That all five winners of the 2012 Governor General’s Academic Medal are straight-A students is a given. The surprise is that the accomplishments of Jennifer Borchert, Jake McNair, Payton Prebushewski, Jeremy Woo and Katie Yakovleva also extend beyond the classroom.
Created in 1873 by Lord Dufferin, Canada’s third Governor General after Confederation, the Governor General’s Academic Medal is awarded to the top student at high schools across the country.
Fulton graduate Jennifer Borchert has just wrapped up her first year of general sciences at the University of Victoria. She said by taking pride in her school, she was able to take advantage of all it had to offer.
“There were many opportunities to take part in school activities,” she said. “I really enjoyed playing tennis, being a part of the leadership community and partaking in the Global Education program.
“I budgeted my time wisely and was very organized; I also had to recognize when I was feeling overwhelmed, and prioritize. Over the years, so many people have influenced my life, whether providing support or encouraging me to be my own person. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.”
The top overall student at Fulton from Grade 8 to 12, Borchert also received the service and citizenship award every year.
“In the senior year, she was the cornerstone of the leadership club,” said principal Malcolm Reid, adding that Borchert was also responsible for a walking trail along Vernon Creek and received the Trailmaker Award from the Ribbons of Green Society.
Borchert said academics have always been important to her and that she receives satisfaction from facing challenges and doing well, comparing it to the pleasure one gets from completing a difficult puzzle.
Although not sure where her future lies, Borchert is enjoying the process of exploring her interests while living in Victoria.
She encourages current secondary school students to simply make things happen.
“If you do the best that you can, doors will open,” she said. “It’s easy to let these doors close due to lack of time or patience, but if you push through you won’t regret it.”
Recently retired Vernon secondary school principal Morris Vardabasso said other students were in awe of Jake McNair, who has just completed his first year of a major in political sciences at the University of Toronto.
“He is extremely intelligent, was class valedictorian, involved in productions on stage and behind the scenes,” said Vardabasso. “He could take a minor role and make it a major role.”
McNair has always enjoyed finding new challenges in academics, learning more about them and doing well.
His fondest memories of VSS come from working on plays produced by the drama department.
“Working with the teachers who led us and with the older students in the plays inspired me to work harder and to learn how to be comfortable in front of large audiences,” he said.
McNair said he was influenced by many of his high school teachers, particularly in German, sociology, history, English, drama and math.
“They helped make classes much more enjoyable, because they knew how to be friends to their students as well as teachers,” he said. “Even if the subject we were discussing wasn’t what I found interesting, I still looked forward to their classes and worked hard to rise to their high expectations.”
McNair isn’t sure how he found the time to excel academically while also taking part in drama productions, but said having patience went a long way in his success.
“I had to learn to work through all the work that needed to be done,” he said.
McNair’s future plans include using his writing talents as a journalist, hopefully reporting on major news events in Canada and around the world. In high school, he made sure he took the courses he needed to succeed post-secondary, and advises current students to do the same.
“School doesn’t exist for you to have fun; it exists for you to learn. Everything else follows from that,” he said. “Take a broad range of courses right through to Grade 12, even if you don’t enjoy all of them, although you should certainly be trying to find what you do enjoy.
“Get your work done first, and then have some free time, not the other way around. You will have much more fun if you have somewhere to go after high school than if you waste your education now.”
Charles Bloom graduate Payton Prebushewski believes that everyone has their own niche in which they excel. For her, that niche was academics.
“Getting the best grades possible was always my main goal,” she said. “It always felt so rewarding when I would get an assignment back and had done really well on it, especially when I knew I had put a considerable amount of time into it.
“That good feeling was my motivation. When I started Grade 11, getting into post-secondary was my motivation.”
She said she has heard people say that having good grades, a social life and getting enough sleep are all possible in high school, but you only get to choose two.
“If I really wanted to do something extra-curricular, I made time for it, and I did whatever homework I had on my breaks or when I was at home. At the time, it didn’t seem like all that much of a challenge. Looking back, however, I was busy most days after school with leadership activities and really didn’t have all that much down time. Sometimes it was a lot to balance, but I wouldn’t have done it differently.”
Prebushewski credits her parents for their influence on her, calling them determined people who work hard to provide for her and her sister. Her parents have always been supportive, encouraging her to pursue her own interests.
“Many of my teachers over the years also had a large influence on me,” she said. “They were just all around great people. I wouldn’t be where I am today, or the person I am without all of these people.”
Principal Ken Gatzke said Prebushewski is one of those well-rounded students who excels in everything she does, from her study of humanities and sciences, to organizing most school events.
“We’re extremely proud of Payton. She did a great job at Charles Bloom and could not be a more worthy candidate,” he said. “She is a true academic leader in the classroom, and teachers indicated Payton was one of those special students you met in 10 years of teaching.”
When she looks back at high school, Prebushewski said it’s hard to choose just a few of her favourite memories, but student leadership is one of the highlights.
