Stone Bridge High School senior Chris Belyea always dreamed of going to the University of Virginia. Ever since he first visited the college and stepped on the campus, he knew that's where he wanted to be.
"It is a very prestigious public school," Belyea said. "The opportunities you have there are amazing."
Last month, Belyea got his wish in a big way when he became the only high-school senior in Northern Virginia, and the first in Stone Bridge's history, accepted into the University of Virginia's Jefferson Scholars program.
The Jefferson Scholar program offers its participants a full, four-year scholarship, including tuition, room and board, books and basic living expenses.
"I knew that this was where I wanted to go," said Belyea, who is thinking about majoring in chemistry, bio-medical science or computers, "and I feel really blessed about all of this."
ON PAPER, Belyea could seem too good to be true.
The senior's schedule is packed with advanced-placement classes, including physics, government and college calculus. He is the president of Stone Bridge's Student Council Association and was a class representative his first three years of high school. With a graduating grade point average of around 4.3, he is first in his class and a member of the National Honors Society.
During winter semesters, he swam the breaststroke on the boys swim team and was a captain of the swim team. During spring semesters, he ran the mile on the coed track team. His freshman and sophomore years he also ran cross country.
Belyea spends his winters working at the Potomac Swim School in Ashburn and, in the summers, he heads for Goshen Scout Reservation where he works as a Boy Scouts camp counselor.
However, Belyea is much more than just a resume. In person, he is polite, personable, confident and humble. He blushes when faculty members talk about his achievements and how much they respect him. He believes his biggest accomplishment as student council president was putting on the best homecoming he could for his fellow students.
"I really wanted to make homecoming top notch," the 18-year-old said. "And I think we did it. The way it all fell into place. I think we gave everyone a really great homecoming."
Being a leader is a big part of being a Jefferson Scholar, Alex Inman, associate director of development for the Jefferson Scholar program, said.
"We are looking for kids who demonstrated excellence and exceptional potential in the areas of leadership, scholarship and citizenship," he said.
While all current Jefferson Scholars were in the top 5 percent of their graduating classes, there is no minimum grade point average or SAT score, Inman said.
"The reality is that we don't define it [like] that because it leads to a wonderfully diverse pool of nominees who do a lot of different things to give back to their communities," he said.
BELYEA WAS selected from a pool of 2,200 nominees through a rigorous selection process that culminated in a finalists' weekend in Charlottesville.
Every high school in the country is allowed to nominate one senior for a Jefferson Scholar position. Guidance director Tim Lucas made the decision to nominate Belyea.
"I knew that for the Jefferson Scholars, you really need a kid who's going to be top two or three [in their class] to really be a candidate," Lucas said. "Ever since I have known Chris he has always said he wanted to go to U.Va. and he was the strongest candidate."
Lucas and other Stone Bridge faculty looked at other students in the top 10 of the senior class, but, in the end, he said, picking Belyea was a "no brainer."
"There's not a better kid than Chris Belyea," Lucas said. "He's a class act."
After being selected by Lucas, Belyea, who has been accepted into Virginia's engineering school, moved on to the Piedmont region's competition where he competed against nominees from 28 other regional schools. Only one student from each region moves on to the next selection round.
"We get about 800 nominees that come to us each year," Inman said. "Most come to us from high-school nominations and the 45 regions and then about 10 or 12 will be at-large nominations from the U.Va. admissions office where potential applicants are flagged for the program."
Regional selection is based on transcripts, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations and three essays that the nominee must write, including one on a leadership experience.
"I wrote about being SCA president," Belyea said. "What I learned about what qualities you need to possess to be a leader and how important it is to lead by example."
After the regional nominees were selected, the field of 800 was narrowed down to 96 finalists who were invited to attend the finalists' weekend at the University of Virginia.
"Just getting as far as the finalists' weekend is a great accomplishment," Inman said. "There are a lot of people who are nominated by their high school and go no further."
The four-day weekend consisted of math and written exams, Belyea said. He attended seminars where finalists were given readings on topics, such as Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding efforts, and then had to debate their opinions in front of a panel of judges. Belyea then gave a final interview in front of five judges.
"My favorite thing about the weekend was the type of people it drew," he said. "They are all very accomplished in scholastics and academics, but they are all also very outgoing and personable."
IF STONE BRIDGE Principal James Person and Lucas are any indication, personality is a big part of who Belyea is.
"Chris is a true leader," Person said. "He thrives on things like giving back. He believes in doing good and doing right in all things, but more than that there is a genuine niceness about him."
More than just the respect of the Stone Bridge faculty, Person and Lucas said that Belyea has the respect of his peers as well.
"There's not a kid in this building that wouldn't have something wonderful to say about him." Lucas said.
Indeed, his fellow student council members jokingly roll their eyes when asked about Belyea. They make over-the-top negative comments about him, the way someone can only do about someone they truly respect.
"You don't see him changing at all with this honor or having a swollen head," Person said. "He is truly proud of his school and of the things he has been able to do for it."
Lucas, who has been working in the county for the past 10 years, said he knows that in 20 or 30 years he will still want to know what Belyea is doing.
"For Chris, the well-being of others comes before his own," he said. "I know that somehow he is going to make a difference."
Whatever the future holds for him, Belyea is focused now on his advanced-placement exams, which are being held the first two weeks in May and on prom and graduation, and he is humble about his accomplishments.
"I am just thankful for all the guidance and teaching I have received in high school," he said. "I know it has prepared me to be successful down at U.Va."