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Kujak competes for scholar status

Michael Kujak may be named a "scholar" before he even graduates from River Falls High School June 4.

"It's getting really close," he said about graduation.

Kujak received an official letter from the U.S. Department of Education recently, naming him a candidate in the Presidential Scholars Program.

He didn't realize what a top honor his candidacy is but began to get an idea through the very involved application process.

Kujak's test scores and grade point average (GPA) earned him recognition and played a big part in him getting named as a Scholar candidate.

The scholastic achievement test (SAT) offers the chance to score 2400 points - Kujak scored 2180.

To get a perfect score on the ACT test, a student must get 36 points - Kujak scored 35.

He maintains a 4.0 GPA, sharing that status with four other students at River Falls High School.

He said, "I have a pretty smart class."

The U.S. Department of Education picked 2,600 Presidential Scholar candidates out of the 2.8 million students who graduate this spring.

Those selected as candidates represent the cream of the country's graduating crop. They belong to an elite group: The top 1/10th, of the top one percent, of American high school seniors.

It's been going on for 42 years: The Presidential Scholarship Program names a big pool of candidates, narrows that to a group of 500 semifinalists then picks one male and one female scholar from each American state including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

The program also picks 15 at-large students, up to 20 from the creative and performing arts and a male and female scholar from students living abroad.

The President appoints a commission of 32 people that selects the Scholars. This year's winners will be announced sometime in June.

Commission members consider multiple aspects of a student's life: Academic and artistic achievements, leadership qualities, strong character and involvement in community and school activities.

They also look at student essays, self assessments, activity descriptions, school recommendations and school transcripts.

Eighteen-year-old Kujak said of the application process, "I spent a lot of time on it."

He had to write four short essays and one long one that was 650 words. He had to gather letters of recommendation and have the principal complete paperwork. He had to answer a lot of questions he'd never had to answer before.

For example, his long essay question required him to pick a picture and write a story about it. He picked a picture of himself with a medieval catapult that he and a neighbor built together.

Kujak said it's a trebuchet, but most people know it as a catapult. It's the contraption that was used for hurling rocks into or over castle walls during the Middle Ages.

The trebuchet in the picture Kujak submitted is the second one he's built. The first was a model, not capable of hurling rocks. His next was a full-scale model, capable of doing damage.

He said it's a long story that all started when he saw a show about them on a public-TV channel, which led to finding plans for one on the Internet and building it.

Kujak's dad, Paul, laughed and said, "Whenever the neighbor and Michael are looking for lumber, I usually know where it's going."

Scholar's schedule

Kujak said "Science is my favorite subject, definitely, especially physics."

He said music runs a very close second, "I'm in a lot of music."

Kujak either has participated in or still does jazz band, marching band, barbershop quartet, concert band and choir, soccer, tennis, basketball and a musical play called "Fame."

He said he participates in the Lifeteen mass as St. Bridget church, which is a service geared toward high-school and college-age youths. Young folks do all the work at the Lifeteen Mass, like singing and playing, reading and ushering.

He also attends Advanced Placement (AP) classes in American Studies and American Literature. He was named a National Merit Scholarship finalist earlier in the school year and belongs to the national honor society and the high school philosophy club

Kujak's dad Paul deems that group "the great philosophers of River Falls."

He could already read well by the first grade. The Kujaks got a piano when he was 5 years old and enrolled him in piano lessons soon after that.

His mom Barb said, "At first the piano teacher (Marcia Scheurman) said no to lessons."

She usually doesn't start lessons until kids get into third grade and can read well. After she had Kujak in class a short time, she came back and said he was ready for lessons."

Principal's perspective

High school Principal Elaine Baumann answered questions about Kujak and completed paperwork for the application, too.

She said it asked her such things as how long she's known Michael, how she views his character and whether he's overcome adversity in his academic life.

"Michael is one of the most well-rounded persons I know. He has been very active in sports, music and his church. I cannot think of a more deserving student to receive this honor," Baumann said.

She said the honor Kujak earned shows the caliber of students that River Falls High School has and that the school offers challenges to meet their capacity. Baumann also said it's the first time in her tenure that a River Falls High School student has been picked as a Scholar candidate.

"It has been great having Mike in school. I have watched Mike grow up from a little kid at St. Bridget's and was always delighted by his confidence and humbleness.

I am very proud of Michael and I am very proud of our school."

Past, future

Kujak said he'll attend UW-Madison this fall to study engineering and will graduate in four years with a Bachelor of Science degree.

He'll leave behind his Mom, Dad, younger sister Amy, and younger brother David, but likes that he'll be close enough to visit.

The degree he plans to walk away with is called engineering mechanics.

Kujak said, "It's more theoretical than regular engineering."

Kujak said that while he really likes his high school, he enjoyed attending St. Bridget's Parish School, where he went through the 8th grade. He liked the individual attention he got there and remembers the school's lesson of the three Rs: Respect, responsibility, religion.

Barb said, "It really helped shape him as a young man."

The young Scholar candidate makes it clear that he's "very much enjoyed" his time at both schools in River Falls.

"There are a lot of people who've taught me so much. There are a lot of people who have helped me and I think that's really cool."