle Borgia, Mount Hebron High School, Ellicott City, Md.
Faculty Mentor: Elizabeth Brown, Department of Kinesiology

Hanna Zakharenko (Journalism, Information Science)
Teacher Mentor: Warren Hynes, Westfield High School, Westfield, N.J.
Faculty Mentor: Adam Marton, Philip Merrill College of Journalism