National Merit Semifinalists

October 22, 2013 / ALL NEWS

National Merit Semifinalists
(From left): Ally Thigpen, Andrew Hanebuth, and Grace Golden

Click here to view a video interview with each semifinalist

Students who’ve qualified as National Merit Semifinalists know what it takes to generate excellent academic work. Yet along with high scores on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, semifinalists at Jackson Academy show that an individual can be a scholar and a well-rounded person, too.

“What I like best about this group of students is the wide ranging activities that they are involved in aside from being top scholars,” said Steven McCartney, Upper School Dean. “There is a football player who is also in the show choir, an Accent, and a girls’ basketball player. This highly accomplished, well rounded approach truly represents what we hope for all of our students at Jackson Academy.”

Grace Golden, Andrew Hanebuth, and Ally Thigpen illustrate how commitment, preparation, and hard work combine with God-given abilities to produce success.

For Grace Golden, the commitment sometimes begins as early as 5:00 a.m. On a big rivalry game week, the Accent officer can be found heading to campus before daylight to practice dance routines in preparation for the Friday pep rally and game performances. Practices are followed with work to boost school spirit, such as painting encouraging messages on the cars of football players. It is a job she loves and one that has been “a lot more work” than she anticipated. On the third rigorous day of Accent “two a days,” she still remembers to push her library chair up to the table and hold the door open for an adult as she departs the library. This polite demeanor appears second nature to Grace, even amid an academic schedule that includes Spanish IV, AP English literature, AP government, AP calculus, computer programming, and anatomy and physiology.

Preparation is a trait that is natural to Andrew Hanebuth. Describing himself as a “very science wired, history minded” individual, he balances his days among a slate of AP and honors classes, football, musicals, show choir, and quiz bowl. Outside of JA, he volunteers on his church video crew and camps once a month at Boy Scout gatherings. He not only prepared for this interview by considering the questions in advance, but in much larger ways he is thinking ahead to the kind of impact he wants to make on society. He has considered the future and has talked to enough people who’ve preceded him to know he’ll pursue a graduate-level degree immediately after completing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry. He is considering medical school or an advanced degree in biochemistry.

Ally Thigpen understands the power of a strong work ethic. She completed a 5:45-7:15 a.m. basketball practice on a day of Advanced Placement tests. After school, she headed to Lemuria Books to work from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. in a setting she absolutely loves. As the oldest in a family of five siblings, she’s had her share of first child responsibilities, so much so that her youngest brother once said “Yes, Ma’am” to her—a response she quickly nixed. She and her siblings all have regular chores. Like the other semifinalists, her success on the PSAT/NMSQT represents years of hard work. She doubled up on sciences in her sophomore and junior years so she could focus later on the classes she loved more. In her senior year, she enrolled in Latin IV, AP English literature, AP government, AP calculus, theatre, interactive media, plus Lady Raiders basketball.

“Interestingly, the designation of a national merit semifinalist is the result of one test taken in the junior year; however, rarely is this honor awarded to one who has not worked very hard for a very long time to put him or her in a position to do well on this test,” said Steven McCartney. “Certainly, these three students have worked diligently for many years to achieve this recognition.”

Q&A with Jackson Academy’s Semifinalists

Grace GoldenGrace Golden

You may know her as….
JA’s Homecoming Queen

Fun activities….
Accent Officer
Outdoor Club

Which has been your favorite class, and why?
AP Chemistry (taken in 11th grade)
“I love Ms. Ciaccio, and that class was one of the most challenging classes I’ve had.”

Why do you like the challenge presented by a rigorous class?
“It’s so fun when I work out a (complex) problem and get the right answer, sometimes after having worked it three times. Also, the labs are fun.” (In this class, students travel to a nearby college to have lab in a college setting).

What motivates you to be a good student?
‘School is a worthwhile thing to put your effort into. It sets you up for the future.”

How has JA helped prepare you for academic success?
“In high school, what you learn builds upon earlier lessons. There are connections between classes, especially some of our AP classes. The teachers always prepare you for what is next.”

What classes are you taking this year?
“Spanish IV, AP English literature, AP government, AP calculus, computer programming, and anatomy and physiology. In computer programming we are using LiveCode, a programming language. My teammate and I are working on a Hangman game that we are creating from scratch. We also created a clickable keyboard.”

How has your family supported your academic success?
“I have a lot of motivation on my own. In Elementary, my parents supported my learning, helping me remember to do my homework and working on vocabulary with flash cards. Once I was in Junior High, I was self-motivated.”

What do you hope to do in life?
“I really like science, English and reading, so I’ve thought about careers that combine these interests, but I’m currently undecided.”

What are your college plans, if you know at this point?
“I’m currently looking at several in and out of state universities and have completed their applications.”

