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Sterling Heights

UCS high schoolers among National Merit semifinalists

Published September 25, 2013

STERLING HEIGHTS — A high school marker of meritocracy is welcoming several Utica Community Schools students into its ranks.

According to the school district, the five UCS students recently qualified to become National Merit Scholarship semifinalists.

Three of the local five semifinalists came from the Utica Academy for International Studies, according to the district; those students are Danny Haidar, Michelle Petersen and Kathleen Surhigh. A fourth semifinalist, Hannah Decker, attends Utica High School and the Utica Center for Science and Industry. Lastly, Shelby Imboden attends Henry Ford II High School and the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology.

In order to achieve the honor, the students had to rank within the top 1 percent or so among an estimated 1.5 million American high schoolers on the Preliminary SAT, also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Within the U.S., around 16,000 students became semifinalists this year.

Petersen, 17, called the semifinalist title a huge honor.

“It was kind of a shock at first because I really didn’t see it coming,” she said. “But it was really exciting.”

Petersen said she didn’t take any particular course that prepared her to score a 219 on the PSAT. Instead, she acquired her test-taking skills over many years of preparation.

Petersen, a senior, said she is applying to Brown, Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities, as well as smaller schools like Kalamazoo College and the College of Wooster. She said her career aspirations are still in flux at this point.

“The things that stay consistent is something with communications and working directly with people,” she said.

Thomas Lietz, head of the Utica Academy for International Studies, said most semifinalists become finalists after they go through a process that includes taking the SAT standardized exam and getting nominated by the school.

“Once you become a semifinalist, literally 80 to 90 percent of those kids move on to finalist status,” he said. “Getting the semifinalist nod is really where it becomes pretty impressive.”

According to the National Merit Scholarship Program, many finalists will receive a basic $2,500 scholarship or other corporate- or college-sponsored scholarships in 2014.

Imboden said her PSAT score was 207.

“I was just kind of not expecting that,” she said. “I know that I had done very well on the test, but I didn’t know I had done that good.”

Imboden, a 16-year-old senior, said she hopes to soon apply to the University of Michigan or Georgia Institute of Technology to pursue a biomedical engineering career.

She credited her Advanced Placement classes at the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology with giving her the skills to excel on the standardized tests.

“Right now, I’m taking AP BC calculus, and I’m taking AP physics, AP biology and AP chemistry,” she said.

Learn more about the Utica Community Schools at or by calling (586) 797-1000.

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