Years ago, Ava Baker?s mother gave her some advice about the value of hard work: ?You can?t take out of the bank what you don?t put in.? In return, Baker made her mother a promise. From the first time she heard the word ?valedictorian,? she vowed to become one.
It?s a promise she has taken seriously?so much so that when she lost her mother to cancer last year, Baker stayed at the top of her class. ?Even in her passing, it?s up to me to uphold that promise,? she said. ?Actually, that year changed my whole outlook on life. You learn to look at the good things in life,? she said.
Baker?s dedication has made her a role model for many at Wakefield High School, not just students. ?I want to be Ava Baker when I grow up,? said Bridget Loft, Baker?s AP Government teacher this year. ?I?ve said this to some of my colleagues, and many have agreed with me,? said Loft, who has also taught Baker the last two years in a leadership class.
Baker, valedictorian of Wakefield?s class of 2003 with a 4.25 grade-point average, applied to seven colleges for next year, and has been accepted to all seven, including Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke and the University of Virginia.
Baker impresses admissions counselors with more than just her academic abilities. She is developing a program for Wakefield seniors to help eighth graders get ready for high school and start preparing for college. Such a program would have helped her when she was in eighth grade, Baker said, so she wanted to make it happen for others.
?Not only is there such integrity in that,? said Loft, ?Also the fact that in eighth grade she was so focused I think speaks volumes.?
JUST GETTING INTO top-ranked colleges would be a thrill for most students, but Baker gets to look forward to excitement beyond the acceptance letter. ?I want some money!? she joked.
She already knew she had been awarded a full scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. Last week she found out she had also secured a full tuition scholarship to Duke and had been accepted into the prestigious Jefferson Scholars program at Virginia.
The program awards $12,672, covering full tuition, fees, books, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses, as well as other benefits including early registration times and freedom from required courses.
Baker has a different way of thinking about it. ?It?s like academic American Idol,? she said.
Baker went through four rounds of competition for the scholarship, during which she completed written exams and participated in seminars and interviews with university officials.
Duke?s scholarship competition was simple by comparison, Baker said. Just one interview, added to a review of transcripts and application materials, secured her the $27,050 per year from the private university in North Carolina.
Now comes the tough part, Baker said ? deciding which scholarship to accept. She has narrowed her choices to Duke and Virginia.
Those two universities provide the most promising opportunities, she said, while the Ivy Leagues gave her bragging rights. ?It was nice to wave that Harvard letter in my dad?s face,? she said. ?He expected me to get in all those places, just not Harvard. He was always saying, ?Rejection letters are put very nicely.??
Loft wasn?t surprised at the lack of rejection letters. ?She is capable and compassionate and focused,? she said.
ACADEMICS ARE JUST one aspect of Baker?s life. She has served as student government president the last two years, represents Wakefield on the county?s Student Advisory Board, plays bass guitar and follows horse racing. ?I guess I?m a person who likes unique things,? she said.
Baker said the diversity of Wakefield?s student population fits that part of her personality well, and has given her experiences that wouldn?t have happened elsewhere.
Unlike many of her middle school friends who shunned Wakefield, Baker passed up the chance to go to private school. Going to a public school in South Arlington has taught her not just academics, but about life. ?You learn to consider other people?s thoughts, other people?s feelings before your own,? she said.
Baker sees a problem with the many parents who decide not to send their students to Wakefield. Removing many of the top academic performers puts the school at a disadvantage, and basically amounts to discrimination from parents, she said.
?I think a lot of people view South Arlington as inferior to North Arlington,? said Baker. ?I think subconsciously they?re not open to the idea of diversity.?
Loft understands Baker?s concern. ?She?s very conscious of the disparity between what?s happening within Wakefield and the reputation it has externally,? said Loft. One of the reasons for that disparity is that Wakefield gets attention for minor problems without getting attention for success stories like Baker, Loft said.
Baker doesn?t mind being the focus of some of the attention, and says she hopes her success will inspire others in South Arlington to similar success. She is currently the only Wakefield student ever to be named a Jefferson Scholar, according to Adrian Bailey, a spokesperson for the school system. ?I hope to be the first of many,? said Baker.