SM East’s Clara Ma named 1 of just 141 U.S Presidential Scholars

SM East senior Clara Ma has earned the most prestigious academic honor in the country. Photo courtesy of the Ma family.
SM East senior Clara Ma has earned the most prestigious academic honor in the country. Photo courtesy of the Ma family.

Graduating SM East senior Clara Ma has gotten plenty of accolades during her time at 7500 Mission Road. But none may be as distinguished as the honor she found out she received this week.

Ma was named one of just 141 U.S. Presidential Scholars from across the country — considered the pre-eminent academic honor for American high school students.

She and two fellow northeast Johnson County students, Akshay Dinakar and Zachary Nason, made the Presidential Scholars candidates list earlier this year. Then Ma was named one of the finalists from Kansas.

A few days ago, she got a letter in the mail letting her know she had been named one of Kansas’s two honorees.

“I feel that there are so many amazing, extraordinary young people in our state, so knowing that I was the one they ended up choosing was incredibly unexpected and humbling,” she said. “My parents immigrated to the U.S. from China nearly 20 years ago, and like many immigrants, they were hoping to create a better life for their children, so I think this means a lot to them, too. I just feel so honored to be representing my state, and I hope I don’t disappoint anybody.”

This may be the biggest honor she’s received, but it’s not the first time Ma has attracted attention for her academic and creative prowess. In sixth grade, she won a national essay contest to name NASA’s Mars rover. The vehicle that Ma suggested be named Curiosity touched down on the red planet in 2012. That experience helped her to land an internship with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during high school.

And earlier this year, Ma was named a Coca-Cola Scholar, earning one of the few $20,000 college scholarships offered through the program from a pool of more than 100,000 applicants.

Ma recently decided to attend Yale University for college — though she says she had a hard time choosing between Yale and Harvard.

“I sort of put off making the decision until the very last day, after I’d visited both schools, and Yale just felt right to me,” she said.

She says she is considering studying astrophysics or planetary sciences in college, and also has an interest in foreign languages. In addition to English, she speaks French, Spanish and Mandarin.

The U.S. Presidential Scholars program was created in 1964 to recognize the best and brightest of America’s top-performing high school students. Each year, one boy and one girl from each state are given the honor. Additional distinctions are given to students from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. families living abroad, as well as other at-large honors and honors for students in the arts.

Ma will travel to Washington, D.C. in June for a ceremony recognizing this year’s scholars.