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Meet Central Jersey’s 2014 Academic All

Erin Serpico, Editorial intern;6:06 p.m. EDT June 14, 2014

(Photo: Jason Towlen/Staff Photographer, Jason Towlen/Staff Photographer)


Pratik Chheda, going to Princeton Univ., said Model U.N. experiences helped him grow in high school

Kira Mathias-Prabhu, attending Carnegie Mellon Univ., will continue to play the violin and piano

Thomas John Steitz, attending the University of Maryland, is excited to meet new people in college

Christopher Zhang said he could always “make time from no time,” a skill he will utilize in college


Today we would like to introduce you to a group of seniors who followed their goals, pursued their
passions and challenged themselves to their highest potential — even if it meant sacrificing many
nights of sleep.
Throughout the past 24 years, all types of students, from valedictorians, aspiring physicians and
club leaders to star athletes and diligent musicians, have become Academic All Stars. The

honorees for this year’s program — in its 25th year, sponsored by the Courier News, Home News
Tribune and — was no different.
While their interests are diverse (and amazing), the students tend to share common atrributes —
they are outgoing, goal-driven, passionate about education and ready to learn more so they can
make a difference as adults. They‘re pretty darn nice, too.
The contest began in March when we sent out nomination forms to some 60 Central Jersey public
and private high schools. School officials nominated one student they felt worthy of the award and
asked him or her to apply for the contest. In all, we received 30 nominations.
The applications were given in May to David Edwards, the dean of arts and sciences at Middlesex
County College, James Ventantonio, the then-interim president for Raritan Valley Community
College, and Negar Farakish, assistant vice president and the provost of the Plainfield campus at
Union County College to score and choose the 10 All Star award winners.
The All Star winners received two tickets to attend the Somerset Patriot’s baseball game
Wednesday evening,as well as a $100 general gift card from the publications in recognition of their
Eight of this year’s 10 All Stars came to the baseball game at TD Bank Ballpark during the
overcast, slightly chilly spring evening to celebrate their accomplishments. This gave us the
opportunity to catch up with them to see where they are headed next. We got the chance to talk
about what’s in store for them after they graduate and how they feel about their high school
experience and its conclusion.
Pratik Chheda, going to Princeton University to study engineering, said his Model United Nations
experience particularly helped him grow throughout high school while keeping his focus on
activities that he enjoyed the most.
“The type of student I was helped me, because I learned a lot just being in a classroom listening to
the teacher,” Chedda said. “The one thing I always kept in mind was trying to figure out what I
loved to do. … ”Being an opportunist and exposing myself to as many things as possible was
really helpful, but also just learning things and developing these skills. I wasn’t naturally a good
public speaker, I wasn’t naturally a good social person, but those things are so interesting to me
and it applies to the college experience.”
Samuel DeFabrizio, who will be attending Vanderbilt University to study biology, said that being a
part of the high school track and cross country teams allowed him to grow with his teammates
while helping the others and having a chance to lead, too.
“Being an individual is what I’m looking forward to. I’ve had great parents, they really raised me
wonderfully, but it’s going to be nice to be on my own a bit, and I plan on trying to become a more
well-rounded individual along with taking studies very seriously," DeFabrizio said. “Balance is

something that I really strive for, so I only took up things that I was really passionate about. I was
never thinking, ‘I’m doing this because I want to have it on a resume.’ It kind of stacked up, but if
you really like everything you’re doing, you make time for it.”
Justin Lin, attending Cornell University to study engineering, said he looks forward to being able to
take a variety of classes at his leisure when he gets to college, rather than having to follow a “rigid”
graduation requirement schedule.
“A lot of high schoolers are very busy with a lot of different things, and trying to balance it can be
really overwhelming a lot of times. I tried to choose things that I thought were fun, so it wasn’t so
much of a, ‘I have to do this.’ … Last summer, I went to the New Jersey Governor’s School for
Engineering at Rutgers, and I saw a lot of engineers and what they did. I was on my high school’s
Quiz Bowl team; that was pretty fun,” Lin said.
Kira Mathias-Prabhu, attending Carnegie Mellon University to study computer science, plans to
continue playing the violin and piano throughout her college days to keep her passion alive while
expanding her academic interests.
“I did this research internship last summer, which was really exciting for me. It was also really new
because I never did anything like it,” she said. “I just learned so many new skills, and I learned
how to think on my own, and problem solve on my own. It was a unique experience for me. …
When I was doing things I really liked, I was really happy doing them, I was happy to do the extra
Thomas John Steitz, attending the University of Maryland to study computer engineering, is
excited about meeting new people as he makes the transition to college while continuing to
challenge himself academically and outside of school whenever he can.
“It’s at the point where my mom tells me to stop working or doing things sometimes because I’m
always going one hundred miles an hour,” Steitz said. “I’m going to be a computer engineering
major, and English was never really something I enjoyed as much. When I took AP Language, that
was the toughest course I’ve ever taken. But I never learned more and I’ve never been more glad
that I took a class because the teacher was the most amazing person I’ve ever met … She
teaches you to write, but more to the point where she teaches you to think, and that is applicable
anywhere no matter what you want to do.”
Soumya Sudhakar, attending Princeton University to study engineering, plans to continue signing,
playing the piano and writing for the newspaper while meeting new people to learn about others’
ambitions in college.
“I learned how to prioritize schoolwork early on in high school, how I can get everything I need to
get done and then do fun things. The activities you are doing should be something you enjoy.
When I spent hours with mock trial and piano, I enjoyed it,” Sudhaker said. “From freshman year to
senior year, I’ve learned so many public speaking skills, it’s amazing.”

