Prime Minister’s Awards keep winners at the top of their games

Issue: Volume 98, Number 14

Posted: 16 August 2019
Reference #: 1H9x26

New Zealand’s top educational award recipients from 2018 are now at university. How have the awards affected their lives and what did it take for them to reach this position? Education Gazette spoke with the highest achiever and two premier award winners to find out.

All the winners at the official ceremony for the top scholars of 2018, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Education Minister Chris Hipkins, and NZQA Board Chair Murray Strong.

Yang Fan Yun

Winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Award for Academic Excellence, Yang Fan Yun is studying economics at the University of Auckland and has been accepted into Stanford University to study economics, human biology and public policy later this year. He is a former student of Macleans College, Auckland.

The award recognises the most outstanding examination results and the highest overall academic achievement of the premier winners.

Q. What drives you as a student?

A. A desire to understand more deeply the world around me – how everything works, why things are the way they are, and how we can use this knowledge to make human lives better. I’m currently fascinated by the intersection between the life sciences and economics, and the multitude of ways we can use science and technology to improve the socioeconomic wellbeing of all communities.

Q. How did you balance study with other activities?

A. It is definitely very difficult to strike a balance. However, I found that because I did the Cambridge International Curriculum – which is more exam-focused, and your marks come mainly at the end of the year – you can spend your year learning with a more flexible approach, rather than frequent testing and assessments.

Creating a timetable which included all my academic, extracurricular, and social commitments was incredibly helpful. Having commitments and activities that I enjoyed outside of the classroom allowed me to be more efficient in my studying, as it meant I was forced out of a procrastination mentality and had a healthier and happier outlook on tasks in front of me.

Each student is unique and there is no golden formula, but I prefer a more individualised and independent approach to learning.

Q. How did your teachers support you?

A. My high school teachers were a tremendous source of support. Their tireless efforts to find opportunities for us to extend our learning and to support us when we were struggling, meant that I was able to develop a greater understanding and fascination for the area of study.

Q. What challenges have you had to overcome?

A. Time management was definitely an issue for me. I found it very difficult to say ‘no’ to opportunities at the risk of losing valuable experiences. Frustrated with being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, I pushed myself to only focus on the activities that I connected with deeply, such as debating, hiking, and music.

Q. Does your success and recognition with the award help with your career future?

A. It will definitely motivate me to continue working as hard as I can and hopefully improve society and the lives of other people. I’m aiming to work on research for cost-effective healthcare – perhaps through the Gates Foundation – or go into management consulting.

Q. Any advice for other students?

A. In school, it’s very easy to get caught up in an unhealthy race against your peers – whether in academics, extracurricular activities, or socially. I think what’s very important to remember is that life is not a zero-sum game, and that your competition isn’t other people, it’s yourself – yesterday’s you.

Miriam Leonhardt

Miriam Leonhardt, 2018 Dux at Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland, won a Premier Scholarship Award and the University of Auckland’s Top Achiever Scholarship, which is given to a student demonstrating exceptional academic excellence, all-round ability and leadership. She is working towards a Bachelor of Science, with a double major in maths and physics.

Q. What drives you as a student?

A. My family is very supportive. My father is a physics professor and my mother works in education also. I have always worked hard because I enjoy learning, and working hard makes the achievement easier. I am fortunate in being inclined towards academic study.

Q. How did you balance study with other activities?

A. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. Achieving academically requires hard work and dedication, and sometimes your social life and other activities have to take second place. However, I also do trampolining every week. (Miriam is a volunteer and has been awarded a Service Lion for this work. She is working towards a Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award.)

Q. How did your teachers support you?

A. They provided extension problems for me, which stretched me to achieve more. My calculus teacher in particular was extremely supportive and encouraged me to do eight Scholarship papers – I got seven of them. Usually, students try for two or three at most.

Q. What challenges did you face?

A. If you are focused on academics, you have to sacrifice some things. Maths is my passion, so I have most in common with other people who are interested in the same thing.

Q. How did the recognition as a top scholar help you?

A. Being a Premier Scholarship Award recipient has allowed me to avoid getting a student loan, as it provides $10,000 a year for three years to the recipients, as long as they keep up their grade point average.

Felix Marcon Swadel

Felix Marcon Swadel is studying for a BA/BSc in Latin, maths and physics at the University of Auckland. The former head prefect at Auckland Grammar School is a Premier Scholarship Award winner.

Felix also works part-time for an artificial intelligence (AI) company which is developing intelligent, emotionally responsive avatars to interact with humans.

Q. What motivated you to achieve?

A. The death of my father when I was 15 was a big driver for me. I wanted to make him proud. He was always very hard-working and encouraged me to do so too.

Auckland Grammar is also focused on hard work and achievement and always supported my learning. It’s a competitive environment, with a ranking system between students, and I thrived on that. In Year 10, I received a shock when I achieved only 31 per cent in maths. I was determined to do better, and to work hard. My maths mark went up to 99 per cent.

Q. How did you balance the workload?

A. It’s difficult to balance academic achievement with other things, like recreation and fun. You have to make sacrifices. The most important thing was studying. Having all the work under control is very important, so for me getting everything done is not an issue.

Up to Year 12 I would do two to three hours homework each night, but in Year 13 I was often studying till midnight. I also had to balance that with other things, as I was head boy and I also made time for diabolo practice (diabolo is a Chinese circus prop, like a yo-yo, which requires balance and juggling skills).

Q. How did the teachers support you?

A. They provided a very high standard of teaching and were very focused on learning and achievement. Teacher commitment and enthusiasm is hugely important for achievement by students.

Q. What challenges did you face?

A. The death of my father was a huge challenge. My coping mechanism was to work even harder. Growing up as a member of the LGBT+ community was also difficult at many points in my life; however, by Year 13 I was one of the founding members of an LGBT+ group at AGS, which is still going strong this year.

My attitude to every challenge is to face it directly, and be focused, determined and self-disciplined.

Q. How will the recognition help you?

A. Without the recognition as a scholar, I wouldn’t have had my work opportunity. I am an intern in data science, evaluation and coding, which is something that few first-year tertiary maths students would get the chance to do. I think I have a bright future, and I am extremely appreciative of getting the chance to work part-time in an exciting field that is linked to my degree – cutting-edge technology and AI.

Q. Any advice for other students?

A. Be committed and take every learning opportunity you can, but always be open to new things. For example, I study Latin and although it won’t be of use directly in my career, I really enjoy it and it keeps me excited and eager to continue learning.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:21 pm, 16 August 2019

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