Top of the class: Falcon valedictorians exemplify academic perfection

Sean George is one of South Whidbey
Sean George is one of South Whidbey's class of 2011 valedictorians. He will enroll at Brigham Young University in the fall and pursue a degree in biomedical engineering.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Together, the 123 graduating seniors have 2,214 years of experience.

That’s 2,214 years of bumps, bruises, books, lectures, lessons, life lessons, failures and triumphs.

Of those 123 seniors who will receive their diplomas on Saturday, June 18 at South Whidbey High School’s graduation ceremony, 1 percent maintained perfect 4.0 grade point averages.

Andrea Leigh Berg and Sean George are that 1 percent.

Through four years of Advanced Placement courses, electives, athletics, work and play, Berg and George maintained straight A’s.

Neither student has traits of the stigma that comes with being a valedictorian. They’re social, athletic and adventurous.

George is a quiet young man. He doesn’t speak with the haste of the texting, Facebook and cellphone generation. When he speaks, it’s deliberate and concise. He spent his time focused on the South Whidbey community.

Berg is adventurous and speaks as quickly as she thinks and analyzes. She sees the world as her neighborhood.

They’re similar and they’re different. The Record takes a look into the achievements, efforts, failures, futures and minds of South Whidbey High School’s two valedictorians for the class of 2011.

Sean George

It may be his pedigree.

Sean George’s two older brothers were both valedictorians. Brian, 32, and Kenny, 20, set the academic standard at perfection for their younger brother.

George’s parents said they never emphasized a perfect grade point average, though.

“We’re just proud of Sean for being a kind and well-rounded person,” said Sean’s dad, Steve George.

The well-rounded person George’s parents are proud of has a trove of accomplishments. He’s co-president of South Whidbey’s National Torch Honor Society Club; he was a varsity starter on the boys basketball team; he led and organized the blood drive at school; he coached basketball teams of third- and fourth-, and fifth- and sixth-grade students.

He did all of that outside of school.

Inside the walls of South Whidbey High, he took classes like Advanced Placement biology, AP U.S. history and physics.

“He’s really put in 12 years of hard work to get to this point,” said his father, Steve George.

Before the student even set foot on the South Whidbey grounds, he was in a seminary class at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Maxwelton Road, at 6:30 a.m.

“He’s been very lucky because he’s been able to structure his time,” said his mother, Brenda George.

“Sean was very business-like in terms of academics,” noted Mark Eager, George’s history teacher. “During any spare time in class he’d pull out his math and chip away at it. And I know it couldn’t possibly be because he liked math more than history.”

That litany of academic excellence and extracurricular activities led Brigham Young University to accept George and offer him a half-tuition scholarship and financial aid package. BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon Church in Provo, Utah.

BYU is home to the Cougars, a recent perennial in the Bowl Championship Series college football games. Some of George’s educators teased him for his choice of college.

“I’d remind him about his team’s unworthy national title,” Eager said, recalling the title won by BYU in 1984, before George was born. “But he would stoically endure me until the weekend when his team beat mine.”

Celebrations are George’s fondest memories. He remembered traveling to and winning the Seaside Holiday basketball tournament.

There wasn’t always joy at the buzzer. George recalled his worst memory at South Whidbey as the game the boys basketball team lost to Archbishop Murphy by 12 points, at home, after winning 10 games in a row.

George credited the values he learned and his beliefs from his church for keeping him clear of distractions. A part of that formation was his former Scout troop leader, Bishop Chris Vogelsberg — who has known the George family for 14 years.

In all that time, George was never a big talker, even on Scout trips and youth group meetings.

“He’s a quiet, but pretty deep kid,” Vogelsberg said. “He’s very quiet, but you can tell he thinks a lot.”

One lasting observation the bishop made of George was his work ethic.

“We’ve had service projects at the church,” Vogelsberg said. “When he puts his mind to something then he just continues to do it.”

The young man who believes in faith said he liked the sciences and mathematics for their concrete answers.

“With math and science, there’s usually a definite answer,” George said. “With language arts, it’s more of an opinion or you have to back it up. You can’t just plug something into an equation.”

He’ll find plenty of definite answers along the path to his current profession of choice as a biomedical engineer. The four-year major will likely lead him to graduate school, he said.

“I’ve always been interested in biology,” George said.

George’s faith permeates beyond the walls of the LDS building and the Georges’ home. It influenced his academic career, too.

“Sean was quite disciplined and I think part of that comes from getting up early every morning and heading to seminary at his local church before class started,” his father said. “Lots of kids are dragging themselves out of bed as late as possible, but there’s something to be said for his church’s ethic.”