Kaamya Varagur, attending Princeton University to study molecular biology, plans on continuing
her singing in college as well, but she’s excited to start opera singing as part of a company, looking
at organizations her high school didn’t offer.
“I’m proud about being a part of my Science Olympiad team. I was the captain, and it was a newer
thing at my school. I kind of got to work on getting us higher rankings in states and organizing our
team better,” Varagur said. “And in the choir, you really need to explain things and be patient, and
it just taught me how to be a better leader.”
Christopher Zhang, attending Princeton University to study mathematics, said playing tennis took
up much of his time in high school, but found he could always “make time from no time,” a skill he
plans to utilize in college.
“I’m proud of how I’m able to learn by myself. There’s only so much you can learn from a high
school class, and at home there’s so many resources out there, that you can learn a lot of stuff on
your own,” he said. “I’ve become an improved person throughout high school, I’ve learned public
speaking; I’ve become better at making friends, being a good person.”
While all of the All Stars have different backgrounds and stories to tell, they all seem to have the
common idea that one should follow what they love to do, but to also strive to achieve intrinsically
for personal growth. This year’s All Stars have their minds set on the skills and ambitions they
attained in high school — along with all of this year’s nominees —which will certainly apply when
moving forward to their next steps in life.
The 2014 Academic All Stars and their profiles are listed below in alphabetical order.
Pratik Chheda
Franklin High School, Somerset section of Franklin
School activities: Future Business Leaders of America, president; Model United Nations, director
general; Junior Classical League, president; soccer; National Honor Society; Science League;
Math League; Academic League; Latin Honor Society
Outside activities: Franklin Township Youth Council, chairman; Junior Achievement, volunteer;
tennis, counselor in training
Honors and achievements: National AP Scholar; AP Scholar with Distinction; Brandeis Book
Award for Social Action and Civic Engagement; President’s Volunteer Service Award; nine awards
from Model United Nations
Nominator comment: “Pratik is hardworking, mature and selfless. He can frequently be seen
assisting other students with work if they’re struggling. ... He is always looking to further challenge
himself.” — Heather Danberry, school counselor

Essay excerpt: “My mind naturally broke down reality into its components of design and structure.
Discovering my interests introduced me to classes and subjects I will follow through college.
Seeing the world through the mathematical and scientific lenses, like pondering the bracing of a
power-line tower or comprehending how manual shifting is different from automatic, demonstrates
my intellectual curiosity.”
Samuel DeFabrizio
Voorhees High School, Lebanon Township
School activities: Outdoor track, conditioning leader; indoor track, head captain; cross country,
head captain; National Honor Society; National World Language Honor Society; Model United
Nations, president; Class Council, secretary; Consumer Bowl, captain; Math Team, lead scorer;
Relay For Life, team captain liaison
Outside activities: H2O 365, CEO, founder; Brady Lifecamp, chess specialist; Raritan Valley
Habitat for Humanity Youth Council, school representative; Voorhees Habitat for Humanity,
cofounder and vice president, Califon Karate Academy, first degree black belt
Honors and achievements: National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist; New Jersey Governor’s
School of the Sciences Scholar; New Jersey Boys Statesman; Princeton University Book Award;
Saint Anselm College Book Award; NJSIAA student athlete; YMUN 2014 CCPCJ outstanding
Nominator comment: “Sam’s greatest strength is his maturity. He is able to communicate on a
level that is far beyond the average 18-year-old. Sam is an extremely hard working student and he
is passionate about everything he does.” — Jessica Gorton, gifted and talented coordinator
Essay excerpt: “In November 2010, I set out with one goal in mind; complete a full-length
comprehensive novel in 30 days with no less than 50,000 words. … The next chapter of my life is
about to be written, and I plan on having my pen ready … I strive to be the one writing my own
future, and even more, the future of the world around us.”
Mark Andrew Hays
New Providence High School
School activities: Winter and spring track and field, captain; National Honor Society, president;
Science Olympiad, member; YMCA Model UN, delegate; Math and Chemistry Club, member
Outside activities: Overlook Hospital, volunteer pianist; NPHS Japanese Class; Faith Lutheran
Church, peer leader; Camp Invention
Honors and achievements: AP Scholar with Distinction; 2014 Union County Outstanding
Scholar; first place in TEAMS competition; National Merit Scholar; Princeton Book Award

