ACS valedictorian looks forward to fall at Princeton University

By Matthew J. Perry
Andes Central School, graduating nine students this year, has proven yet again that good things can come out of small packages.
Cheyenne Tait, the valedictorian for the class of 2008, has managed to draw a connecting line between a rural Catskill school district and the elite heights of education. Armed with a sterling academic record and given a leg up by a dynamic nonprofit program, she is scheduled to enter Princeton University—currently rated as the best university in the country—as a member of the Class of 2012.
Even with her outstanding qualifications, Cheyenne has been extremely fortunate. Applications have poured into Princeton and other Ivy League colleges in record numbers; this year, Princeton rejected over 90 percent of those who applied. However, like many of the country’s best schools, in recent years Princeton has actively sought to recruit worthy candidates from lower-income backgrounds.
QuestBridge, based in northern California, describes itself as an “intermediary” that seeks to acquaint top-notch schools with students they historically have had trouble finding. Gifted students, that is, who, upon seeing a price tag just under $50,000 for a single year, would have shaken their heads and looked elsewhere.
The QuestBridge program began in 2004, and takes fees from 20 colleges for providing admissions boards with a list of high-achieving, motivated high school seniors. Most come from families earning less than $50,000 a year, sometimes much less. The colleges in turn offer full scholarships to selected students and financial aid packages to many others. Cheyenne Tait is one of 204 students receiving scholarships this year through QuestBridge.
It’s been a heady time for someone raised on a dairy farm in Andes with three younger sisters. Cheyenne’s mother, Judy, grew up on the same farm and also graduated from ACS. However, after marrying her husband, Dale, then serving in the U.S. Navy, Judy’s family got started far away from the family home. Cheyenne was born in Hawaii. Her three sisters were born on the west coast, and the family did not make the trek back to Andes until Dale left the service, when Cheyenne was seven years old.

Teachers’ helper
Even at that early age, it was apparent that ACS had gained an unusual student. Cheyenne often became an unofficial teachers’ aide, explaining to other students lessons she picked up on quicker than most. There were many chores at home, and the oldest child also had the responsibility of helping to care for her younger siblings, especially following her parents’ divorce. Spare hours could still be found, however, and Cheyenne filled most of them by reading, a habit that has persisted despite a schedule that borders on hectic.
That ability to concentrate was evident when she began preparing for the PSAT in high school. “She’d say, ‘I’m studying,’ grab her prep book, go into her room and shut the door,” says Judy Tait. “She didn’t let anything get in the way of preparing.”
Her score on the test was a point off from perfection. At this point, QuestBridge took notice.
Students can be referred to QuestBridge by teachers or others who know their work. However, many are contacted by the program itself, which flags exceptionally high scores on standardized tests and then invites students to apply to its programs.

Prep scholarship
Cheyenne was awarded a College Prep Scholarship by QuestBridge in her junior year. This paved the way for her to apply to partner schools, which she ranked based on her own research. Princeton was her first choice, followed by Amherst College and Swathmore College. Once a match between student and college is made, the match is binding. “I didn’t even get to find out if the other schools accepted me,” she says.
QuestBridge looks favorably not just on grades but a well-rounded approach to scholarship and community. Cheyenne — who has served as secretary of ACS Student Council, is president of the ACS Honor Society, a member of the Outdoor Club (which helps with the maintenance of Ballantine Park, among other local projects), and is a saxophonist in the All-County Band — has always taken a lead role in helping ACS to function as a dynamic community.
“Cheyenne always follows through,” says Ed McGee, who teaches science. “We’ve grown to depend on her so much.”
While life is good, Cheyenne has little time to bask in the glow of success. Even though her tuition and room and board will be covered so long as she maintains a respectable GPA, she is obligated to seek federal financial aid and outside funding each year she remains at Princeton. Also, she is expected to earn money during the summers as well as in a campus job, likely in the cafeteria or the library. “I’m really hoping it will be the library,” she says.
Like many seniors bound for college, Cheyenne isn’t ready to say where her studies will take her. She has always enjoyed science, and on a recent visit to Princeton she attended classes in chemistry and linear algebra. But her love of books leads her to speculate on the possibility of becoming a biology major with an English minor.
Walking on the grounds of the family farm, Cheyenne still looks comfortable among dozens of dairy cows, 23 cats, pet goats and a potbelly pig. While she expresses nothing but fondness for rural, small-town life, opportunities as yet undiscovered are waiting.
“I like it here, but I don’t think I’ll come back to farming,” she says. Indeed, the list of notable scientists who have graduated from Princeton is a long one. Then again, it’s educated more than a few writers.