Meet the 2018 Academic All-Star finalists

Every year since 1997, the Journal-World has invited administrators and counselors from public and private high schools in the Lawrence area to nominate their most outstanding seniors for the Journal-World’s Academic All-Star team.

As in previous years, applications for the award — and $500 scholarship — were reviewed by a panel of three judges. The top ten All-Stars are chosen based on their strong academics, extracurricular involvement and essays. The honor is meant to recognize the most promising high school seniors from Lawrence High School all the way east to Tonganoxie and De Soto.

This year’s All-Stars boast some pretty varied career aspirations. We’ve got quite a few aspiring scientists and engineers in the bunch, along with students interested in medicine, business, sports management and academia. Each represents the best and brightest in their respective high school class.

Read on for a look at the 2018 Academic All-Star team’s accomplishments thus far — and what they plan to do next.

Brenna Spurling

School: Perry-Lecompton High School

Parents: Kresten and Jill Spurling

Before volunteering at the University of Kansas recently, Brenna Spurling’s world was fairly small. As the Perry teenager put it in her All-Star application essay, “I come from a small town where sometimes diversity can be lost.”

Spurling found it at the KU student health center, where she helped usher international students through the “seemingly endless” health screening required as part of their orientation. Looking back on the experience, Spurling remembers how much she loved “seeing the look of pride on their faces” when she officially welcomed them to KU.

Working in this environment, Spurling said, changed her for the better.

“These people were so happy to be at KU that nothing else seemed to matter. It made me realize that I want that,” Spurling wrote in her application essay. “I want to be so happy about something that everything else disappears.”

Spurling, who has served as class president each of her four years in high school, also participates in the National Honor Society and Scholars Bowl. Outside of school, she’s involved with her church and 4-H club.

Growing up, Spurling loved science. She still does, though she’s interested more in the problem-solving challenges these days than the “explosions and flashy experiments” she was drawn to as a little kid.

Spurling hasn’t settled on a major as of press time, though she expects it’ll likely be something science-related.

“I want to discover something or improve something that changes our world for the better,” Spurling wrote. “Maybe it’s discovering an answer to the water purification problem in underdeveloped countries. Maybe it’s discovering how to effectively produce functioning human organs using 3D printers. I’m not sure what I was meant to do, but I like to think it’s something great.”

Emily Hull

School: Eudora High School

Parents: Jeffrey and Dawn Hull

Like many on this year’s Academic All-Stars team, Emily Hull likes to stay busy.

The multitalented Eudora senior excels in academics, maintaining straight As throughout her high school career and earning membership in the National Honor Society three years in a row. She’s also served as captain of her school’s Scholar’s Bowl team since her freshman year — lettering and also earning a spot on the 2018 state team — in addition to standout performances in Battle of the Brains and Science Olympiad competitions.

But make no mistake — this girl has both brains and brawn. Hull holds a third-degree black belt in mixed martial arts, and, through Lawrence’s Premier Martial Arts, has served as an assistant instructor at self-defense workshops geared toward women and children. She remains active in her community as an annual Harvesters food drive assistant and volunteer for various fundraising events, 5K races and service projects.

In her All-Star application essay, Hull said the most meaningful people in her life are the ones she sees most every day.

“I have friends who make my high school days happier and less stressful, family who love me and take care of me, coworkers who make my job so much more fun, and teachers who inspire me to be the best that I can be,” Hull wrote. “All of these people make a positive influence on my life and have shaped me to be the person I am today.”

Hull plans to attend the University of Kansas, where she has already been accepted into the business school’s Honors Program and Business Leadership Program. Hull will major in business analytics and Spanish, with a minor in psychology.

Emma Wilson

School: Veritas Christian School

Parents: Paul and Angela Wilson

You could say Emma Wilson has a bit of a competitive streak in her personality. Staying active has always been important in her life, Wilson wrote in her All-Star application essay.

For reference, check out her resume. In her time at Veritas, Wilson has lettered in basketball twice and lettered in volleyball four years in a row, serving as team captain on the varsity volleyball team since her freshman year. She sings in the school choir, too, and also served as her class representative on the student council.

Even Wilson’s sonnets and poems have scored superior rankings at creative writing contests.

“I am a very active person and love to compete, but throughout being a part of many teams and groups, school has always been one of my top priorities,” Wilson said. “I am very organized, so balancing schoolwork and activities has never been a problem.”