“Getting involved in school events and learning what it really takes to make high school the experience that it is was really cool,” she said.
Another highlight is her time on the school Frisbee team in Grades 11 and 12, where she enjoyed trips to Washington for tournaments.
“Overall, though, I have to say that my Grade 12 year is the best memory I have. All the fundraising and preparations for graduation really brought our class together.”
Having just finished up first-year engineering at the University of Calgary, Prebushewski’s goal is to become an architect, and is planning a move into urban planning studies next year.
She said her advice to students to not give up may sound like a cliché, but she knows how important grades are, especially to get into post-secondary programs.
“Even if you’re unsure about what career you want to pursue, do your best. That being said, have fun. Get involved in your school community and make the most of the experience — make as many memories as you can because after high school, life gets a little more serious, and you may not have the opportunity. In the end, all we really have is our memories.”
Kalamalka principal Don Balcombe said he tried to get Jeremy Woo to occasionally say no when asked to do something.
“He did absolutely everything in school under the sun,” said Balcombe. “He is part of our Kal family — he was everywhere.”
Woo has just wrapped up his first year of studies at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. The aviation industry beckons in the future, but his immediate goal is to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
“I’m not sure what form that will take, but I would like to make just one person’s life a little better” he said. “I have been given all of the opportunities in the world, and it is only fair that I give back to the world that has given me so much. I wish to see that everyone has the same, wonderful opportunities that I have had in my life.”
Throughout high school, academics were Woo’s number-one priority, while at the same time not focusing strictly on grades.
“Rather, trying my very best to succeed in whatever I do is my unrelenting focus, and I largely attribute that to my parents,” he said. “If I am going to do something, I might as well do my very best, because I want to be proud of what I have tried, what I have accomplished.”
Woo’s motivation in his last few years of high school has been his family. His grandparents came to Canada from China with nothing and managed to create something special for the next generations. Similarly, he said, his parents have given all of their resources and time to their children.
“My entire family has always offered their unwavering support. That has allowed me to accomplish more than I could have imagined.”
Some of Woo’s favourite moments at Kal took place in the school’s theatre, he said, calling his experiences at the Apple Box Theatre “life lessons.”
Outside of school, he counts his time spent at the Vernon Curling Club as his favourite. Whether helping to organize a bonspiel, vacuuming the floor, socializing upstairs or curling with friends, cherished memories were created at the club.
In addition to his family and members of the community, Woo gives thanks to his teachers.
“All of my teachers have had a lasting impact on my life. However, three names come to mind: Susan Gouchée, Mary Niedballa and Shon Thomas. These teachers taught me valuable life skills, always had time to listen and talk meaningfully, and inspired me to achieve.”
Woo’s advice to students still in school? Find that one thing in your life that gets you up in the morning, makes you happier than anything and would be a tragedy to lose.
“Maybe it’s a person, maybe it’s a hobby, maybe it’s an academic pursuit or an interest. For me, that one thing is people. That passion will keep you going.”
Seaton grad Katie Yakovleva is one of those students who is not happy with an assignment unless she has put her best effort into it.
“I grew up in a family that really valued hard work and good grades, and so those values got passed onto me,” she said. “My success also became my motivation. Once you know what you’re capable of, it’s hard to lower the standards for yourself.”
Seaton principal Mike Bell said through all of her success, Yakovleva never wanted recognition for herself.
“She spent countless hours looking for a way of helping others,” he said.
When she looks back on her time at Seaton, it’s not the major events she recalls, but the smaller, day-to-day moments spent with friends, laughing.
“Memories like that are what really make me smile,” she said.
Taking part in all of the activities that interested her, as well as excelling academically, took some time management, but Yakovleva said sticking to her priorities, and occasionally cutting a few things out, allowed her to do as much as she could.
“Grade 12 was probably the craziest year of all, but I think what helped was having rest and fun things to look forward to.”
Yakovleva has just finished her first year as an English major at UVic and is glad she took the time to look at post-secondary requirements a few years before graduation to make sure she had the courses she needed.
“Don’t go into a certain post-secondary program just because you think you have to,” she said. “I felt almost obligated to get a science degree, or go into something like medicine, because a lot of people expected it of me. But I don’t think I would be very happy doing that now.
“Some people still look at me funny when I tell them I want to major in English, and that’s OK. The people who know me best aren’t surprised. My interests in most other subjects have changed throughout the years, but my love of reading and writing never has.”
While grades are important, Yakovleva said it’s the learning that is just as crucial.
“And don’t stress about the future. I know it doesn’t feel like you have a lot of time to make a decision, but you actually do,” she said. “Many people I graduated with — myself included —had no idea what they wanted to do after high school. Some of us are gradually figuring it out. Anyway, life works out.
“Enjoy high school. Before you know it, you’ll be wondering where the last five years went and how it is you’re not in high school anymore. So make great memories, laugh, and have fun!”