Nominator comment: “While the level of Mark’s achievement most certainly speaks to his
capability and leadership, it’s Mark’s humble, gracious person which has most made an impression
on me. … Mark’s success is not at all motivated by external factors, but by a sincere desire for
self-fulfillment and to give back to the community.” — Lindsay M. Gnudi, guidance counselor
Essay excerpt: “I’ve grown from being a timid, curious ninth grader into a well-rounded and
confident citizen. … Last summer I traveled with my high school Japanese classmates to Japan
and stayed with a Japanese host family, bridging cultural differences and even learning to eat
things I had thought only belonged in aquariums. … Experiences such as these illustrate the type
of person I am.”
Justin Lin
Saint Joseph High School, Metuchen
School activities: Quiz Bowl Team, varsity member; Computer League, captain; Math League,
varsity member; Science League; Asian Cultural Club
Outside activities: C&MA Bible Quizzing, captain; RCCC Youth Group, caretaker, planning team;
RCCC Vacation Bible School Camp for Children, volunteer; Franklin Township Library, volunteer
Honors and achievements: National Merit Finalist; New Jersey Boys State Best County, New
Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology; one of two delegates to 2014 National
Youth Science Camp; Bio Oncology Leadership Development Camp; AP Scholar with Distinction
Nominator comment: “Justin is very open-minded in his approach to life. He has learned to be
compassionate and empathizes with others. He always perseveres and takes challenges both in
life and in school. He is creative and imaginative.” — Tracy Blauvelt, guidance counselor
Essay excerpt: “Throughout consistent tenacity and creativity in daily choices, I have striven to
create a character that embodies the values in which I believe. … As the youngest member of the
senior class, there were several moments where I was overwhelmed, either under the pressures of
those around me or the weight of my personal ambition. In those moments, I drew inspiration and
courage from my heroes as well as my past experiences.”
Kira Mathias-Prabhu
Governor Livingston High School, Berkeley Heights
School activities: Future Business Leaders of America, president; Mobile App Club, co-president,
co-founder; Interact Club; Science League
Outside activities: Violin; piano
Honors and achievements: Moody’s Mega Math Challenge Honorable Mention; National Merit
Finalist; AP Scholar with Distinction; seventh place in nation for Voice of Democracy National

Essay Contest; Pearl and Julius Music Competition Finalist; second place in the Greater Princeton
Steinway Society Scholarship Competition
Nominator comment: “Kira’s attitude and approach to everything she does is a quality not found
in most students. Teachers respect her and really enjoy her presence in their class because they
feel she is a “real” student, in that Kira has a genuine enthusiasm for education. … This bright and
hardworking young woman is known to all as a kind person who works very well with others.” —
Christopher Coughlin, school counselor
Essay excerpt: “I have never been much of a materialist, but from the time I was little, I have
always wanted to know and be able to do everything from speaking every language in the world to
fixing a bathroom sink, to the extent that I end up doing everything in my power to try it. …
Through my eyes, the world is a giant sandbox, full of treasures waiting to be unearthed: new
places, ideas, people, activities and cultures.”
Thomas John Steitz
North Hunterdon High School, Clinton
School activities: Soccer, captain; National Honor Society, president; Spanish Honor Society;
Math Honor Society; baseball
Outside activities: GFSC club soccer; Ski Club; referee/umpire; tutor
Honors and achievements: Science Student of the Year in 2012 and 2013; AP Scholar with
Honor; 2014 National Merit Scholarship Program commended student; Community Service Award
Nominator comment: “Tommy is an outstanding student; he is the kind of person that one does
not meet every day. … Tommy is among the top of his class; however, his grades are just the
beginning. He is a truly humble and caring individual.” —Jessica Gorton, gifted and talented
Essay excerpt: “Twenty-four hours after returning my helmet, I unearthed the shin guards from
elementary school and joined tryouts for soccer. I barely knew the rules or techniques. But I knew
how to pursue an aspiration. … And finally I have achieved what I believed I was capable of: the
role of captain.”
Soumya Sudhakar
Watchung Hills Regional High School, Warren
School activities: Mock Trial, president, lawyer; school newspaper, editor in chief; New Jersey
Envirothon, team member; Gay-Straight Alliance
Outside activities: Singing; Anti-Human Extinction Movement, intern; Green Schools Alliance,
international outreach coordinator; Piano

