By Chris Mellides
Two weeks after undergoing one in a series of life-saving surgeries, Grace Franzese of Elwood climbed the auditorium stage on the night of her school play to take on the production’s leading role.
Being diagnosed with cancer in the 7th grade might be hard to handle, but Franzese’s bout with the illness did little to curb her thirst for knowledge, nor impede her path to achieving academic success and national recognition.
Now, five years later as a senior at John Glenn High School, Franzese is the only student in the Elwood school district to be recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation as a National Merit semi-finalist.
“She fought to be where she is right now,” said Allison Peiliker, Franzese’s 12th-grade English teacher at Glenn. “The most unique thing about this kid’s personality is that she doesn’t realize just how special she is.”
High school students that enter the National Merit Program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test are scored on reading, writing and language, as well as math to determine eligibility, according to the NMSC official website.
The test serves as an initial screen for approximately 1.5 million entrants nation-wide, and of them, Franzese was one of the few selected to advance in the program.
Both the Commack and Northport-East Northport school districts also recently recognized students in the National Merit competition.
Commack officials said high-school students Xiaoxuan (Emily) Chen, Vignesh Gunasekaran, David Li, and Mehtaab Sawhney were named semifinalists.
Northport-East Northport had six high schoolers recognized as Commended Students. Although these students do not continue in the competition, they can be eligible to receive special scholarships. The students are: Ian Buitenkant, Cameron Cacic, Emily LaBruna, Jasper Petronella, Julia Savoca and Adam Silverstein.
As for Franzese, the 17-year-old Glenn senior said she’s “very grateful to have received this honor.”
“And that I did well on this test,” she added. “I hope that I could go further with it. I’m grateful to have gotten this far.”
When it comes to college, Franzese says that she’s currently undecided, but her top-three choices for higher education are Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Virginia. Wherever she may land, Franzese plans to double-major in English and chemistry.
“I was born an English major, I love books and literature and journalism and all of it,” Franzese said. “Then in 10th grade, I took chemistry and absolutely fell in love with that. I just thought it was so interesting, it applies to real life so much and you can actually see it working.”
Franzese is currently the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, a committee chairperson for Relay For Life, a fundraising organization that benefits American Cancer Society research, and she is also a chamber choir and chorus member.
Above all, Franzese says that what interests her most is helping people through her volunteer work, which includes tutoring, working cancer fundraisers and volunteering at summer camps to work with children.
“I really like that,” she said. “And I also like feeling like I’m making a difference, because, as a teenager, sometimes it feels like you can’t, and it’s nice to feel like you do.”
Janee Law and Andrew Wroblewski contributed to this report.