Contributed by the Upper School Leadership Team & Faculty

Bo Adams began the ceremony by sharing, “Amidst so many challenges, I am grateful that we have been able to be at school together this year…and today. 

“Our students are surrounded by the most dedicated, passionate, creative, and hard-working teachers. None of the achievements celebrated today would be possible without tireless preparation and commitment to our students. Thank you teachers and administrators. It is an honor to work alongside you in pursuit of Mount Vernon’s mission and vision. 

“The same is true of our generous and supportive parent community. Parents, thank you for partnering with us to set conditions for our students to inquire, to innovate and to make an impact – in high school, in college and beyond.

“Today’s honors are just a portion of the many wins to be celebrated this year. We are a community blessed by countless opportunities. This time last year, we were in emergency remote learning, not yet certain of what this year might hold. Yet, enrollment and retention in the Upper School have never been stronger. We have designed creative ways to continue enjoying learning exhibitions, athletic competitions, theater performances, and service to others. We have witnessed our community rally together in the midst of unprecedented challenges. I have never been more proud to be part of the Mount Vernon family.”

Valedictorian, presented by Bo Adams
In the seventh grade, this year’s valedictorian had a life-defining experience in his English class. After reading about America’s refugee crisis, he decided to take action. As a sophomore,  he created the Bridging the Gap Club, which assists the refugee community in Clarkston, Georgia acclimate to American culture. He independently sought out a partnership with New American Pathways, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization committed to helping Georgia’s immigrant community thrive. In recognition of his tireless dedication and leadership, he was awarded the New American Pathways Youth Path Award. His work with this organization also included canvasing Clarkston to encourage the community to fill out the 2020 Census. Determined to increase the outreach, he partnered with yet another local non-profit—Friends of Refugees Providing Education and Empowerment where he designed an educational enrichment program to help refugee students with their homework. In addition to his work with refugees, this year’s valedictorian is also deeply interested in public health. Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, he researched the ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo and participated in a conference at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta that explored innovations in vaccine strategies. His research during this deep dive into the pandemic is set for publication in the Harvard Public Health Review, a college  for which he also serves on the youth advisory board for AND will be attending this fall.  Please join me in celebrating this year’s National Merit Scholarship recipient and our very own valedictorian for the Class of 2021, Aqil Merchant.

Salutatorians, presented by Bo Adams
This year’s co-salutatorians may be related, but are both a truly singular presence. There are many similarities between Alma Merchant and her sister, but what distinguishes her from her sibling is a deep interest in civil engineering, and passion for working with children. During her sophomore year, she founded a non-profit organization, ​Creating a Smile, Inspiring Hope​. This organization partners with ​Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta​ and provides children in hospitals with care bags. ​In addition to this, she is a teacher assistant for ​Los Ninos Primero.​ ​This organization prepares underserved Latino pre-school children for educational success by providing opportunities to develop their language, cognitive, social, and motor skills.​ This experience inspired Alma to design and create a curriculum for​ Camp Mosaic​, a summer camp for elementary and middle school Islamic youth. Her lesson plans explored ​how Islamic traditions are practiced by Ismailis worldwide, pluralism, and the importance of taking care of the environment. Alma’s heart for youth and creative problem solving skills are two of her finest hallmarks. Of the many many activities her sister and co-salutatorian, Anusha Merchant is involved in, the ones that illustrate her character best are those that involve civic engagement, social justice and feminism. As a freshman, she was the president of ​Girl Talk,​ a mentorship program geared towards girls at the Lower School, and was a community leader for ​Girl Up​. She also prototyped and designed​ Our Story, ​ a web-based platform cataloging dozens of underrepresented female voices and photographs. She participated in the Global Encounters Program, an international program for Islamic Muslim youth focused on service, leadership development, cultural exchange, and global citizenship. Recently, Anusha turned her attention to voter rights and registration. In February, she obtained an internship at the​ American Civil Liberties Union ​(ACLU) ​of Georgia. ​At the ACLU, she worked with the Community Engagement Manager to recruit, train, and maintain volunteers. She participated in the ​Reproductive Justice Advocacy Day at the state capital in a partnership with​ Planned Parenthood​, United for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE),​ and ​Women Engaged​, to assist with voter registration. During the 2020 election, she was responsible for monitoring various polling stations, attending ​Board of Elections​ meetings, and preparing minutes for the ACLU staff and legal team. We could not be more proud of these two remarkable young women and all that they have done for the Mount Vernon community and beyond. Please join me in honoring Alma and Anusha Merchant, this year’s co-salutatorians.