Honors and achievements: New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology
Scholar; second place winner Ayn Rand Foundation’s The Fountainheadessay contest;
Presidential Scholar candidate; National English Honor Society; World Language Honor Society;
National Honor Society; Two-time Best Attorney winner in 2014 New Jersey Mock Trial
Nominator comment: “Soumya continues to amaze the staff here at Watchung Hills by excelling
at everything she does. She is extremely successful and is able to carry herself socially to be
charismatic and very well liked; coupled with her amazing academic gifts to excel in all of our AP
and Honors programs with her extremely high GPA.” — Steven C. Searfoss, vice principal
Essay excerpt: “People have asked me why I choose to be a part of the GSA as ‘just an ally’
since most of the club members are also members of the LGBT community. I firmly believe there is
a need for the LGBT community to understand there are people who support them outside of the
LGBT community. … My personal philosophy has always been that an individual’s actions do have
the potential to change society.”
Joseph James Tharayil
Immaculata High School, Somerville
School activities: Moody’s Mega Math Challenge, captain; Youth and Government Delegation,
officer; String Ensemble, concertmaster; soccer; Folk Group; Spartan Ambassador; National Honor
Society; Spanish Honor Society; Mock Trial, senior attorney.
Outside activities: Brandywine Nursing and Rehabilitation Center; Zyqued Games, founding
partner, creative director; Franklin Township Rotary Club, tutor
Honors and achievements: National Merit Scholarship Finalist; AP Scholar with Distinction;
Presidential Scholars Program Semifinalist; FLENS Award for Outstanding Achievement; New
Jersey Youth and Government, Outstanding Legislation Award; New Jersey Governor’s School in
the Sciences
Nominator comment: “Future-oriented and optimistic, Joseph James Tharayil is hard working,
focused and determined. Without doubt, he is among the finest students to ever grace the halls of
our school. His achievements are legendary … all undertaken with the intensity and zeal of a true
academic.” — Sheila M. White, assistant principal and director of guidance
Essay excerpt: “My commitment to Zyqued, shared by every member of our team, is one
manifestation of the dedication I bring to all of my endeavors. … It is my passion for challenge that
has motivated me to throw myself at obstacles; it is perseverance that has lifted me over them.”
Kaamya Varagur
John P. Stevens High School, Edison

School activities: Chamber choir, choir secretary; Science Olympiad, captain; varsity tennis;
Science National Honor Society, president; Spanish Honor Society, executive board member;
Science Bowl, alpha captain; Waksman Student Scholars, student scientist; Project SHAREMentoring, peer mentor
Outside activities: “Send Love to India” benefit concert, co-organizer; SerenAIDe benefit concert,
concert night committee head; Joy of Singing, LLC; SAT and AP tutor
Honors and achievements: 2014 Presidential Scholars candidate; University of Toronto National
Biology Scholar with Distinction; National AP Scholar; three-time President’s Award for Education
Excellence, Gold Seal; first place senior vocal at Young Musician’s Competition; National
Association for Music Education All Eastern Mixed Honor Choir
Nominator comment: “Kaamya Varagur is inquisitive, self-motivated, precise and compassionate.
… Through the arts, community service, and high school extracurricular programs, Kaamya has
proven to be aware of her personal strengths and finds outlets at school and in the community to
channel them to help others.” — Christen DeSimone, school counselor
Essay excerpt: “On any quick web search of me, my peers would be able to find that I love
science, especially biology, and that I am involved in many academic programs; but if all it meant
to be Kaamya Varagur was to be book smart, I would be disappointed at my own apparent onedimensionality and would not feel as though I have succeeded in achieving my goals. … My
singing is what defines me, sets me apart from all the other science students in the world.”
Christopher Zhang
Hillsborough High School
School activities: Science Olympiad, president; Math Team, captain; junior varsity tennis;
German Honor Society, treasurer; Future Business Leaders of America, consultant
Outside activities: Columbia Science Honors Program
Honors and achievements: First place Operations Research at Princeton Engineering Olympics
2014; third place overall team at New England Regional Science Olympiad competition; United
States Physics Olympiad semi-finalist and bronze medalist; United States Biology Olympiad
semifinalist; state winner in TrigStar Contest
Nominator comment: “Chris’ greatest strength is his natural intelligence, but it is enhanced by his
thirst for learning and abilities to analyze/synthesize at extremely high levels.” — Brian Yarasheski,
school counselor
Essay excerpt: “I guess I like thinking; it’s why I do it. I’m producing and processing the flood of
information my senses take in every day. But now it’s the digital age, so I have a crutch for my
memory and new tools for my senses.”

Information on the 2014 Academic All Stars and the activities they participated in can be found
on page A8, along with a comment from each student’s nominator, and an excerpt from their
essay submission which asked them to convey the type of person they are in 250 words. The list
of the other 20 nominees and their profiles can be found on page A9.