Merrill Scholars honor mentors at 35th annual ceremony

Abraham Sinfort ’23 credits his high school humanities teacher, Louis Frederick, with giving him confidence to think critically about information that transcends subject material.

“Mr. Frederick’s amazing mentorship was not limited to our classroom learning experiences, and instead extended to our interactions with him in the hallways, during this lunch break, and even on the subway ride home,” said Sinfort, a Merrill Presidential Scholar and biological sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, pointing to Frederick as the person who also gave him the confidence and belief in himself that led him to apply to attend Cornell.

“Some of the deepest conversations that we had were on the Q Train going home and he actually told me, ‘You’ve got to apply to Cornell, you can do it,’” Sinfort said. “I didn’t believe in myself, I had taken [Cornell] off my Common App – and here I am.”

Sinfort was among the 43 student scholars honored at this year’s 35th Merrill Presidential Scholars ceremony on May 23 in the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room.

Merrill Scholars are graduating seniors selected by deans of the university’s 10 undergraduate colleges and schools based on their outstanding scholastic achievement, their strong leadership and their desire to positively impact the world beyond Cornell.

Each spring, they’re asked to recognize the high school teacher or mentor with the greatest impact on their early education and the Cornell faculty or staff member who contributed most significantly to their college experience. The high school educators and mentors are brought to Cornell, all expenses paid, for this two-day program, which consists of an informal dinner with their students, an academic program led by Cornell faculty on a topic of broad interest and a celebratory luncheon.

“Merrill Presidential Scholars represent just 1% of Cornell’s graduating class,” President Martha E. Pollack said during her opening remarks. “In a group that is already remarkable, they are exceptional.”

The ceremony celebrated 43 Merrill Scholars from 15 U.S. states and countries including Canada, China, the Netherlands and Singapore, as well as their high school and Cornell mentors. Recognizing outstanding educators who prepare students for college and help them succeed at Cornell was the mission of the late Philip Merrill ’55 when he created the program in 1988. 

“I can’t even tell you how much of a privilege it is to continue this tradition for 35 years now – it was incredibly important to my father,” said Douglas J. Merrill ’89, M.Eng. ’90, MBA ’91. “I was a university lecturer for five years, and the best reward you get is from your students acknowledging the difference that you’re making in their lives, and this formalizes that.”

Since 1989, STAR (Special Teachers Are Recognized) Scholarships named in honor of the teachers recognized by Merrill Scholars have been awarded to Cornell students with financial need from each scholar’s hometown, a program established by Margi Berens ’47 and the late Don Berens ’47. 

During the ceremony, each college and school dean took to the stage to recognize students and their impact at Cornell. During an open-mic portion, students had the opportunity to address the people they chose to honor and share their gratitude.

Yasmin Ballew ’23 from the ILR School knew that she had to take a class of her future mentor, senior lecturer Allison Weiner Heinemann. “If you’re in ILR, you know Professor Weiner Heinemann because she’s iconic,” Ballew said.  

Weiner Heinemann’s sustained support and individualized instruction gave her the gift of confidence, Ballew said, which translated into every aspect of her life.

“Thank you for creating such an inclusive, kind and truly influential classroom experience,” she said at the ceremony. “You spent hours investing in each of us as individuals.” 

The 2023 Merrill Presidential Scholars: 

College of Arts and Sciences 

  • Victoria Alkin 
  • Jacqueline Allen 
  • Anna Asch 
  • Jeffrey Backus 
  • Matthew Flics 
  • Meghana Gavirneni 
  • Prameela Kottapalli 
  • Caitlin McCabe 
  • Nina Suss 

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communications for Student and Campus Life. 

Read the full story in the Cornell Chronicle.


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