Somehow, Wilson also makes time for volunteer and missionary work. She’s worked at her church’s vacation bible school during summers, helped out in kindergarten classrooms and performed community service locally through the Christian-based Oread Center. She’s also tutored children in inner-city St. Louis through a mission trip, and plans to travel to Costa Rica on another mission trip this summer.

Next up in her academic adventure: Kansas State University, where Wilson plans to major in kinesiology with an emphasis on pre-medicine. She hopes to later attend medical school and settle on a career within the medical field.

Ethan Perrins

School: Free State High School

Parents: Erik and Kristi Perrins

In Ethan Perrins’ young life, there have been more than a few stand-out moments. But one might just eclipse the others. For Perrins, that moment — or string of moments — stemmed from the eighth grade, when he won his school spelling bee.

That victory led to another, at the Douglas County Spelling Bee, and another, at the regional spelling bee, where Perrins competed against kids from across Kansas, including a few former national competitors, to clinch the title. His hard work had paid off — winning the state contest meant Perrins would go on to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

“As I exited the stage, the sponsors handed me a very large and very heavy copy of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary and said, ‘This is your study list,'” Perrins recalled in his All-Star application essay. “It was a daunting reality that I could be asked to spell any word in that massive book. I began learning Greek and Latin roots. I studied words’ prefixes and suffixes.”

Though he didn’t win, Perrins now describes that experience as “marvelous.” He ended up placing 47th out of 281 competitors — kids, like him, “who were serious about the pursuit of learning.”

By the looks of his All-Star application, Perrins seems to have some pretty wide-ranging interests, from competing on the Free State swimming and diving team to playing cello in the orchestra. He’s also a long-time Boy Scout, a National Honor Society member and a leader in his church’s youth group.

In the fall, Perrins will head off to Brigham Young University, where he plans to study electrical engineering. He hopes to pursue graduate studies and eventually become a college professor.

Jackson Hoy

School: Lawrence High School

Parents: Matthew and Heather Hoy

After years of excelling on his school’s track and cross country teams, Jackson Hoy feels more than ready to channel his interests into a career in sports.

But his long-term goal isn’t superstardom as an athlete. Instead, Hoy dreams of working behind the scenes for the NBA.

“I first became interested in being a sports executive when, as a kid, I would play “franchise mode” on sports video games,” Hoy wrote in his All-Star application essay. “I loved the challenge of shaping a roster to succeed year-over-year. As I have grown older, I have realized that through pursuing a career in sports management I can combine my academic interests with my passion for sports decision-making.”

Hoy clearly enjoys numbers. He’s a National Merit Finalist, an AP Scholar with Distinction, a U.S. Presidential Scholar nominee and a member of the National Honor Society, among other academic achievements. But he’s also creatively inclined, too.

For more than a year now, Hoy has co-hosted the “Hardwood Homies” NBA draft podcast, which has ranked as high as No. 50 on the iTunes pro-sports podcast chart. He’s also seen articles published on the popular NBA draft blog The Sepien, in addition to serving as co-copy chief in his school’s journalism program.

Lately, Hoy has turned his efforts toward scouting college prospects “in order to hone” the skills he’ll need for an NBA management job, also studying data analytics with the goal of creating predictive models for prospects.

Hoy hadn’t decided on a college when he submitted his All-Star application, though at the time he’d already been admitted to several. Pending acceptance, his top choices are Harvard University, Vanderbilt University or Stanford University.

Lina Altahhan

School: De Soto High School

Parents: Ahmed Altahhan and Nadia Eloubiady

Growing up, Lina Altahhan heard stories from her mother’s life before she left the war-torn Middle East for the United States.

“From seemingly endless wars to imposing dictatorships,” Altahhan’s mom, Nadia Eloubiady, somehow held onto her dream of becoming an engineer despite a childhood that seemed undeniably “harsh and bleak,” Altahhan wrote in her All-Star application essay.

Back in Iraq, Eloubiady took the test that all students do upon entering college, Altahhan wrote. Despite her hard work, Eloubiady was just a few points shy of qualifying for her university’s engineering program. Her dreams were shot, though she eventually became a microbiologist instead, Altahhan said.

“From my mother, I’ve learned that being able to choose your future in a safe environment is a freedom that I am lucky to have,” Altahhan wrote in her essay. “She has shown an immense amount of strength throughout her life, as she was able to leave a country under a dictator’s regime, and she built a life here for her children.”

Throughout her life, Altahhan said, her mother has always encouraged her to “dream big.” And, though she’s not following in her mom’s microbiology footsteps, Altahhan said she’s developed an appreciation for the privilege of being able to truly choose one’s career, as she has.