AJC Cup Award, presented by Erin McCubbin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been helping schools recognize outstanding seniors in the metro area for over 75 years. It is meant for a student who excels and shows leadership abilities across many disciplines including community activities, arts, athletics, and academics. We consider this award the Best All Around Senior. Mount Vernon Upper School teachers and administrators vote on this award each year.

With a quiet decisiveness and an affable aura, teachers often refer to this student as their teaching assistant, as he picks up when his classmates are struggling and rather than tout his superior understanding, he finds ways to quietly support them. From studying alongside his peers, to providing feedback and coaching, he is quick to lift up others. It is often said that the ability to teach a concept is the true measure of understanding; by that mark, we all have a lot to learn from this young man. He can pontificate on the linearity of time and spend hours after class unpacking the modern parallels to texts from his Censorship class and yet he also has the keen ability to take technical concepts and explain them in an accessible manner — and trust me, over the years he has had to explain lots of nuanced technical concepts to me as I’ve feigned understanding.

This student has managed Mount Vernon’s wifi from his own computer, leveraged his networking skills to land hundreds of thousands of dollars in donation of virtual reality equipment for the school, and helped redesign the physical therapy experience for youth at the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta. He writes handwritten notes, makes time to walk and talk in the park with friends, and thoughtfully checked on his peers in the early days of the pandemic by creating a virtual lunch bunch.

He is earnest and humble and to know him is to understand that what really motivates him is love. What is the point of knowledge or technology without purpose? A few years ago, he made a promise to himself to be “that friend”. You know, the one who always checks on you, listens to you, and will nerd out with you over just about anything. Teachers, classmates, teammates, and anyone who is lucky enough to have crossed paths with him knows that promise to ring true.

I have no doubt that this young man will continue to use his intellect, drive, and heart to advance the human condition. It is a privilege to name this year’s best all-around senior, the winner of the AJC cup, the one and only Justin Blumencranz. Thank you, Justin, for all that you’ve taught us about how important it is to love one another and to relentlessly pursue the things that bring us genuine joy.

Mustang Spirit Award, presented by Aerial Dickerson
The Mustang Spirit Award is given to a senior who best exemplifies school spirit and represents the heart of the school through character and a positive attitude. This student embodies enthusiasm, involvement, genuine interest in others, and a deep love for Mount Vernon.

I describe this recipient as a natural community builder. He understands the importance of community and that everyone in a community should feel a sense of belonging. Because he knows this is significant, he has this amazing energy that brings people together and makes each student’s perspective feel valued and heard. One of my favorite memories is when this student was about to take a big exam, and all of a sudden he got up and went to every single desk to give his classmates a fist bump and a word of support. Everyone lit up as they accepted his encouragement. Our world can feel overwhelmingly negative at times, but watching him in action reminds me that each of us has the power to positively impact our surroundings and it can be as simple as a fist bump before a test. 

As a three-sport athlete in football, basketball, and soccer, this student has shown that he leads by example. He puts his whole heart to being the best teammate he can be and leaves no doubt. Off the field, you can find him being the biggest supporter of his fellow Mustangs—whether that is through thoughtful listening, being the loudest voice at a spirit tunnel, or with one of his famous hugs. He is a gregarious and wonderful student who brings joy wherever he goes. He is a role model in our community and we are all better for knowing him. It is encouraging and inspiring to know there are good people like him in the world. He is forever part of the fabric of Mount Vernon and he is beloved by his peers, coaches, faculty, and staff alike. I look forward to watching him continue to excel and achieve his goals at Georgia Tech this fall. It is my honor to present this year’s Mustang Spirit Award to Trey Tiffin.

