Bulloch County has not one, but two, STAR students this year.
Zoe Yan Li of Bulloch Academy and Alex DiCesare of Statesboro High School tied with the county’s highest SAT score, which is the largest factor in determining which student is recognized as part of the Student Teacher Achievement Recognition Program, or STAR.
Li and DiCesare share more than just their SAT achievement in common. They also both plan to pursue scientifically oriented majors at whichever college or university they attend, and both would follow family traditions in doing so. And both are not originally from Statesboro.
DiCesare also is the second straight STAR student from Statesboro High School. Nidhi Aggarwal was last year’s Bulloch County winner.
In keeping with the full name of the STAR acronym, each student chooses a STAR teacher. Li chose Karen Whitten, a science teacher in BA’s upper school. DiCesare chose Bruce Law, a language arts teacher at SHS.
Li, 17, has attended BA since moving to Statesboro from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, three years ago. She said she is seriously considering attending the University of Georgia after being offered the Foundation Fellowship there, which offers an annual stipend on top of the full-tuition Zell Miller Scholarship and several other academic benefits. She also has been accepted to Georgia Tech and is waiting to hear from other schools.
Li said Whitten has been “so much more than” a teacher to her.
“She’s really helped me appreciate what it means to be a student and a learner of science,” Li said of Whitten. “I think it’s due to the passion of Mrs. Whitten as a teacher. She makes it a point to go beyond the classroom to develop relationships with her students in ways more than just as a teacher who assigns homework.”
Li also participates on the archery, literary and robotics teams and is a member of Beta Club, National Honor Society and Student Council at Bulloch. Outside school, she dances at Statesboro School of Dance, plays piano and volunteers every Saturday morning at Worn Threads.
Li’s father, Li, is a professor of kinesiology at Georgia Southern University, and his wife also works in the biology department. They are originally from China and moved to Massachusetts, then Louisiana, where Li was a professor at Louisiana State University, before coming to Statesboro.
“This is not her individual achievement,” Li said. “This is representing the level of BA and all the help she got from there.”
DiCesare, 18, has been accepted to UGA and Georgia Tech and is waiting to hear back from at least one more school, but he did tell the audience at the STAR student banquet that he plans to attend Georgia Tech. His father, Dr. John DiCesare, is the chairman of the chemistry department at Georgia Southern.
The younger DiCesare, who has lived in Statesboro for six years after moving from his native Tulsa, Oklahoma, said he plans to major in chemistry or chemical engineering in undergraduate school and then go to medical school.
At SHS, he is on the tennis, swimming and math teams, marching band, Model United Nations, the treasurer of National Honor Society.
Oh, and last semester, he tutored students in math. At Georgia Southern. University students.
“It was anywhere from college algebra to calculus III,” DiCesare said in his typical, understated way.
With DiCesare’s strong affinity for math and science, it was striking that he chose a humanities instructor as his STAR teacher.
“He was the best teacher I had at Statesboro High. His class was very enjoyable,” DiCesare said of Law. “I didn’t really like English that much, but he made the class bearable. … He’s a great teacher.”
Law did not hold back in his praise of DiCesare.
“He is a driven student to produce that top work, the best that he can possibly do,” Law said. “He’s one of the top students that I’ve taught in 27 years.”
DiCesare and Li will represent Bulloch County in the Region 8 STAR Student program, which encompasses 15 counties in southeast Georgia. The region winner will go to the State PAGE Star Banquet, sponsored by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation, in April in Atlanta.
Before the STAR students and teachers were recognized, the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the Bulloch County STAR Student/Teacher Recognition Banquet each year, showed a video recording of Lynda Brannen Williamson talking about a foundation set up in her honor. The recording was made shortly before Williamson died in November after a three-year battle with peritoneal cancer.
The foundation’s aim is to help young professional women become leaders who give back to their community, in the way Williamson is remembered as having lived her life. Williamson has been honored posthumously as the chamber’s 2014 Business Leader of the Year and the 2015 Rotary Citizen of the Year by the two Statesboro Rotary clubs.Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.