Matthew Bernstein, 17, and Theodore Weinberg, 18, both recent graduates of Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, have won National Merit Scholarships funded by the college or university of their choice. They join 44 other teens from schools in the greater Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area who will be enjoying tuition reductions through the National Merit program.

This year’s National Merit Scholarships were awarded based on the 2012 scores of juniors nationwide taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. In September 2013, approximately 16,000 semifinalists were announced as the highest-scoring entrants from each state. Finalists, who were selected after completing a detailed application that included an essay portion, had to participate in community activities, enjoy outstanding academic records, receive an endorsement from a school official and achieve qualifying scores on the SAT test.

Bernstein, son of Eileen and Richard Bernstein, attends the Calah Congregation in Columbia. He’s chosen to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he will study applied physics.

Bernstein said he and classmate Weinberg found out they were chosen as semifinalists for the scholarships in an unusual manner.

“We were called out of English class down to the principal’s office,” recalled Bernstein. “We’d never been called down before, and this was a brand new principal.”

He added they were feeling uncomfortable about it and didn’t really know what was going on as they walked slowly down the hall to the office. Upon seeing the teens, the principal said to them, “Congratulations guys.”

Bernstein credited Donna Ueckermann, a guidance counselor at his school, with helping him navigate the process of submitting subsequent materials to become a finalist.

Upon hearing the news about his award, Bernstein’s mother said, “We were very proud, but we knew he was going to do well no matter what, because he really works hard.” She added that her son prefers smaller colleges and wanted to be near mountains and cooler weather because “he hates hot summers.”

Bernstein recently completed an internship at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics lab and was hired by the lab for the summer. This is a rarity, his mother explained, because typically they only hire students at the college level.

“We keep teasing him that he skipped the Burger King phase” of summer jobs, she said, laughing.

Weinberg, son of Jacquie and Eric Weinberg of Columbia, will attend University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to study computer science.

“It was pretty exciting; we were just really pleased he was named a finalist because we knew he was a good student who has worked really hard for four years,” said his mother. “And the monetary award was appreciated.”

“I had a month to write the [finalist application] essay,” recalled Weinberg. “I ended up writing a lot about a volunteer opportunity” at the Oakland Mills middle school, assisting teachers during summer sessions for elementary and middle school students.

“It was a good time, and I learned a lot from it, he said. “I benefited along with them.”

Weinberg wanted to stay in Maryland for school and said UMBC, where his brother is a student, has one of the best computer science programs in the area. He wasn’t interested in attending University of Maryland, College Park, “which is just too big,” he said.

Weinberg’s mother praised her son’s guidance counselor, Kara Fick, for helping guide the teen.

“All the counselors are outstanding. We have a wonderful administration team and counseling center,” she said. “We’re lucky to have them there, encouraging [students] to apply and helping them in the process.”

Weinberg said winning the scholarship “made the PSAT matter a bit more. A lot of people don’t think that test is important at all, and surprisingly it turned out to be very important.”

This year more than 7,000 merit scholarships were awarded, with funds ranging from $500 to $2,000 annually being applied to tuition for up to four years of undergraduate study, ultimately totaling approximately $33 million.


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