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How it feels to talk to a National Merit Scholar

I started my interviews with Laura Ingouf and George Brown, the only two 2017 grads in Morgan County who received the National Merit Scholarship, expecting to feel a little dumb. I mean, who doesn’t while talking to someone who received almost PERFECT scores on their SAT tests. But I walked away from Laura and George feeling, not dumb, but inspired.

Laura Ingouf, an Austin grad, started by telling me how her teachers and counselors started “freaking out” when they received her 1490/1520 score on the PSAT she took junior year. That score made her a semifinalist. “They told me I could really win this thing,” Laura told me, “so I started watching math videos to bring up my math scores—that’s what needed work.” Laura used a free SAT-prep video program called Khan Academy to study for her test.

Apparently it worked, because when Laura took the real SAT her senior year, she only missed two questions on the entire test.

Two questions. (No, that’s not a typo).

Just like Laura, George also missed only two questions on his SAT test, and he knew exactly which two. One was math and the other was literature. But he sure didn’t make the same mistake on his ACT and PSAT tests—bringing in perfect scores for both. I just can’t imagine what my parents would say if I told them that my test scores were that perfect. I guess they’d take me out for ice cream or something.

So what do you even do after you obviously know everything?

For Laura, it means attending Mississippi State University (MSU) for free this fall studying with a double major in Anthropology and either History or English. “I wasn’t looking for a huge public university setting,” Laura says. “But when I got a postcard in my mail about the MSU honors college which offers a smaller community, better teacher interaction, and honors classes, I started thinking seriously about going.”

From the sounds of it, MSU seems pretty happy to have her. They’ve offered her a Presidential Scholarship which grants her weekly meeting with a personal mentor, broader research opportunities, and the option of studying abroad. “I want to spend some time in Europe and Africa to practice my French,” Laura says.

Great. She speaks French too.

George plans to attend Carnegie Mellon University and major in statistics and machine learning. He tells me that he uses statistics to teach a computer how to operate machinery. When I asked him what kind of machine he wants to build, he said a lot of big words, so I asked him to tell me in plain English. “I’m a big fan of a coherent system that support a human 24/7,” he told me. “It’s like Siri, Cortana, Nest, and phone apps all combined to regulate specialized living conditions for a person.”

Wow. Even in plain English that sounds hard.

Now I can hear your questions. So how in the world did you walk away feeling inspired? Didn’t you feel a little intimidated?

To be honest, no.

I admired Laura’s goal to be a cultural research professor who studies the relationship between culture and language. “Different cultures are a part of my life,” Laura says. Because her parents were missionaries to Asia, Laura’s earliest memories are of living in Vietnam. “Being able to see other cultures gives you a good perspective of the world,” Laura says, “even if it just means you really appreciate your own country when you come back home.”

I admired George’s visionary mindset. After he revolutionizes the machine industry, he wants to revolutionize the way high schools teach subjects like computer science and software engineering. “Why aren’t we learning stats and computer science in high school?” George asks. “We could be doing it here, right now.”

Both students have big goals, and whether they actually achieve them or not, they will have sufficiently inspired me to dream big too.

After all, they’re both just normal teens who have abnormally great grades and really awesome dreams. The book on Laura’s nightstand right now is still Maximum Ride Forever, and George is still figuring out ways to hike the Appalachian Trail this summer with his friends.

I still have hope.