League of Their Own: Morgan County graduates excel in the Ivy League
Three Morgan County natives have traded in the Georgia humidity for a northern chill, given up the “sweet” part of their tea, and gone from kudzu to ivy, the Ivy League that is.
Meet Sarah, Amanda and Grant, our local representation at UPenn, Brown and Yale, respectively.
“Ah, yes. The temperature in my dorm. I cannot turn the heat on, period. If I do my room will be at 85 degrees for several days.” Sarah Vaughn, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and native of Morgan County, laments over the state of her dorm room’s thermostat.
Even in the icy temperatures of a West Philadelphia winter, Vaughn finds herself opening her room’s windows if the heat is left on for too long. Tropical dorm temperatures are one of many things Vaughn has grown accustomed to during her time at UPenn.
Before Vaughn was a student at UPenn, she studied at the University of Georgia for her freshman and sophomore years of college. Vaughn, a member of Morgan County High School’s Class of 2007, picked UGA as her safety school, and after initially being waitlisted by the University of Pennsylvania, she decided to pursue UGA. Looking back, Vaughn would advise graduating seniors to explore beyond their conventional options.
“My backup plan was UGA although looking back, I think that because what I wanted most was to go ‘off’ to school, I should have included some safety schools up around the country when doing applications.”
When she saw that UGA wasn’t the perfect fit she had hoped for, Vaughn chose to re-apply as a transfer student to her previous top choices.
Vaughn suggests not letting the initial sticker shock of many out-of-state schools stop students from exploring their options.
“Yes, they're expensive, and yes, I'll graduate with student loans, but I'm also really and truly happy with the away-from-home knowledge and experience I'm getting, and I can't put a price tag on that,” said Vaughn.
But Vaughn is quick to point out that it wasn’t the Ivy League nametag that solely attracted her to the University of Pennsylvania.
She praises all those students who have taken the time to find the school that best suits their needs.
“I've been pushed further out of my comfort zone than I ever thought possible... leaving family, friends and home but I've simultaneously found a place where I feel like I really belong and it's created a new safety bubble for me.”
Also dear to her is the close-knit group of family and friends she has in Morgan County. Pat Lemming, Coach Kahn, and Jessica Ward, names that should all be familiar to students at Morgan County High School, pop up frequently during conversation.
Funny, caring, creative, and fair, all are words that Vaughn uses to describe the teachers and administrators who guided her throughout her time at Morgan County High School. Although she says she doesn’t think she could ever have been truly prepared for the workload of an Ivy League school, Vaughn says the “excellence” some of her high school teachers demanded helped her adapt to the fast-paced college setting.
“Coach Kahn, love him or hate him, was one of the few teachers who demanded excellence. He was funny, fair, and expected us to actually work, pay attention, hand assignments in on time, and respectfully disagree and argue our point with him if the need arose,” said Vaughn.
Vaughn, who plans to study law, explained that it’s the quality of work expected, not quantity, which was most shocking when she arrived at the University of Pennsylvania.
She notes that assignments that “just meet the requirements” are no longer acceptable, saying that her current professors expect a comprehensive understanding of the material being taught.
And it’s not surprising considering who her professors are. Last semester Vaughn counted a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Fulbright Scholar, and a Mellon Faculty Fellow, among her instructors.
Says Vaughn of the prestigious faculty, “it's seriously amazing to have these people interacting with me, listening to my thoughts, and commenting on and grading my papers.”
But it’s not all trips to the library and studying for Vaughn, who has made discoveries and new friends since her arrival.
Her past involvement with Morgan County’s 4-H and FFA has occasionally led Vaughn seek out the more pastoral parts of Philadelphia.
She says she frequents the farmer’s market and has visited the Amish countryside, and even has her own horse back in Philadelphia.
But she hasn’t ignored the city’s more sophisticated urban pastimes.
She name checks the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where Rocky Balboa made his famous stair run), “artsy” South Street, and Washington Square as some of her favorite places to visit.
During other hobbies - namely watching college football - Vaughn’s Southern roots have worked to her advantage more than once. She says her knowledge of football rivals that of most guys she has met.
College football isn’t the only area where her Southernisms make an appearance.
Her new acquaintances repeatedly beg Vaughn to say “y’all” for them, and they also love getting a peek at Southern life via Morgan County’s own local newspaper.
“The crime section of the Citizen has been a huge hit with my friends (who doesn't love the blotter?)” said Vaughn.