That’s why the ambitious De Soto teen plans to enter the medical field someday, she says. Altahhan, a Scholars Bowl and Science Olympiad whiz who also enjoys performing in her school’s band and theatrical productions, hopes to eventually use her talents and interests to serve others as a doctor, she says.

After graduation, Altahhan plans to study anthropology and biology at the University of Kansas on the pre-med track. Her ultimate goal is to work as a pediatrician.

Maria Ruiz Dominguez

School: Bishop Seabury Academy

Parents: Catalina Dominguez Munoz and Francisco Javier Ruiz Marin

Maria Ruiz Dominguez remembers the most important day in her life clearly — it was two years ago, in the winter of 2016, that Ruiz Dominguez learned that she’d won a scholarship to study abroad in the U.S.

It was the “first step” toward the Spanish teen’s lifelong dream of traveling the world and exploring different languages and cultures.

“That January 28th was the most important day of my life because that was when I realized I could actually follow my dreams and that, with a lot of effort, I would be able to make a difference,” Ruiz Dominguez wrote in her All-Star application essay.

Now a senior at Bishop Seabury Academy, Ruiz Dominguez has excelled academically as well as in extracurricular pursuits. Her many activities include serving as captain of her school’s soccer and basketball teams, competing on the power lifting team and managing the JV and varsity volleyball teams. A lover of travel and languages, she’s also fluent in Spanish, English and French, and is learning Portuguese and Italian.

Eventually, Ruiz Dominguez said, she’d like to speak “eight or nine” languages, branching out into the Middle East and other Asian regions.

Ruiz Dominguez plans to attend the Polytechnic University of Madrid in her native Spain, where she will major in aerospace engineering. She hopes to study abroad while eventually earning advanced degrees, with the goal of one day doing research and designing aircraft at an aerospace company.

Her dream job? “Working for NASA with the team that will send people to Mars in the 2030s,” Ruiz Dominguez said.

Paxton Brittingham

School: Veritas Christian School

Parents: Ryan and Kellie Brittingham

Paxton Brittingham has always had a mind for business, ever since she was a little girl.

“Whether selling lemonade and cookies at age 8, or starting my own bakery business when I was 10, I was always on track to become an entrepreneur,” Brittingham wrote in her All-Star application essay.

Now, on the verge of graduating high school, the multitalented teen is even closer to accomplishing her goals. Five years ago, Brittingham began selling her hand-designed works on paper under the company name PBritt Designs. She’s also parlayed her talents for business and creative pursuits into the children’s art camps she organizes and hosts each summer at her Eudora home.

At school, Brittingham keeps busy with volleyball, choir, yearbook and student council, in addition to her business ventures and volunteer work.

The Veritas senior plans to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she’ll major in business administration and minor in printmaking. She hopes to eventually expand PBritt Designs into a store and community-based business.

“I have a desire to create art that will impact my community, and this has greatly (affected) who I am as a person, as an artist, and as an entrepreneur,” Brittingham wrote in her application essay. “I am very excited to see where my plans for this business will lead me in the future, and I know that my desire to impact my community in a positive way will drive me to accomplish my goals.”

Phillip Pyle

School: Eudora High School

Parents: Joseph and Andrea Pyle

Nearly losing his best friend to depression marked a turning point in Phillip Pyle’s young life.

Pyle, then a junior at Eudora High School, struggled through initial stages of shock and disbelief after realizing his closest friend had tried to take his own life. And then, he felt “discouraged,” he said, by the realization that a person he cared for so much could feel so “completely alone and without options.”

“In order to build a positive support system for him, I decided that I needed to unite my friends and reduce sadness in the school,” Pyle wrote in his All-Star application essay.

Throughout the ordeal, Pyle learned not to take life and loved ones for granted, he said, and promised himself “that compassion would be an overarching aspect of my personality.”

Perhaps the most positive outcome of the near-tragedy, Pyle wrote, is the dialogue it has created at his school about mental illness.

“In the hope of creating a healthier student body and preventing mental illnesses,” Pyle worked with teachers, students and administrators to establish a mental health committee at Eudora High. He doesn’t want anyone to feel the way his friend did — hopeless and alone — on that spring day in 2017, he said.

Pyle hopes to make caring for others his life’s work. He plans to major in biomedical engineering and/or political science, minoring in Arabic, at the college of his choice — he’s already been admitted to the University of Virginia, and as of press time was still awaiting decisions from several other schools — and ultimately attend medical school and become an oncologist.

After medical school, Pyle said, he might consider working in Middle Eastern countries for Doctors Without Borders.


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