Honor Thespian, presented by Clark Taylor
This is a day of sunshine and shadow. So, I may just get a little weepy as I sally forth and give this award. I have had a great fortune these ten years to create, direct, and perform with many extraordinary, multi-talented theatre kids, and I am so happy and a little bit sad to announce this extraordinary, multi-talented theatre student we honor today. Like a really good play, this senior has experienced many dramatic accomplishments and challenges to reach their senior swansong. She sets the bar for what it is to act well in the part, whether in the spotlight or behind the scenes or even in the audience cheering our troupe on.  A dear friend and colleague put it succinctly when he says the magic of live theatre is made of experiences, moments in the here and now. The student we lift up with this prestigious award has certainly embraced being present and available in the here and now moment of that thing called theatre.  I could not be prouder of her… and a little bit sad. It’s not the days we count out along the way, it’s how we make these days count, and it is without a doubt, that’s what this thespian and their great big heart will strive toward and for this director, always will be a fond and joyful memory of watching from the dark to see her shine. The 2021 Honor Thespian Award this year goes to Tabitha Nagy.

Mount Vernon Artisan Award, presented by Matt Neylon
The Artisan of the Year award goes to a student who not only pursues the highest level of artistic skill, but is a leader and team builder who encourages others to develop their craft. This student is a self-driven artist who has competed at the national level, invested in several arts programs at Mount Vernon, and is a compassionate team-player who leads with kindness, humility, and love. We are so excited to watch this student continue to grow as a performer as she pursues acting and social justice in college. Join me in congratulating Arden Adams

Mustang Scholar Athlete, presented by Wayne Dabbs
The Scholar-Athlete award is earned by a student who is competitive in the classroom and on the field. More than just an athlete, this student is the ultimate team player in all aspects of life. 

I have had the opportunity to coach this athlete for the last 4 years, and when I say special young man, I mean exactly that. The ultimate team player. Always puts his teammates first. Consistent in the classroom and on his sports teams.

He has a special gift in including all of his teammates regardless of age and grade level. He has been one of best mentors on his sports teams and throughout the entire MV Community. He leads by example each and every day. He has some very strong leadership qualities that are rare for a young person to have at his age, but he has them, and they have impacted so many during his time here at Mount Vernon.

He can come across as being quiet, but when he speaks, his classmates and teammates listen. Because they know his heart and they have seen his investment in each of them.

He is a tireless worker, he is goal oriented, determined, focused, and resilient. He is a State Champ!

And yes, we are celebrating him today, and he is receiving a wonderful award today, but honestly Auburn University is receiving an even bigger award, they are getting our Erik Dodder. Erik we love you, we are so proud of you and we look forward to seeing all that awaits you in your next chapter of life! We are always here for you and MV will always be your home! Please celebrate with me as Erik Dodder receives the Mustang Scholar Athlete Award for 2021.

MV Heart Award, presented by Wayne Dabbs
This year, I get the privilege of giving out the Mustang Heart Award. This is the first year that we have given out an Award with this title – The Mustang Heart.

When I think back to how challenging of a year it has been just on me personally, I have a tough time fully understanding how difficult it must have been to be a teenager. Having to navigate and try to fully understand what was taking place right in front of us. And as challenging as it must have been just to be a teenager, during such difficult and uncertain times, being asked to Lead – not only the Senior Class, but an entire community. Not having all the answers.

Being pulled in so many different directions. Getting your hopes up only to see them get put aside. Creating ideas and having dreams, only to see things shift. Being discouraged but finding the joy in the little things. Keeping that smile on your face.

Being able to see the big picture, and consistently being the rock, the encourager, the leader that our Community so needed in such a challenging year. We are so proud of this young lady. Please join me in celebrating Audrey O’Toole as she receives this year’s Mustang Heart Award.