She goes on to add, “The cold is... cold, but believe it or not, I've adjusted, just like I've adjusted to driving in the city, using public transit, having police escorts, flagging down a taxi, and Greek housing that looks more like castles than antebellum mansions.”
It’s all a typical day in Vaughn’s new life.
Farthest up the eastern seaboard in Providence, Rhode Island is Amanda Vernon.
Vernon, a sophomore at Brown University, is no exception when it comes to Morgan County producing extremely talented Ivy Leaguers.
But unlike Vaughn and Phelps, Vernon was home-schooled.
However, that didn’t stop her from becoming a part of Morgan County’s warm and welcoming community.
“Madison is really a great place. The small community allowed me to be involved with a lot of different things.”
She said, in many cases, it worked to her advantage, adding: “the small tight-knit allowed me to be flexible, I didn’t miss out on anything.”
Madison’s thriving community theatre scene was one of the many things Vernon was a part of.
While friendly Madisonians may have culturally prepared her for Brown, her dual enrollment during high school readied her for Brown University’s workload.
Her junior year of high school, she dual enrolled at Gainesville State College. During her senior year she was able to study more advanced lab science classes by dual enrolling at Emory University.
Vernon points out that the independent study required of a home-school student prepared her for the responsibility of studying her own at college.
Unique, a word that is often employed by all three when describing the Ivy League, is how Vernon depicts her time at Brown.
“I know kids from Brooklyn, and kids from prep schools. There’s a broad variety of people,” says Vernon.
Though at first Brown University was further down on her list of schools, during the admissions process she was won over.
Vernon couldn’t be happier with her choice, discussing her time at Brown with the same enthusiasm as Vaughn and Phelps.
“It’s been great! I love my classes, my professors, and the whole environment. It’s been a good blend of challenging and fun,” said Vernon.
Currently studying neuroscience, Vernon says applying to medical school is her plan for now.
Her parting words on the Ivy League were perhaps the most fitting.
“Ivy is just a name. I think you get out of your education what you put into it.”
“Undeclared” is how Grant Phelps describes his major at Yale University. But don’t let that fool you. The 2009 valedictorian and graduate of Morgan County High School certainly doesn’t lack direction.
The reason Phelps hasn’t chosen a major yet? He’s deciding between “engineering and linguistics.”
A possible stint at law school is also in consideration.
It’s nothing surprising coming from Phelps, who was also Morgan County High School’s 2009 Star Student, an award given to the pupil with the highest SAT score.
Also not shocking is the fact that Phelps is attending Yale University.
“I made going to an Ivy League school my goal since the beginning of high school, so all of my work went toward that goal,” said Phelps. But he didn’t start out with Yale at the top of his list. It was only after a Latin teacher from Phelps’ church pointed out Yale that he began to zero in on it.
The Latin teacher, who according to Phelps, grew up near Yale, told him about the attention and care given by Yale during the application process, something that sold Phelps on the school.
Phelps just finished his first semester as a freshman at Yale, and has plenty of advice for the Class of 2010 when it comes to beginning your college experience.
“I would definitely say to get the ball rolling with extracurricular activities as soon as you can. I missed out a little this semester, because I was a little nervous. Next semester I plan on joining more things.”
Listening to Phelps, it’s obvious that finding something to do at Yale it not a problem.
He counts Yale’s fantastic arts program as one of the main reasons for this, listing a capella groups and dramatic theatre as two of the many possibilities.
Listening to Phelps it’s also clear that Yale University, located in New Haven Connecticut, has attracted not only the best students, but also some of the most unassuming as well.
“My peers are incredible. Everyone is so humble, they don’t just do something well, they’re great. You’ll be talking to someone and find out they played at Carnegie Hall,” said Phelps.
The social and cultural diversity are among many things that Phelps loves about Yale. He feels this has helped with any possible culture shock he might have experienced.
“No, everyone comes from different backgrounds. Everyone there feels out of their comfort zone somewhat, so everyone has a bit of a social or cultural challenge. We all have a very unique experience so no one’s at a particular advantage or disadvantage.”
A great academic background has also eased the relentless academia that surrounds activity at Yale.
Despite the initial feelings of academic besiegement common to most college freshman, Phelps said he was prepared to come back even stronger for spring semester.
“This semester was challenging. But I feel like I was given all the tools I need to improve even more.”
But for those ready to become part of Yale’s student body, Phelps had pertinent advice regarding admissions.
He suggests playing to the Yale’s mission of diversity by highlighting you uniqueness, saying, “They’re really looking for very idiosyncratic people.”