Jolie Kaplan ’20 of Greenwich has been named the Top Scholar for the Class of 2020 at The Gunnery, and the Top Scholar in the school for the 2019-20 academic year.
The dual honors cap a stellar three years for the 18-year-old Kaplan, who plans to major in math and data science at the University of Michigan this fall. A self-described “math nerd,” she said she was attracted by Michigan’s engineering program, which is among the top five in the U.S., as well as its research opportunities. Although she is not certain what the next decade or even the next year will bring, she is excited about the future. “There are so many possibilities. Right now everything feels limitless in a sense,” she said.
When Kaplan arrived at The Gunnery as a sophomore in the fall of 2017, she was following in the footsteps of two of her three older siblings, Rafe ’15 and Jessie ’13, as well as their father, David ’81, P’13 ’15 ’20, a former Trustee of the school. During the course of her three years, she was captain of the girls varsity soccer, played girls basketball and rowed girls varsity crew. She was a member of the school’s robotics team in 2019, and a member of the Model UN teams that participated in international conferences at Georgetown in 2018 and Harvard in 2019.
“I really loved that,” Kaplan said of her experience with Model UN. “I love meeting new people. I remember people on my committee were from all over the world. They were super open to talking about their countries’ political systems. It’s interesting to see how high schoolers attempt diplomacy.”
This year, Kaplan served as president of the Mathletes and co-leader of The Gray Party, a bipartisan student group that organized voter registration drives, hosted a forum on U.S. Immigration Policy at the Gunn Memorial Library, moderated a town forum and supported candidates in the race for the Board of Selectmen last fall. She was also a Gunnery tour guide for the last two years and served as head Residential Advisor in Emerson dorm junior year and Van Sinderen, the girls senior dorm, this year.
Asked what makes a top scholar, Kaplan said for her it came down to pursuing her interests and passions and figuring out what learning methods work best for her. “I think anyone has the potential. It’s really about hard work and what you’re willing to put in. It’s also a mixture of balancing activities, enjoying things outside the classroom, because school isn’t just academics,” she said.
“Jolie is a very persistent student. I think that’s one of her greatest attributes in the classroom: she doesn’t stop learning. She keeps probing until she’s content with an answer you give,” said Mathematics Department Chair Alisa Croft, who was Kaplan’s dorm parent in sophomore year, her soccer coach and her AP Calculus teacher for the past two years. “She also grew a lot as a student. In her time here, she grew to enjoy learning for the process and really got as much out of it as she could. It’s the difference between seeking perfection versus actually understanding.”
“Part of what made her the Top Scholar is that she works hard and she works effectively,” said Ed Small, the Anne S. and Ogden D. Miller Senior Master, who worked with Kaplan on the robotics team and as the faculty advisor for Mathletes. She was also a student in his Operations Research class. “In my class, everything is new. You can’t draw on previous memory to help you with the material. She’s an incredible learner. She’s all about the learning process. She doesn’t mind trying and failing.”
“She does a lot of reflection,” Small added, explaining, “Some kids get into a study routine and just keep on working that until it doesn’t work anymore. But they’re not making adjustments. Courses change, teachers change, and the level of difficulty changes but they go until it’s not working anymore and then they reflect. I think Jolie does a good job of reflecting often and changing course and making adjustments often. That was a very mindful approach, to get to know herself and be more self-aware, and that made her a better classmate, which made her a better student. It also allowed her to listen to constructive criticism and not respond negatively. She always took it on good faith.”
Currently, Kaplan is considering a hard science or engineering path, although she has not ruled out law, and politics remains an interest. Last summer, she completed an internship at the Cos Cob law office of Philip Russell, LLC, which specializes in criminal prosecution and plaintiff injury litigation. Her mother, Terri Stein, is an attorney. In the summer of 2018, Kaplan completed a summer program on cybersecurity at Pace University, where she took courses on “Drone Utilization” and the SeaPerch Robotics System. She also volunteered for State Representative Caroline Simmons’ reelection campaign. Simmons is the House Chair for the state Commerce Committee and previously worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Kaplan, who kept in touch with Simmons’ former campaign manager and is spending some time this summer making calls on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. She is also returning to Philip Russell.
Her advice to her classmates heading into the fall term is essentially to keep learning and stay engaged. “A lot of times kids take the passive voice on some issues when they don’t see how it directly affects them. My advice is that everyone has some sort of platform, and even if you’re not on a national stage, everyone has the opportunity to make a difference. The biggest thing is to get educated, learn the perspectives of the issues, search the statistics and find your own opinion, but also don’t be afraid to challenge those ideas and just question yourself, because at the end of the day, adults don’t know what the right answer is either.”
Kaplan draws inspiration from her grandfather, the Hon. Gary S. Stein, who served on the New Jersey State Supreme Court for more than 17 years and is involved in bringing a lawsuit to help reverse segregation in New Jersey’s public schools. “He’s still an advocate for justice. He’s always placed a huge emphasis on standing up for yourself. Even if no one agrees with him in the room, he will continue making the same case,” Kaplan said. “He’s always on the move and he manages to be a grandfather for 16 grandchildren and is able to balance all of that. I think that is really inspirational. I hope one day I will be working and I will love my job as much as he does.”