Two Norfolk Academy seniors, William Smythe and Sean Miller, have been selected as Jefferson Scholars, the premier scholarship at University of Virginia, recognizing excellence in the Jeffersonian ideals of leadership, scholarship, and citizenship.
It is rare for a school to have two recipients of Jefferson Scholarships in the same year, as the pool of nominees is drawn not just from schools around the country, but also from around the world. The Jefferson Scholarship award covers the entire cost of attendance for four years at UVA, plus an array of supplemental enrichment experiences, including foreign travel.
Another senior, Michael Hostutler, was selected as Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the program fully funds four years at the university and offers summer enrichment and research opportunities.
The path that unites the two young men selected as Jefferson Scholars is quite unusual: They have been classmates at Norfolk Academy since the first grade, and as such, have forged an enduring friendship over that 12-year journey.
Headmaster Dennis Manning drew attention to that fact in a video message to the community. “What an extraordinary achievement for these young people, both of whom enjoyed the full 12-year formation here,” he said. “And they are so quick to give credit to their teachers, coaches, and faculty members, and to the institution.”
As juniors, both were enrolled in the headmaster’s spring English course, “Shakespeare and Leadership." This year, they are two of the three students enrolled in Latin VI, a language they began studying in seventh grade. “We both push ourselves a lot in our classes,” Smythe said. “We hold each other to high standards.”
It is a friendship that takes in more than academic pursuits. Both are Global Affairs Fellows of the Batten Leadership Program and have cultivated an interest in international relations and diplomacy through four years in that co-curricular program, which included two trips to Peru to learn about indigenous populations there.
Both students have been involved in projects related to their work as Global Affairs Fellows. Miller played a prominent role in a survey that was used to gather the opinions of local Peruvians towards the Chinchero International Airport. Over the past two and a half years, Smythe spearheaded a project to tutor refugees in partnership with Hampton Roads Refugee Relief (HR3); he and several other students have provided English lessons and SAT tutoring to teenage boys, all recent immigrants from Pakistan, Syria, and Afghanistan.
While they collaborate on Global Affairs work, both have strong views. Not infrequently, they find themselves on different sides of an issue. “We debate political topics and we’re very passionate,” Miller said. “Talking to William gives me new insights and perspectives.”
And this year, Miller, who likes to call himself a “three-play athlete” for his year-round participation in Norfolk Academy’s theatrical productions, finally persuaded Smythe—an avid athlete—to join the cast of The Addams Family; Miller starred as Gomez, patriarch of the clan, and Smythe played Granville Addams, one of a bevy of dancing and singing ancestors.
“I was working on convincing him throughout the entire fall,” Miller said. “He had a solo during a song—I never expected him to get onstage and sing by himself and dance! He was great.”
In addition to their outstanding academic records, both Smythe and Miller have been energetic participants in the life of the school beyond the classroom.
Smythe is co-president of the Special Olympics Club, which he has been involved in since sixth grade; co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Belfry; vice president of the Latin Club; and a member of the Varsity Soccer and Lacrosse teams.
Miller, who is a National Merit Finalist, is president of the International Relations Club, president of the Prism Club, vice president of the Science Fiction Club, and secretary of the Fine Arts Club. However, he is most widely known to Norfolk Academy audiences for his many star turns in school productions—as Hansa in I Never Saw Another Butterfly; as Helen Keller’s brother, James, in The Miracle Worker; as John Proctor in The Crucible; and, just a few weeks ago, as the effervescently devilish Gomez Addams in The Addams Family.
The selection process for the Jefferson Scholarship typically includes an on-campus weekend in March for the 120 finalists, where they participate in a variety of group interviews and activities. The COVID-19 pandemic radically altered that final stage, as colleges and universities closed their campuses and shifted to distance learning. Instead of the weekend, each candidate did a virtual interview with three members of the Jefferson Scholars Selection Committee.
The students were notified by email, and Smythe noted that time moved so slowly as he awaited the decision, which—when it arrived on March 23 — felt “surreal,” he said. “l was in shock, and I had to go for a run to expend the energy...It was one of the best runs I’ve ever had.”
Students selected as Jefferson Scholars have until April 20 to notify UVA about their acceptance of the award. Smythe, who said that he is interested in studying public policy at UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, has already accepted. Miller, who plans to major in computer science and pair that with a second major in the liberal arts, was also accepted at Yale and Harvard; he is still considering his college destination.