By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Later this month, two of Niskayuna’s best students will pack up and head west to the University at Buffalo. One is a dancer, the other already on his way to becoming a doctor.
Neither knows exactly what their undergraduate studies will bring, but they do know one part of the college experience will be conspicuously absent: their student loans.
Mari Perrella and Andrew Stewart, both of the Niskayuna High School Class of 2014, won Presidential Scholarships from the University at Buffalo. They will focus on studying while their school picks up the bill for tuition, room, board and even incidentals such as books, for four full years.
“The presidential scholarship is a pretty big deal,” said Andrew Stott, honors program director at the University at Buffalo. “It’s actually the premier scholarship of its kind in the state; there’s really nothing like it.”
The awards are reserved for the top 1 percent of each year’s incoming freshman class, with almost all going to New York state residents. Test scores and high school grades are considered, but the selection team also tries to choose students with a diversity of interests.
Scholarship winners go through a process that begins with essays, recommendations and test scores, and concludes with a two-day interview process. Once they make the short list, decision makers at the school try to put together a group of students they think will have an interesting dynamic.
“It’s very competitive,” Stott said. “We have excellent students.”
Both Perrella and Stewart fit Stott’s description of focused, hardworking students with unique interests and a desire to help others.
Perrella, who plans to double major in dance and psychology, hopes to become a pioneer in the developing field of dance therapy. She loves working with children and hopes she might be able to teach autistic kids to express themselves physically. She can also picture herself as a school psychologist, but she’s open to lots of different paths.
“I definitely want to see how it goes when I’m there,” she said.
Many students like Perrella, whose intellectual strengths are artistic and kinetic, might be intimidated by the more quantitative and logical candidates for the scholarship. She wasn’t, though — during her interview process, she celebrated her unique interests.
“I talked with them about being a role model,” she said. “If I’m someone who’s different, I can help the other people who are different.”
Stewart, who will major in medicinal chemistry, said his extracurricular experiences surrounding the medical field made him feel confident during his interview. In addition to the courses he’s taken at Niskayuna High School, Stewart also found other ways to pursue knowledge about science and math.
He joined a club that put on chemistry demonstrations for kids, like mixing polymer slime at miSci in Schenectady. As part of an internship program, he shadowed a surgeon, who allowed him to watch four surgeries.
“I’ve had my fingers on someone’s spine, and I don’t think many 18-year-olds can say that,” Stewart said. During another shadowing experience, he witnessed a live birth, then wrote his college entrance essays about the experience.
Now that the intense process of applying to schools and scholarships has concluded, Perrella and Stewart are excited to pack up and get started on their undergraduate work.
“I’m so excited to be able to immerse myself in an environment where I can learn about anything,” Perrella said.
Still, neither has lost sight of the value of the impressive financial award they both earned.
“The doctor I was shadowing paid his debts off two months ago,” Stewart said. “He had been practicing 20 years.”
He hopes younger students will follow their passions to help them make strong decisions about college, too. Whatever your passion, Stewart says, “Go find someone who does that. Go talk to them.”