National Merit Scholars: Local high school winners display diverse interests and talents

Every year, a few graduating high school seniors are honored for both their academic and leadership abilities and are awarded National Merit Scholarships.

Here’s a look at the five recipients from the Lowcountry:

Diego Farias, a National Merit Scholar from Wando High School, came to America in the eighth grade, having difficulty following conversations in English.

Now he’s heading for Duke University on a full scholarship that includes tuition and all other expenses, such as studying abroad.

“I’m extremely excited about that,” he said. “That made my college decision so much easier.”

Diego will be attending Duke on a Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Scholarship, which covers full tuition, room, board and mandatory fees for eight semesters at Duke University.

The prestigious award was given to 14 students from North and South Carolina who have a demonstrated potential for leadership and an affinity for community service, in addition to high academic achievement, according to an announcement the school sent out last week.

The scholarship also includes service and leadership development activities and two summer programs, one in the Carolinas and one abroad, during the recipients’ undergraduate careers at Duke.

The scholarships were established by The Duke Endowment to honor Benjamin Newton Duke, one of the founders of the university.

Diego will major in biomedical engineering and probably have a second major in chemistry. He plans to focus on chemical engineering in graduate school.

“Chemical engineering is one of the more profitable career paths right now,” he said. “There is a lot of research going on.”

He grew up in Chile and lived in Argentina for two years before his family moved to Mount Pleasant.

“I had fairly solid English, but it still wasn’t the best,” said Diego, whose accent is barely discernible now. “When I came here, I could understand people, but speaking it is so much more difficult when you depend on it.”

His father, Gabriel Farias, is a manager for a financial software company. His mother, Yanett Canepa, is a former teacher.

He has two brothers, Emiliano, a 10th-grader at Wando, and Clemente, a fifth-grader at Pinckney Elementary School.

Diego is on the school’s math competition team and the Quiz Bowl team. He’s vice president of the local chapter of the National Honor Society and the Beta Club. In his spare time, he loves watching soccer games.

He also finds time to help others. He mentored a freshman from Argentina who was having trouble in school since he couldn’t speak English well.

Diego is one of five local seniors who were chosen for National Merit Scholarships this month. The $2,500 awards started with high test scores but also were based on leadership in school and community activities.

You might call Savannah McHale deadly smart.

The Academic Magnet High School senior is a National Merit Scholarship winner, and her favorite hobby is shooting her Glock 17.

She’s also an accomplished dancer, so add gracefulness to the mix.

Savannah, who lives in Mount Pleasant and attends school in North Charleston, started a club called the Palmetto Steel Stingers to compete in handgun contests. Participants are judged on speed and accuracy shooting at five targets.

“My dad taught me to shoot when I was 9,” she said. “My whole family does it. It’s fun.”

Her father, Thomas McHale, markets health care software. Her mother, Larissa McHale, leads Bible Study Fellowship, which trains teachers. Her older brother, Alex, is a freshman at Clemson.

Savannah is on the school dance team and performs at Seacoast Community Church. She competed in Irish dancing for about 10 years when she was younger.

She will attend Clemson’s Honors College on a Palmetto Fellows Scholarship, a program that was set up “to recognize the most academically talented high school seniors and encourage these students to attend college in the state,” according to the website. She plans to major in architecture.

“It’s a good mix between my artistic inclinations and math abilities,” she said. “It’s a good technical and creative combination.”

Savannah has spent summers working with underprivileged children in North Charleston.

When Shira Cohen, another National Merit Scholar, was finishing up the eighth grade at Ashley Hall School, she was horrified as she watched lockers being emptied for the summer.

Students were throwing away supplies still in their shrink wrap, simply because they didn’t want to carry them home. She had never seen anything like that at Addlestone Hebrew Academy, where she attended her first seven years.

“(It) was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” said Cohen, now a graduating senior. “I was upset by the way that people handled it.”

So the next year she started Project Fresh Start and set out collection boxes. Now unused supplies piled up in lockers go to graduating fifth-graders at Mary Ford Elementary School. The program will continue after Cohen goes to Princeton University next year. The National English Honor Society, of which she is president, has made Project Fresh Start a permanent service project.

Among Cohen’s many other activities, she’s editor of the school’s literary magazine, Acanthus, a captain on the school’s swim team and tutors students at Mitchell Elementary School.

Her parents are Jody and Jeffrey Cohen of West Ashley.

David Rieder of Porter-Gaud School, another National Merit Scholar, is also a swimmer. But he takes the sport to another level.

“Passion is a word that has been used,” he said.

He calls himself “The Swim Geek” on his Facebook page and blog, which is devoted to swimming. He regularly writes for Swimming World’s website. It was the magazine that labeled him The Swim Geek a couple years ago, and he says the label fits.

His counselor agrees. “He’s a true aficionado of the sport,” college counseling director Karen Kimberly said in her letter of recommendation for the scholarship. “He knows statistics, history and all kinds of miscellaneous facts about swimming, including specifics of past Olympians, records broken, current superstars and future phenoms.”

David will be going to Duke University next year. He hasn’t decided on a major.

The school has a varsity swim team, but he says he’s more suited to the club team.

“I’m not that fast,” he said. Besides his rigorous studies, swimming and blogging about the sport, he also crams his mind with more facts and knowledge to compete on the school’s Quiz Bowl team.

He also finds time for community service. He volunteered with the Miracle League, helping disabled children hit baseballs and round the bases.

He’s a son of Dr. Jeffrey Rieder and Susan Nessbaum Rieder of West Ashley. He has two younger brothers, both at Porter-Gaud, Michael in the 10th grade and Brian in the sixth grade.

David has been at Porter-Gaud since the first grade.

Krista Wunsche of Ravenel, a National Merit Scholar who attends the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, has raised a cow, dabbled in ham radio, mastered two instruments and studied in Germany.

“She’s got so many interests, it’s hard to say what she will end up doing,” said her mother, Nancy Simpson, who teaches psychology at Trident Technical College.

Her father, Werner Wunsche, is an engineer at Bosch.

Krista will attend Clemson next year as an engineering major. The school is offering her a full scholarship.

Krista spent her first two years of high school at Ashley Ridge. The Governor’s School is a residential campus for juniors and seniors in Hartsville.

Last summer, Krista was picked to be a research scholar for five weeks at the University of Heidelberg at the German Cancer Research Center.

“I only wish I spoke better German,” she said.

She plays the cello in the school jazz band. She played the oboe when she was a student at Rollings Middle School of the Arts in Summerville.

She runs cross country and is on the school soccer team.

She was in a ham radio club her freshman year at Ashley Ridge. She was also a Girl Scout at Ashley Ridge, winning the Silver Award, the organization’s second highest achievement.

She’s vice president of her chapter of the National Honor Society, which regularly does community-service projects. For instance, members recently lined up students to sing and play at a coffee shop in Hartsville to raise money for the Heifer Project, which donates money so people in developing countries can buy a cow.

She raised a cow herself through a 4-H program when she lived at home.

She’s on student council and the Mock Trial team, which competes in courtroom scenarios.

She has a brother, Max, a student at Ashley Ridge.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.