A hearty work ethic is part of the Mormon Church’s teachings, Vogelsberg said.

“The church believes in work,” he said. “It’s one of the principles that we believe.”

There’s work still to be done. It may be the biggest obstacle for the perfect student, yet: the speech.

“I was a little bit miserable, because I knew he would absolutely hate to give a speech,” his mother said.

Valedictorian speeches were due Friday, June 10. As of June 5, George admitted he had yet to write his.

Ever the worker, he read at least three other valedictorian speeches to brainstorm what his could sound like, and said he’d set the tone for inspiration rather than humor.

He’ll miss the island, but he’s ready to see what’s beyond the shores of Whidbey.

“It’ll be nice to get out a little bit and not be so isolated,” George said.

Andrea Berg

Moving 300 miles away to meet new friends and new teachers, and discover a new town and a new climate, wasn’t enough adventure for Andrea Leigh Berg.

Instead of enrolling at Whitman University in Walla Walla in August, Berg is taking a gap year and deferring her enrollment for the fall of 2012. That year will be spent traveling from Spain to Australia, and a handful of destinations in between.

Before she could plan for the trip, her parents made sure she had a guaranteed spot at a college or university when she returned.

“Education has just really, really been a family value for many years,” said her mother, Leigh Anderson.

During the next year, Berg has plans to travel, in order, to Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Spain, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Australia, before coming home to the island.

That’s a long trip for a Freeland girl who spent most of her life on South Whidbey. The trip will be less “Eat, Pray, Love” and more “Travel, See, Help.” Berg said she has yet to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller-turned-movie starring Julia Roberts.

Berg’s intentions for traveling stem from the kind of youthful wonder that accompanies life on an island, and the taste of the world beyond.

It may be that her senior year at South Whidbey High was the gap year.

Berg spent a year in Figueres, Spain, north of Barcelona during her junior year. Her plan is to return there for part of her year-long trip.

“Her experience as a foreign exchange student kind of instilled a wanderlust in her, if you will,” said her father, Earl Berg.

Spanish was easy. Being away from home was a struggle. But the most difficult part was learning Catalan (which most of her classes were taught in) while tending to her host mother who was in a car accident early in Berg’s visit. Classes were pass-fail, so the margin for error was steep.

“I learned how to be wrong, and how to be OK with that,” Berg said.

The trip wasn’t so easy on her parents.

“It was really hard,” her mother said. “I think to watch her really have to work and struggle to be successful in a foreign language … was very rewarding, to watch her have to struggle academically.”

Out of the tribulation came triumph. The lessons learned while having less supervision and more responsibility while learning and traveling forged her into a different young woman.

“As her father, her character has always been more important than her intellect,” he said.

The road to perfection was not perfect. Rigorous courses, extracurricular activities, work and a social life led to long nights of studying, writing and homework.

“What I see her sacrificing is her sleep,” Anderson said.

There was another hiccup in an otherwise immaculate body of schoolwork. Berg admitted she recently had her first in-school suspension, ever.

Even amid punishment, she found a teachable moment. The two other students serving in-school suspension with her, threw paper wads at each other, but missed and hit Berg. Her advice to those fellow Falcons was blunt.

“Improve your aim,” she said, laughing. “Think before you act.”

Berg’s favorite teacher reciprocated the superlative.

“Andrea is not only one of my top students that I’ve had in my career, she’s one of my favorites,” said Berg’s history teacher Mark Eager. “Academically, she could have thrived at any of the elite academies on the other side, but she’s too much an island kid who enjoys her friends.”

Her parents were filled with pride to learn their daughter was officially a valedictorian.

“We feel she worked very, very hard for it over four years,” said her father. “She absolutely deserves it.”

Berg’s worldview may be as broad as the world she will soon circumnavigate.

“She’s very broad-minded and her opinions on contemporary issues are quite sophisticated, and I think much of that comes from her family,” Eager said. “She has conversations around the dinner table that I certainly didn’t have.”

“There’s much credit due to her mother who, when all was said and done, let her daughter have a voice in the big decisions at an early age and allowed her to enjoy her teenage years,” Eager continued.

“Especially permitting her to attend school in Spain as a junior, and see obscure bands in Seattle with her twin sister, Lucy Vollbrecht,” he added, referring to the super student’s best friend.

The island kid will learn to make new friends on her trip. Berg leaves June 22 and will jet-set from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, then back to Figueres to stay with her host family before she sets off east toward India.

Somewhere along the way, she said she hopes to find a path to take in college and beyond. Peace Corps is one option she said she’s contemplated for a long time, but not one she’s ready to delve into yet.

There’s still a world to see, beyond the shores of South Whidbey.


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