Yolanda Wang ’21 of Tenafly, New Jersey, was named the Top Scholar for the Class of 2021 at Commencement on May 30. This was the second consecutive year she earned Top Scholar honors in her class. The achievement was one of many for the 18-year-old Wang, who was also the Top Scholar in the school for the 2020-21 academic year, and plans to study information science and minor in music at Cornell University this fall.
Arriving at The Frederick Gunn School as a sophomore, Wang seized the opportunity to explore new interests, such as music and cross country, and excelled academically, but said her greatest accomplishment was gaining a better understanding of herself.
“I really appreciate how the process helped me to look inside myself and understand what I need for the future,” Wang said. “There are a lot of possibilities in my life, and I don’t need to restrict myself. I was deeply involved in the Asian Student Association (ASA). I’m a STEM student. I also tried to be a leader at The Frederick Gunn School. I have a more concrete understanding of what leadership is. It’s not that, ‘I’m superior to you.’ Leadership is more about cooperating with each other and knowing how to think from others’ perspectives.”
Wang pointed to Steven Bailey P'09, who was her teacher all three years and her advisor, as having the greatest influence on her. “We had a lot of chances to talk and to communicate about philosophies. I was very inspired by his life story,” which took Bailey from a career as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy to working an engineer for NASA before coming to FGS in 2006.
“He was first a programmer, very involved in computer science and math, and then later he switched to marine engineering and also enjoyed that, and now he’s a physics teacher. I was very inspired by his life process, and doing his best in every job and every activity. I also see I’m smiling and laughing a lot. I learned that from Mr. Bailey. I was pretty reserved in expressing myself and talking to people,” said Wang, who hopes to continue emulating his passion for physics and for life.
“We have a similar temperament,” Bailey said. “We’ve had a lot of surface and very deep conversations about changing careers. We’re good sounding boards to each other, so we just had good synergy that way. She’s a great student, all around, with great thoughts no matter what the topic is – philosophy, science, math, food, music.”
In senior year, Bailey supported her decision to complete AP Physics C as an Independent Study Project after no other students had signed up for the class. While she could have taken AP Physics 2 with her peers, after talking with Bailey, she determined that AP Physics C, which focuses on mechanics and electricity/magnetism, would be a better fit for her interest in engineering. Committing to taking the course on her own was a difficult decision, but it also gave her the opportunity to study independently, practice her time-management skills, and focus on what she loved. “After I made that decision, Mr. Bailey supported me a lot in that process, helping to gather resources for me and answering my questions and finding out how I needed to learn the materials in the best possible way.”
Bailey noted that AP Physics C requires students to take two AP exams, one in mechanics and the second in electricity and magnetism, and sometimes those are taught as two separate courses. “She did it in one and got 5s on both exams. That’s the top score you can get, and there weren’t many people who got 5s on both,” he said. “She’s the kind of dynamic person that you give her something to do and she does it. Very independent.”
Beyond the classroom, Wang had several opportunities to challenge herself and develop new interests. Although she had not taken voice lessons before, she joined Vocal Ensemble and by senior year, was selected to perform in the National Association for Music Education’s 2020 All-National Honors Choir. She credited Ron Castonguay, Music Director and Director of the Arts, with encouraging her to audition for the national ensemble – and helping her to prepare for it. At first the idea of being selected as one of the top vocalists in the country seemed “impossible,” she said, but she added: “He was not only reassuring me with words saying, ‘You can do it,’ he was also teaching me and proving I have good intonation. Because of his advice, I decided to practice a lot.”
She participated in the spring musical and said the experience of performing in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the first production staged in the new Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center, ranks as one of her most memorable moments at the school. “I was playing a gargoyle and standing [high up] on a platform, witnessing the play. I was witnessing something game-changing for our school that would be written into the history. I think we had the most people we ever had and the music was pretty hard. We had a lot of solos, so it was very big and time consuming. I almost cried on opening night on stage.”
She said she will miss the hours she spent studying with friends in the Quiet Room of the library, and running with the Varsity Cross Country Team. “I was not a sports person,” Wang said, explaining that she signed up for the team to fulfill the school’s athletics requirement, but quickly found that running helped to relieve stress, and made her feel happy and healthy. “I just thought it was tiring. I never knew it could make me happy,” Wang said, recalling the day she logged her personal best as another of her most memorable moments. “I just cried a lot of tears after I went past the finish line. I ran to Mrs. Fisher and hugged her and hugged Mr. Small like I’d won the world championship. It was a very emotional moment,” she said, referring to Head Coach Morgan Fisher ’03 and Assistant Coach Ed Small. Cross country was also where she met her best friend, Yoyo Zhang ’22.
The school’s small size, and the friendliness and attentiveness of the teachers, was something that set FGS apart from other schools she attended. “I really liked how the teachers at our school educated us,” Wang said, listing, in addition to Bailey, English teacher Karoline Theobald P’09 ’14 and history teacher Jim Balben among those who impacted her most. AP World History, taught by Balben, was her favorite course. “It taught me how to write essays, how to prepare for a test, and just learning, generally,” she explained.
The secret to her success in achieving Top Scholar stems from what she learned in that course. “I studied super hard my sophomore year. Junior year, I kept doing what I was doing, and I was Top Scholar, and senior year I worked not as hard and was still Top Scholar. It’s a very magical process. I understand how to study, I have my method. I found my way to study without spending too much time on things I don’t need to pay attention to. I designed my own studying process. That’s why I became Top Scholar.”
One possible track she is considering in college is using robotics and artificial intelligence to solve problems. “I’m thinking about taking a lot of machine learning courses and computer science courses. I know the world is becoming more data-based no matter what the field,” said Wang, who is enrolled in Cornell’s School of Engineering.
Ten years from now, we may find Wang pursuing a Ph.D., like her cousin, Chao Liu ’11, or a career as a scientist. She is keeping her options open, and sees that the world is changing. “We see all the developments we have - it’s super fast - 5G intelligence and artificial intelligence smarter than us, the impossible stuff that’s happening around us.”
For Wang, this raises questions: “Should we develop this? Should we continue on this track? Would this endanger our species as human beings? My 80-year-old grandparents are so shocked by everything that’s changing. From a positive perspective, our generation has a lot of positive people who don’t want to commit to things in the usual way. That will give us a lot of innovation.”