Prefect Award, presented by Trish Bogdanchik
The Prefect Award is presented to an outgoing prefect who not only has completed his or her role effectively but who has also gone above and beyond what was expected.

Needless to say, we have all been through a great deal in the past year. In the midst of turmoil and worry, one prefect stood out for their ability to not only lead with a strong voice, but to also help other students find their voice. She led with empathy and purpose, and in doing so left a legacy of leadership and commitment. What others say of her speaks volumes to her character. To name a few:
She developed a strong committee, paving the way for the next leaders.
She stands up for others.
She builds others up.
She empowers and emboldens.
She is a force.

This prefect wanted to build a more inclusive community, provide students with a voice, and to grow as a leader. She provided students who may feel underrepresented with a source of representation. She shared her passion for social justice, represented her community, and resisted the pressure to be silent.

It is truly my honor to present this year’s Prefect Award to Anusha Merchant. Thank you, Anusha, for all of your accomplishments and leadership this year. The Mount Vernon community is better because of you, and we are all better because of the effort and love you gave. 

Georgia Governor’s Honors Program, presented by Ryan May
The Georgia Governor’s Honors Program (GHP) is a highly selective residential summer program for gifted and talented high school students who will be rising juniors and seniors during the program.  The program offers instruction that is significantly different from the typical high school classroom and that is designed to provide students with academic, cultural, and social enrichment necessary to become the next generation of global critical thinkers, innovators, and leaders. The application process includes numerous essays, a formal interview, and in some cases, even an audition. Less than 5% of GHP nominees are selected to be finalists. The Class of 2021 boasts four GHP Finalists, Chris Hardie for Engineering,   Alma Merchant for Social Studies, Anusha Merchant for Social Studies and Will Hundson for Music.

DAR Good Citizen Award, presented by Erin McCubbin
The Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizen Award is a nationally recognized scholarship competition. Each year, a Mount Vernon committee chooses one senior based on these criteria: dependability, service, leadership, and Patriotism. Alongside other Sandy Springs-area nominees, the MV nominee then submits an extensive application and timed-essay.  Whether mentoring young athletes as an essential member of the softball team, or cheering on our mustangs with her boundless sense of school spirit, this year’s recipient of the DAR Good Citizen is definitely dedicated to fostering a sense of community wherever she goes.Please join me in honoring Sarah Schab.

Star Student and Teacher, presented by Erin McCubbin
In recognition of highest scholastic aptitude and superior performance in the schools of Georgia, the STAR student is named from the highest single sitting SAT of a student in the top 5% of the class. That student then earns the privilege of honoring a teacher in appreciation of their exemplary dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. Please join me in congratulating our Class of 2021 STAR Student and Teacher: Henry Zhang and Danielle Heintz.

Mount Vernon Mindset Awards, presented by Upper School Learning Architects
These awards are presented to the two students at each grade level who consistently demonstrate excellence in the six Mount Vernon Mindsets. These students exemplify the qualities of excellent solution seekers, communicators, creative thinkers, innovators, ethical decision-makers and collaborators. 

Grade 9 MV Mindset Honorees
Our first ninth grade honoree is well respected among his peers and teachers. In design, analytical, and collaborative work, he is a natural leader and can always be relied on for a fresh perspective, and he is generous to share his impressive knowledge of history and geography. He always works hard to be inclusive of all classmates and mediate disagreements between them. Because of these things and more, please join me in honoring Burak Inel.

Our second honoree in ninth grade is a strong communicator. She is one of the first to facilitate class discussions and constantly asks questions in pursuit of learning. She is also incredibly inclusive and tries to bring in as many voices as possible. Her Humanities teacher says she she is quick to help and emerges as an innate leader. She really demonstrates that some leaders are not the most boisterous, but the most compassionate. Please join me in honoring Kat Petty.

Grade 10 MV Mindset Honorees
Our first sophomore honoree was well known in middle school for both his intellect and his magnetic personality. His French teacher fondly describes him as a a complete gentleman in and outside the classroom and an outstanding student with a relentless drive to better himself as a student. Please join me in honoring William Nix.

