The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts celebrated two milestones during commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2014 on May 24 — the 20th graduating class and the 2,000th graduate since the school opened in 1993.
The Arkansas General Assembly created ASMSA in 1991. The first class of students arrived on campus as juniors in August 1993 and graduated in May 1995. Including the 96 graduates of the Class of 2014, 2,031 students have graduated from ASMSA. This year’s graduating class earned more than $16.5 million in scholarship offers.
Faulkner County graduates include Russell Bryan of Conway, son of Sarah and Eric Bryan, Conway High School East and Nat Standridge of Conway, son of Judi and Gray Standridge, Conway High School-East.
Jessica Nguyen of Sherwood was recognized as the 2,000th graduate during the ceremonies. Nguyen is the daughter of Hong Thi and Ban Van Nguyen and attended North Little Rock High School East before choosing to come to ASMSA.
Nguyen said she was very excited when she was told she would be recognized as No. 2,000.
"I was very shocked," Nguyen said the day before graduation. "I think it’s such an honor, and completely random, that I was chosen the 2,000th graduate. I really enjoyed my time here."
She said ASMSA has been life changing.
"There were a lot of tribulations, but I feel I’m a better person for it. I really enjoyed this environment and the fact that I found people similar and compatible to me and teachers who respect me and encourage me to learn and do well."
Nguyen will major in chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Dr. Yang Xu, a member of the Class of 1999 and an internist in Hot Springs Village, served as commencement speaker. Xu said ASMSA students have been granted two significant advantages: "the experience of living on their own away from the umbrella of your parents" and the ability to handle college-level course difficulty, which will have prepared them for what lies ahead at their chosen institution of higher learning.
"These skills will serve you well in the years ahead. You are, by most measurable factors, far ahead of the pack. However, don’t become complacent. Press your advantage; stay ahead. … Go on to do great things, but more importantly, go on to do the things you’re passionate about," he said.
Xu shared his experience of growing up in China before moving to the United States as an 8-year-old. The family was considered a well-off middle class in China, his father an art professor and his mother a school administrator. That changed once his family moved to the U.S., and Xu said at first he was determined to earn a degree in a field that would allow him to avoid financial struggles. Thus he chose to become a doctor.
But during medical school, XU realized that it was more important to find an area that he was passionate about than to worry strictly about making money.
"I got into med school and again did extremely well early on. My grades declined as the year went on. I realized that when you aren’t passionate about something, being ‘very smart’ isn’t always enough," he said.
While his medical school colleagues chose specialties that paid better salaries, he chose to become an internist. While doing medical rotations during his third and fourth years of medical school, Xu said he realized that if he did not do his job to its fullest, mistakes would happen.
"I began working hard and seeing results. People were getting better and getting to go home. I saw the joy and hope in the faces of the patients and their loved ones as they recovered from their illnesses. I knew that internal medicine was my calling," he said.
Luther Lowe, a member of the Class of 2001 who has served on the ASMSA Board of Visitors for several years including most recently serving as chairman of the board, made a surprise announcement during the ceremonies.
Lowe, who was onstage to certify the students as eligible graduates of the institution, issued a challenge. He said that while sitting onstage during the program he had donated $10,000 to ASMSA. He challenged parents, alumni and friends of the school to show their appreciation for the opportunities ASMSA offers it students by donating as well. He said he would match up to another $10,000 raised for the school.
Seniors Bryan Hernandez of Clinton and Christopher Carver of Blytheville both spoke about how ASMSA, their classmates, teachers and families as well as others helped them grow as individuals during their two years at the school.
ASMSA Director Corey Alderdice echoed many of the sentiments of the individual speakers. He said the ASMSA experience is about more than just tests and book learning.
"You all came here as ‘smart kids.’ You’re all still ‘smart kids.’ But you’re also leaving here tougher than when you came, able to transform critiques into improvement, able to overcome struggles, able to communicate, solve problems and provide leadership to your peers. You were willing to risk all the challenges that come with being on your own, and you have succeeded marvelously," he said.
Alderdice shared a quote he read in a project called "Humans of New York" by photographer Brandon Stanton. He said in the summer of 2010 that Stanton set out to create an exhaustive catalogue of the inhabitants of New York City. During one of his photo sessions and interviews, he asked one subject if she could give advice to a group of people, what would it be. She said, "When a wave comes, go deep." She said there are three things you can do when life sends a wave at you.
"You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave," she said.
Alderdice said the members of the Class of 2014 has been hit by many waves since starting at ASMSA and have learned how to handle the challenges.
"Adversity can knock you down or overwhelm you if you let it. It is my hope that through your time here, you’ve learned to dive deep, to adapt and persevere in the face of difficulty," he said.
"As you go forward today, remember that no mater how strong or forceful, all waves come to an end. You are capable of going further and diving deeper than you can ever imagine. Now is the time for you to breathe deeply and take the plunge."