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Presidential Scholars Discover a Home at Montclair State

Financial support, meaningful experiences and an integrated community are attracting New Jersey’s high-achieving students

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Carla Ko and Robert Onoz

When Carla Ko graduated from James Caldwell High School with a perfect 4.0 GPA, her high school achievements earned her a $20,000 scholarship and academic advantages as a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Scholars at Montclair State University.

“It’s the main reason I decided to study here,” says Ko, an accounting major. “It’s exciting to be part of a brand-new program, this community of students who strive for success and love a good challenge.”

Representing just over 10 percent of the freshmen class, the Presidential Scholars have formed a small cohort who are getting to know each other through shared coursework in specialized learning communities.

For Robert Onoz, the select group’s reading of a common book, the Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History has been especially meaningful. As a chemistry major and future science teacher, Onoz was drawn to the theme of man-made climate change destroying our planet’s ecosystem, a compelling message made all the more powerful by the discussion on campus with the author, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

“It was a wonderful complement to our work that the students also had the opportunity to meet with the author of the book at a campus presentation,” says Scott Kight, an associate dean in the College of Science and Mathematics. Kight is teaching a Presidential Scholars new-student seminar, and is among the faculty who also found connections with the reading. Kight’s own research, for instance, aligns with the impact of humans on wildlife in New Jersey.

This spring, the Presidential Scholars will study race, ethnicity and media. Next year, they will begin work with faculty within their respective majors to develop research and specialized projects, says Allyson Straker-Banks, associate vice president for student academic services, Student Development and Campus Life.

“The program has a good sense, a good balance, of what it wants to give students and what the program wants the students to give back,” Onoz says.

A year ago, Onoz was weighing acceptances from eight different colleges and universities when he received the special scholarship letter from Montclair State to be part of this first class dedicated to Presidential Scholars.

From his hometown of Ridgefield, his commute to a private high school in Jersey City took him past the New York City skyline, a view he’s long loved. Visiting the campus, he was attracted to the modern academic buildings, Montclair State’s high reputation for teacher preparation and science research – and being just 12 miles from the city, the iconic NYC skyline that highlights the campus landscape. “Seeing it every day, it still impresses,” he says.

By providing academic, cultural, research-driven and career-focused programs and activities, Montclair State is offering an unmatched opportunity to take the college experiences for these highly motivated students to the next level.

“Presidential Scholars are highly diverse and among New Jersey’s most ambitious and determined young people who are looking to explore opportunities and gain every possible advantage,” says Jeffrey Gant, director of Undergraduate Admissions. “This program encourages them to establish themselves as the next generation of leaders and professionals.”

Staying in New Jersey was important to Karsen Griffin, an exercise science major who graduated fifth in her class from Teaneck High School with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Deciding to attend Montclair State, she says, “I just felt that I would never be able to get that diversity, differing opinions and exposure to the real world anywhere else.”

When applying for admission to Montclair State, no separate application is required for the Presidential Scholars program. The review by Undergraduate Admissions considers high school GPA (at least 3.5 on an unweighted 4.0 scale), the rigor of academic coursework, standardized test scores if submitted and other information already included in applications for admission.

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