A Yale University catalog sits on the coffee table of the Muralidhar home in Chandler. College is one year away for 16-year-old Vinayak Muralidhar, who starts his senior year today at Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School.
The math whiz and valedictorian candidate could choose to attend a local community college or state university, but Muralidhar has other plans.
He dreams of the Ivy League. Or maybe Stanford University in California or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — all prestigious schools where academic competition is fierce.
Other East Valley students in the class of 2006 share this aspiration. To document the work involved in reaching a top university, the Tribune will follow the lives of four of these students this academic year and provide updates as they pursue their goals.
The four teenagers boast similar credentials that are enough to make some people sick with envy: Straight A’s on every report card, rigorous schedules packed with college-level courses, club leadership positions, top test scores and regular volunteerism in the community.
They also get along with their parents.
And that’s just for starters. Muralidhar, for example, also earned a karate black belt in Febru- ary, a finalist award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May and one of 50 slots nationwide at the Research Science Institute this summer at MIT.
But don’t worry about all the hard work robbing these teens of a social life. Muralidhar’s family said that’s not a problem.
"He’s a party animal too," his mom said.
"Not a nerd," his dad added.
"And a ladies’ man," said Muralidhar’s 14-year-old sister, Anjali, who attends Corona del Sol with her brother. "He manages to squeeze in everything."
Name: Alex Blum
High school: Desert Mountain
Key facts: Honored in the 2005
Scottsdale Youth Salute; finished in top 10 percent in 2005 American
Alex Blum, a 17-year-old Scottsdale student, could have spent this summer idling by the pool.
Instead, he chose to spend eight weeks studying acting and science at Harvard University’s Secondary School Program, which allows high school students to take college classes with Harvard students and professors.
"It gives them something challenging to do during the summer and gives them college credit so they’re ahead when they enter college," Blum said.
Blum has maintained a 4.2 grade point average while attending the International Baccalaureate program at Desert Mountain High School. He also works an average of 18 hours a week as a Starbucks barista.
He hopes those grades, along with his involvement in student government and volunteer work at local hospitals, will help him gain entrance to Cornell University, Duke University or the University of Pennsylvania.
Blum dreams of doublemajoring in international relations and economics or business, and eventually becoming the president of a global charity such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Name: Jessica Guo
High school: Dobson
Key facts: Studied the Constitution this summer and plans to join
Dobson’s state championship
We the People team
Jessica Guo turns 16 this week and has big plans for her senior year at Mesa’s Dobson High School: Learn to drive, write for the school newspaper — and earn a scholarship to Columbia University or the University of Pennsylvania.
While Guo admits she’s known at school as having a nonexistent social life, she said that’s actually not the case. In fact, she still needs to catch up on the summer homework that comes with her advanced classes because she took time during her vacation to relax and have fun.
She also volunteered this summer with the youth programs at Mesa’s Lowell Elementary School.
"I’m viewed as not doing as much outside of school," she said. "My parents press upon me the importance of focusing right now, and getting everything ahead."
She seems to be doing OK.
She is ranked fourth in her class, scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT in May and spent the summer studying business statistics at Mesa Community College.
When her life becomes too stressful, Guo said ice skating usually melts away the pressure.
She also makes time to play violin in the Dobson orchestra, even though her grade point average drops every time she earns an A in the class because it is an unweighted elective. The same thing will happen with her journalism class.
"It seems kind of fake sometimes — the competition for best grades," she said. "But I think it also drives me to be more disciplined."
Name: Leslie Shen High school: Mesquite Residence: Gilbert Key facts: Lived in China until age 8; a founder of Mesquite’s Model United Nations club; volunteers at nursing home
Leslie Shen has a stack of college applications 18 inches thick in the study room at her Gilbert home. But only the letters from Ivy League schools have caught the eye of the 17-year-old Mesquite High School senior.
She holds a 4.7 grade point average, a 1560 SAT score on the old 1600 scale, and a No. 2 class ranking.
She has spent the past three years balancing her life among academics, extracurricular activities and volunteering. She spent the summer attending economic and political workshops and studying to retake the SAT.
She works hard because "it just comes natural."
"I take academics seriously because it is the foundation of your life," she said. "I can’t imagine wasting time and not putting all of your efforts out there."
She’s currently reading an autobiography of Richard Nixon, and she watches "Law & Order," listens to singer Josh Groban and talks "politics, school events and sometimes little things" with her friends.
She said her dreams motivate her. And one of those dreams is to receive a Harvard acceptance letter in the mail this year.
THE JOY OF MATH
Name: Vinayak Muralidhar High school: Corona del Sol Residence: Chandler Key facts: Skipped fourth grade; native language is Tamil; 2005 state champion in American Math Contest
Muralidhar, who turned 16 this summer during his MIT fellowship, said he feels withdrawal symptoms when he goes too long without math.
"Pure math is really what I love," he said. "Especially the kind with no practical application."
His summer research project, however, had a practical side. Muralidhar studied one-on-one with a Harvard University medical professor, and together they used computer science and math to solve biology problems related to the E. coli bacteria.
Muralidhar also rubbed shoulders with some of the smartest high school students in the nation. He said that’s his main motivation for returning to a school such as MIT or Harvard: To mingle with people who challenge him.
"I want to be surrounded by students who are more intelligent or at least as intelligent as me," he said.
His parents, Chitra Muralidhar and Murali Rajappa, immigrated separately from India and had an arranged marriage in the U.S. They said only the top students in India can go to college, and pressure to excel at school is part of the culture.
Still, Chitra Muralidhar said she sometimes scolds her son for working too hard.
"We ask him to slow down," she said. "But he won’t."