What things do you do outside of class and which is your favorite?
“I love being an Accent. It is a lot more work than I thought it would be. For instance, I left home at 5:20 this morning for a 5:30 Accent practice. This is the third day of ‘two a days’—practices for Prep week. Then after practice, the Accents paint football players cars to help boost school spirit leading up to the game. We also paint our own cars. It is fun to see the cars painted with JA and see the other cars painted with Prep.” “I also like the Outdoor Club. Mr. Sumrall is a blast. Trips away are always fun, and I like the people I get to know on these trips.”

What is the best advice you could give to JA students who are coming up after you?
“Don’t just sit on the sidelines. Find something to get involved in. Don’t just watch. There are so many opportunities to be involved. You connect with others through this involvement. For example, in Accents, I have met students in the grade below me that have become some of my best friends. Also in Outdoor Club, I’ve have gotten to know people I would have not have otherwise met. I’ve learned about others besides those I sit next to in class.”

Any other advice for academic success?
“Stay organized. I have a sticky note on my computer with what I need to do. Tests are in upper case. You have to prioritize. Teachers here work to avoid overlap of difficult tests, especially in the AP classes. AP chemistry may plan a test on a day AP cal is not giving a test. Teachers work with students to help keep everything balanced.”


Andrew HanebuthAndrew Hanebuth


You may know him as….
Orin the dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors”

Fun activities….
Quiz bowl
Encore show choir



What classes are you taking this year?
Latin III
AP government
AP English literature
Honors calculus – AP did not fit schedule
AP physics

Which is you favorite class and why?

AP chemistry from 11th grade with Ms. Ciaccio
“The method of thinking involved in chemistry suited me. Ms. Ciaccio is a great teacher. I like the labs. We got to go to a college lab. This year I got to go back into the AP chem lab and help as an assistant when the class went to the lab at Millsaps College.”

What motivates you to be a good student?
“I want to make a change in society. I’m not positive what the change is, but I want to be remembered as a person who made a difference. I’m waiting to see what God would want me to do.”

How has JA helped prepare you for academic success?
“JA is more involved with students than in many settings. The teachers are invested in your success. It was more than just my parents and myself motivating me. Teachers are all willing to help you outside of class. The administration is invested in students here.”

What are your college plans, if you know at this point?
“I plan to major in biochemistry in college. After that, I will go to medical school or on for higher education in that field. I know I’ll pursue med school or a grad degree immediately.”

What things do you do outside of class?
“Quiz bowl, musicals, football, show choir, Boy Scouts (camp once a month), church video crew, Ultimate Frisbee.”

What is the best advice you could give to JA students who are coming up behind you?
“Probably, listen to your teachers and parents. They know more than you think. Find something you like to do. Stick with it and do it full out.”

Anything else you would like to say?
“Set a goal. I wanted to be in Cum Laude Society my junior year. The energy put toward Cum Laude helped prepare me for the PSAT testing. Plus paying attention.”


Ally ThigpenAlly Thigpen

You may know her as….
A Lady Raider basketball player
Volleyball team manager

Fun activities….
Running the spotlight at a musical
Working at Lemuria Books in the children’s section



What is your favorite class?
“Latin and theatre are a tie. I’ve had four years of Latin, and I love it. In theatre, I’m doing things new to me—like taking on the roles of characters.”

What motivates you to be a good student?
“I like making good grades. School has been easy for me up to a point, and when it started getting hard, I realized I like doing well.”

How has JA helped prepare you for academic success?
“I like that the teachers are engaged with the students. If you have a problem, they encourage you to come after school…they don’t mind staying.”

How has your family encouraged your academic success?
“My parents have always said, ‘Do the best you can do. God blessed you with brains, so you should use them.’”

What do you hope to do in life? What career do you think you will choose?
“I’ve thought of broadcast journalism, perhaps being a sideline reporter for ESPN. My dad’s a coach, so I’ve always been around football and basketball. When I was in visiting New York, I got to go to the ‘Good Morning, America’ show.”

What are your college plans?
“I’d like to go to Alabama and major in broadcast journalism or PR.”

What things do you do outside of class?
“Basketball, read, movies, and television. I like the television shows ‘NCIS’ and ‘Once Upon A Time.’ Our family is busy because it is so big. I go to a lot of things. I help manage the volleyball team and Accents. I helped with the musical, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’—with the spotlight. It was harder than I thought! At one point during the tango of the male lead and his father character, I started laughing and had to stop myself because the spotlight was shaking!”

“I love working at Lemuria. It is so much fun….I’m with books all day. It started as an internship. I take inventory and reshelf books. I’ve learned to work the cash register.”

Since you work at a bookstore, what is your favorite book?
“’A Little Princess’. I had forgotten about it and found it again at Lemuria.”

What is the best advice you could give to JA students who are coming up behind you?
“Eleventh grade will be your hardest year, but you will make it through. Ask questions, for sure. The teachers are willing to help if you ask questions.”

“Really enjoy it while you can, because I’m sad that it is almost over!”

Any final words of wisdom as a senior?
“Learn to laugh at yourself because that has helped me get through so many presentations…and also when I asked a stupid question.”

“Don’t feel so sad. It is easy for high school students to feel bad about themselves. Be nice to everyone.”