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Clear Spring grad receives scholarship that's about more than grades

July 22, 2011|By TAYLOR ECKEL | taylor.eckel@herald-mail.com
  • Matthew Blair, Clear Spring High School Class of 2011 salutatorian, earned a Distinguished Scholars grant from Mississippi State University. This year, 700 students applied for the $60,000 grant. Seven grants were awarded.
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When Matthew Blair was a senior at Clear Spring High School, he participated in various volunteer efforts as the Student Government Association president.

However, he said, he was best able to share his abilities through peer tutoring.

At the beginning of his senior year, Blair was asked by his teacher to be a peer tutor. He agreed.

"I'm strong in math, and I can help people understand it,"said Blair, who is the son of Patti Blair of Clear Spring.

However, peer tutoring conflicted with the world history class Blair needed to take in order to graduate.

"I promised my teacher I'd do it," Blair said. "A lot of kids said, 'Why didn't you drop peer tutoring?'"

He said he was determined to fulfill the graduation requirements and his promise to his teacher, so he chose to attend night school to fulfill the world history requirement.

His choice exemplified the qualities that Mississippi State University looks for in its Distinguished Scholars program.

Earlier this year, Blair was awarded MSU's most prestigious scholarship, worth more than $60,000 over four years. The Distinguished Scholars program will provide opportunities for leadership, working with faculty mentors, and a myriad of extracurricular learning experiences.

 According to a press release, the scholarship covers campus residence hall accommodations and includes $8,500 each year toward tuition; $4,000 for two undergraduate research fellowships and $1,500 for a semester abroad or an internship. Blair, 18, who was one of seven students awarded the scholarship.

John F. Marszalek, director and mentor for the Distinguished Scholars program, explained that about 700 students who applied to MSU were considered for the Distinguished Honors Program.

"It's very competitive," Marszalek said. "I like to joke that these are the types of students who found a cure for cancer in high school. They're amazing."

 Marszalek said the scholarship-selection committee looks for well-rounded students with stellar grades and outstanding community involvement.

Blair was salutatorian of Clear Spring High School's Class of 2011, president of the SGA, president of the History Club, a peer tutor and a four-year member of the varsity soccer team.

Blair, who will major in civil engineering, said he only recently became interested in attending MSU.

"I had never considered it. My uncle teaches there, but I had never considered it," he said. "But when I visited it two years ago I fell in love with it. Even though it's a big public university, it feels like I'm still an individual."

Blair certainly got individual treatment when he was named one of 22 finalists for the Distinguished Scholars scholarship. After completing a timed, proctored essay, Blair said he and the other finalists were invited to an on-campus interview in February conducted by the scholarship selection committee.

He said he had the benefit of spending a few days on campus before his interview.

"Most kids were from the area, so they just drove down that morning," he said. "They flew me in, and I stayed with a distinguished scholar in his apartment," he said.

The night before the interview, Blair said he was treated to a VIP experience.

"I stayed in the Butler Guest House, which is where the president of Coca-Cola stays when he comes to Mississippi State (football) games," he said. Some of the people who interviewed him stayed in the Butler Guest House, as well.

Blair said he felt confident going into the interview in part due to the welcome he received, and also because he realized that the interviewers simply wanted to get to know him better.

"The way I looked at it was, ‘I can't change in 15 minutes,'" he said.

Blair said he got the call that he had received the scholarship while he was staying at his aunt and uncle's house in Mississippi.

"When you win something like that, you want to tell your friends, or post a Facebook status," he said, but explained that he could not share the news with his friends until the scholarship winners were officially announced. He said he was one of the first recipients notified because he had not committed to attend MSU.

 Blair said much of his interview was spent discussing a statement in his essay, "To achieve in solidarity means nothing."

He explained his statement, saying, "Everyone has tools and abilities to use in life, and it's our job to share them with the people around us."

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