By Kremena Spengler
NEW ULM - You might not know it, but at least one of the nation's best and brightest students lives in New Ulm.
Staff photo by Kremena Spengler
Phil Biedenbender, a senior at MVL, became a National Merit Scholar on May 2, the program’s highest honor.
Phil Biedenbender, a senior at MVL, became a National Merit Scholar on May 2, the program's highest honor.
About 16,000 seniors - less than a percent of the nation's top academic achievers - make it to the semi-finals of the prestigious competition.
Of them, about 15,000 seniors make it to the finals, after completing additional rigorous requirements.
(In addition to Biedenbender, MVL seniors Abigail Paustian and Daniel Stelljes were named National Merit Finalists this year.)
After some more sifting, about 2,500 of the Finalists (including Biedenbender) became National Merit Scholars.
National Merit Scholars receive a $2,500 award sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
Another 1,000 Finalists received corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships, and 4,800 are expected to win college-sponsored Merit Scholarships.
Biedenbender is one of 47 National Merit Scholars in Minnesota. The number of winners named in each state is proportional to the state's percentage of the nation's graduating high-school seniors.
Biedenbender has a stellar academic career.
One achievement he is perhaps most proud of is being MVL's first two-term student body president. He was also only the second junior elected president.
With perfect grades, he is the class valedictorian and is preparing to speak at graduation.
Here are just a few of his interests:
He is a member of jazz band; Chargaliers (the 24-member hand-picked choir); choir; Math Team (the team finished second in the division this year and he himself was in the region's top 10); and the Knowledge Bowl team (the team came in second at State).
He is a proficient piano and trumpet player; and has participated in plays, soccer, cross country and track.
Biedenbender has already earned a prestigious renewable music scholarship at St. Olaf College, a music recognition scholarship for piano (and free lessons) at St. Olaf and St. Olaf's top academic award.
"It's somewhat surreal," says Biedenbender.
He plans to pursue a BA in music at St. Olaf.
How does one end up among the country's highest-rated students?
"Kids generally don't like to admit this, but for the most part, you work very hard," said Biedenbender.
He read a lot since he was "young"; while he didn't necessarily do extra things, such as extra problems, for example, he always tried to understand "why he was doing what he was doing."
Biedenbender credits his dad for helping him progress in music and his mom for encouraging good writing.
"She would proofread what I wrote, and didn't simply correct it but explained why it needed correcting," said Biedenbender.
He also strongly acknowledges the influence of his music teacher, Jon Ziesmer.
National Merit Scholars are the National Merit Finalists in each state judged to have the strongest combination of accomplishments, skills, and potential for success in rigorous college studies.
They are selected by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors.
The Scholars may use their awards at any regionally-accredited U.S. college or university.
To select the Scholars, a committee of educators appraised a substantial amount of information: academic record, including difficulty level of subjects studied and grades earned; scores from two standardized tests; contributions and leadership in school and community activities; an essay written by the finalist; and a recommendation written by a high school official.
This year's competition began in October 2010 when approximately 1.5 million juniors in some 22,000 high schools took the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which served as an initial screen of program entrants.