Our second honoree in the 10th grade is curious, insightful and subtly hilarious. She holds high expectations of herself and as a result, motivates those around her to push harder and think deeper. She embodies the MV norm of starting with questions, always curious and inquisitive about world history, but she also embodies the norm of sharing the well and having fun. Ever the joyful spirit, please join me in honoring  Lyndsey Franklin.

Grade 11 MV Mindset Honorees
Our first junior honoree excels in both critical thinking and ethical decision-making. I can count on him to challenge the status quo, whether it is a school policy or public policy. He demonstrates social and civic responsibility by planning and carrying out protests or registering voters for upcoming elections. He is admired by his peers and can be quite the practical joker. Just ask him about his use of meter sticks and gloves. His passion for community and connections are evident in his interactions with both faculty and students. I can not wait to see what this self-proclaimed anarchist achieves in the future! Please join me in honoring David Adkins.

The second junior honoree is a student who brings her personal experiences and passions into the classroom and finds creative ways to weave them into her work. She is an insightful reader, gifted maker, and a talented writer. It has been a delight to watch her find her voice this year. In both her academic pursuits and her relationships, she is endlessly curious, an empathetic listener, and an active seeker of connections. Please join me in honoring Maddy Strudwick.

Grade 12 MV Mindset Honorees
Our  first 12th-grade nominee is the type of hard-working student that every teacher is thrilled to have in class. When faced with adversity, his mindset is to try harder, dig deeper, and work smarter. This learner strives for excellence in everything he does. He has never been able to participate in extracurricular activities before. Still, He has made up for it with a vengeance this year by running cross country, swimming on the swim team, and playing varsity soccer, all for the first time as a senior. He worked incredibly hard to make up for lost time and put 100% into every effort.  Because he never cheats himself out of any learning opportunity, Jason Shao is our mindset honoree.

Our second 12-grade nominee is the student every teacher loves to see on their roster for he sets the standard for learning in the classroom.  They know that he’ll be the one motivated to pursue knowledge and once he’s started that pursuit he won’t let go until he’s claimed it for his own. When he quietly asks a question, we’re all sharpened into better teachers and learners.  And while we expect all students to be here for the sake of learning, this student truly is, for when he asks for feedback, he wants to know to how to not only improve his writing but to further his understanding of the content, be it environmental science, data science, statistics, or any other STEM-related subject.  Last year, I had the privilege of watching him work with the caretakers at Lost Corner Preserve as he began a project to identify its understory trees and now I’m pleased to present our second 12th grade mindset award to Henry Zhang.  

Harvard Book Award
For over a century, Harvard University Alumni have presented the Harvard Book Award at select high school institutions to honor outstanding members of the junior class who exhibit the qualities of excellence in scholarship and strength of character. It is considered the highest academic honors we can bestow on a member of the junior class. This year, it is my privilege to present this award to a student who has been described as remarkably motivated, kind in spirit, and an incredible leader in and outside of the classroom. Please join me in congratulating this year’s Harvard Book Award recipient, Austin Taylor.

Yale Book Award
This prestigious award recognizes outstanding character, leadership, scholarship and intellectual promise of an outstanding high school junior, as voted on by the Upper School faculty. This year, it is my privilege to present this award to a student who has been described as a faithful friend, humble leader, deeply curious, and an unparalleled ambassador for our community. Please join me in congratulating this year’s Yale Book Award recipient, Jack Srinivasan.

Special Recognition Awards
This award recognizes the efforts and contributions of students who take initiative and show a great deal of dedication in their pursuits. While one student showed a servant’s heart in their work to support faculty, staff and students as the Student Life Intern, the other student sought to grow alongside teachers while auditing classes, attending faculty meetings, and analyzing lesson plans as the Teaching & Learning Intern. Please join me in congratulating this year’s Special Recognition Award recipients, Jack Srinivasan in the area of Student Life, and Rose Dodder in the area of Teaching & Learning.

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