Engineering careers beckon Nation Ford’s top scholars

dthackham@fortmilltimes.comJune 6, 2013 

— Whether the fascination came from a middle-school job shadow experience or a passion to go where faith leads, two Nation Ford seniors will graduate Friday with their hearts fixed on becoming engineers.

For Caitlin Smith, the school’s valedictorian, that path will lead to Clemson University at the Calhoun Honors College, where she hopes to emulate the success of her father, Gary, the regional chief engineer at Childress Klein Properties in Charlotte. Smith took a day off school to watch her dad work while she was in middle school and was inspired.

“Seeing him work was really helpful for me because I figured out whether I liked this side or that [of engineering],” she said. “It all revolves around problem solving. I want to create things to fix problems.”

Smith, who has a younger sister, Rachael, in her sophomore year at Nation Ford, says her dad never needed to motivate Caitlin to become the best in the school, as long as she did the best she could do.

“I’ve always wanted to be valedictorian, though,” she said. “I think I’ve always been naturally motivated. Being my best means being the best for all four years.”

When Smith rises to give her valedictorian speech, she pictures that it will be a “great feeling,” in which the hard work of four years will have been paid off. Although she says it was hard to appreciate when her teachers pushed her harder to succeed, it was nevertheless essential to her valedictorian status. She says she wants the younger generations of Falcons, including Rachael, to take advantage of her school’s demanding coursework.

“You have to challenge yourself,” she said. “Take the [Advanced Placement] classes, because while it’s hard, it pays off and pushing yourself makes life a lot easier.”

Salutatorian: USC is “where God was telling me to be”

Confessing that he felt his religious faith was often challenged in his high school years, Nation Ford salutatorian Stephen Zoeller is setting his sights on matching his academic excellence at the University of South Carolina this fall – for “God’s glory.”

Zoeller’s high school career was highlighted by leadership positions on the tennis team and marching band, but he says the opportunities would lead to criticism.

“People give you a hard time,” he said. “They call you names, leave you out of things. You were put under a microscope and they analyze anything you do. If you make a mistake, it’s amplified.”

After moving to Fort Mill in 1999, Zoeller confesses he had a hard time “fitting in socially” after leaving his friends behind in his native Fort Worth, Texas, at the age of 8. Luckily enough, his innate ability to excel in school would earn him respect and a sense of normalcy. By the time he came to Nation Ford High, his dedication in the classroom was matched only by his enthusiasm outside of assignments. Zoeller needed an outlet for his energy and work ethic. He’d find it in tennis and marching band.

In his senior year, he was an undefeated 12-0 in region play while co-leading the tuba section of the Falcon marching band.

“It was long practice and grueling stuff, but to see the end product was rewarding,” he said, “to known I had some impact on somebody, and to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

If fortune finds its way to Zoeller, he’ll be working with something much, much bigger than himself as he hopes to study aerospace engineering at the Honors College in USC. He describes the fascination as a culmination of what he’s always enjoyed in math and science. The dean of the college, according to Zoeller, has already given the aspiring Gamecock much to think about over the summer.

“On my second visit, we took a tour around and visited the engineering school,” Zoeller said. “The dean had some really insightful ideas and I could definitely see myself being there. I could feel in my hear that it was where God was telling me to be.”

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