River Hill senior named presidential scholar

Clarksville resident Richard Li is one of four in Md. to receive the honor

May 08, 2010|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

As Richard Li talks fondly about his love of hip-hop music and his desire to modify the sound system on his 2007 Nissan Xterra, you might peg him as a typical American high school student. But Li, who was just named one of 141 U.S. presidential scholars, is anything but typical.

The Clarksville resident arrives at River Hill High School as early as 6:30 a.m. to tutor fellow students in math and science. And classmates in his organic chemistry class at the University of Maryland, College Park probably don't know that he's still in high school. The 17-year-old senior says finding a balance between being well-adjusted socially while excelling academically is an important goal.

"I don't see it as anything strange," Li said. "It's the yin and the yang. It's just a matter of balance. We all know those people who are really nerdy and all they do is academic stuff. I'm really into hip-hop music and hip-hop culture. I'm learning how to break dance. I find it as an escape from the stress."

Li, who will attend Stanford University in the fall, has received accolades over the years for his work in the classroom and academic-related activities. He said that being named a presidential scholar is probably his biggest honor.

Li is one of four Maryland students to receive the distinction; the other three attend schools in the Washington suburbs. The scholars will get to meet President Barack Obama when they are honored in Washington on June 19-22.

"I was jumping up and down," said Li, who carries a 4.0 weighted grade-point average and a 4.71 unweighted average. "This is the most prestigious award I've ever gotten. I didn't expect to get one at all. I'm excited about meeting Mr. Obama. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The students, who are chosen by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, have demonstrated outstanding academic achievement, artistic excellence, leadership, citizenship, service and contribution to school and community. Essays, school evaluations and transcripts are also used to determine the scholars.

"These student leaders and scholars show that setting high expectations and striving for excellence pays off," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday when he made the announcement.

Joelle Miller, a biology teacher at River Hill who is also Li's Science Olympiad adviser, praised Li and credited him with organizing the Science Olympiad team at the school.

"It's basically Richard who created the team and got everybody on board," Miller said. "The first year we had 15 kids. Now we have 70 members. We won states this year. We are going to nationals. It's all because of him. He's phenomenal."

Li also thinks highly of Miller. He chose her as his most inspiring and challenging teacher, which means that she will accompany him to Washington, where she will receive a Teacher Recognition Award from the U.S. Department of Education.

"She's a mentor, a teacher and a friend," Li said. "She was the first person I told about the award. She jumped up and down with joy. She was the most supportive and the happiest. All the teachers and staff at River Hill have been so supportive."

Miller said the distinction is the highlight of her 12-year teaching career.

"This is probably the biggest thing that has ever happened to me," she said, fighting back tears. "I can't explain what it means to me to have him choose me out of all the teachers. He's brilliant. He's talented. He's focused. He studies for hours and hours. He's a teacher's dream."

In addition to the Science Olympiad, Li also participates in the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad. Last year, he was among the top 20 scorers in the national competition in Colorado. This year, he wants to make the top four and compete in the international competition held in Tokyo.

Li has also been studying herbal medicines and their effects on auto-immune disorders at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine since the summer before his freshman year at River Hill. During the school year, he spends about eight hours a week doing laboratory research. In the summer, he increases his workload to 40 hours.

"My family has always been very science-oriented," said Li, whose father is a gastroenterologist and whose mother is a software engineer. "I remember being 5 and going to my father's lab and playing with dry ice and mice. It's been ingrained."

As a first-generation Asian-American, Li said that there is a perception that his Chinese-born parents have put extreme pressure on him to excel academically.

"My parents have just been the complete opposite," he said. "I attribute that to my success. They have been supportive without being overbearing."

Li's father, Xuhang, said that his son has always been a self-starter and the awards his son has received have been the result of his own hard work.

"I'm always very proud of him," Xuhang Li said. "He's received lots of honors on both the national and local levels. He did all the work himself. He is such an easy kid. He does his homework on his own. He is a very self-disciplined kid."

Richard Li said he has also had to combat the stereotype of being considered "a typical Asian."

"Oftentimes people assume I'm introverted and nerdy," he said. "I can break that stereotype easily after [people talk] to me for a little bit."


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