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 Gifted Academy Alumni

​Are you curious about what our alumni are doing now?  Alumni of the Gifted Academy choose an exciting range of paths upon graduation from our program.  Here's a sampling of where those paths have led them. ​

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​​Alumni Siva Sundaram started college in 2009 at Harvard University, where he "felt just as prepared after 12 years in the RPS 205 Gifted program as my classmates who had gone to prestigious and expensive prep schools". Hechose to major in Social Studies, an interdisciplinary social sciences program that started with a year of political and social theory and ended with an in-depth thesis on a topic of his choice. For his thesis, he did an anthropological and historical study of mental healthcare in south India, which helped confirm his interest in pursuing a career in medicine. He wanted more hands-on experience before medical school, so Siva spent two years after graduation as a field guide for a wilderness therapy program in Utah, where he led wilderness expeditions with teenagers in treatment for substance use and other mental health issues. He is now back at Harvard for medical school, where Siva is working toward a career in psychiatry and/or adolescent medicine. Alongside his coursework, he has had the opportunity to sharpen his advocacy skills through a number of projects targeting the opioid crisis and protecting healthcare reform on a national level. Through it all, he has "never forgotten the teachers I had in Rockford who challenged me to push myself and dream big, and I am forever grateful for their passion!​​"​​
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Christa Meingast was awarded the highly competitive and prestigious National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship in Environmental Engineering, beginning in fall 2014. These awards recognize students for their scholarship and achievements in and out of the classroom.  With this grant, Christa will be studying "A Fundamental Evaluation of Pathogen Inactivation in Biosolids and its Application in the Development of Sustainable Biosolids Treatment Methods."  The award provides a fellowship and tuition expenses for three years to obtain a MS and Ph.D. at Michigan Tech.

Christa Meingast

Auburn HS, Gifted Academy, 2010

B.S. Environmental Engineering, Michigan Technological University, 2014

Jordan Hoffman accepted the Department of Energy Computational Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.  This fellowship begins in the 2014-2015 school year and funds four years of a PhD program in Applied Math and Computational Engineering at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. He also was one of eight incoming students to receive the Peirce Fellowship, awarded by the faculty to students of the highest caliber.  As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, Jordan received a Provosts Research Award as well as a Woodrow Wilson Research Award for an independent study of "The Key Determinants of Protein Fold Specificity": ​ 

Jordan Hoffmann
Auburn HS, Gifted Academy, 2010

B.A. Mathematics, B.S. Physics, Johns Hopkins University, 2014


Sarah Bliss (far left) was elected internal secretary for the St. Andrews Union Debating Society.  Her responsibilities include coordination and arrangements for the university public debate sessions.  In addition, she recently qualified for the European Universities Debating Championships in Vienna.  


​​Sarah Bliss
Auburn HS, Gifted Academy, 2014

MA (Hons) ​Arabic, Economics, University of St. Andrews , anticipated 2018


Other Alumni News

August 5, 2014: Daniel Olson, along with 130 other Peace Corps volunteers was recalled from Sierra Leone after officials declared a national health emergency because of an Ebola outbreak.  He'll be heading back once the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization decide it's safe.  Daniel joined the Peace Corps as a personal challenge and to do something useful and helpful for people in need.

Daniel Olson
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2010
B.A. Philosophy and German, Northwestern University, 2014


March 14, 2014: ​​Joshua Rollins was awarded the Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching in his classroom at Washington Academy.  He was surrounded by his students, administrators, family, and School Board members.  Joshua is constantly challenging his students and looking for ways to make learning fun.  Looking back on his own education, Joshua remembers giving the commencement address at UIUC in 2007 as the recipient of the University of Illinois Education Alumni Association's Outstanding Student Medal.

Joshua Rollins
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2003
B.S. Elementary Education, Math Concentration, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2007
M.S. Curriculum and Instruction, Northern Illinois University, 2011

How did the Gifted Academy Program help you achieve your dreams/goals​?

After finishing my residency in family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston I returned to Rockford to start my career and raise my children. I practiced for 20 years and am now essentially a full time administrator, having served as president of SwedishAmerican Medical Group for the past 14 years. I'm a proud parent to two boys, both to graduate from college in the next month, including Patrick, a 2011 graduate of Auburn.

Spending four years being pushed and challenged by my teachers and classmates at Auburn helped develop the work ethic and thinking skills that have made it possible to accomplish the things I have and, while I thought 1978-1982 was rigorous it pales to what Patrick was exposed to in his time at Auburn. What was an excellent program in its infancy has matured into an exceptional one that produces graduates who I would confidently put up against any in the state.

Thomas M. Schiller
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1982, Valedictorian
B.A. Johns Hopkins University, 1986
M.D. University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, 1990​​

Gifted is not "easy," and anyone who says otherwise is misleading you. Similarly, the program is not "impossible," and anyone who tells you that it is probably didn't put the work in that the program requires. Yes, gifted is hard. Yes, there is a lot of work, especially at the high school level. Yes, you're probably going to get less sleep than you'd like some nights, especially in your junior year. The program is challenging, but I can't emphasize enough the fact that you get out of gifted what you put into it. If you work hard and put effort into learning--to really learning, not just getting good at regurgitating facts--then you'll find that in the long-run it will all have been worth it. The analytical thinking and logic/reasoning skills I developed during my twelve years in the academy have been useful in every class I've taken in college, from a proof/theory-based multivariable calculus class that slowly weeded out all but 15 students (from an initial 40) to organic chemistry to economics. The workload in gifted forced me to develop a good work ethic early on, which helped me avoid the sink-or-swim period at the beginning of college that so many of my peers had. I would probably not be at a school like Northwestern or be doing as well as I am if I had never been in the academy. In a regular classroom, I can only imagine how bored I would have been, but gifted kept me engaged and challenged for 12 years. I had teachers who encouraged a lot of questions instead of brushing me off, who fueled my curiosity, and I don't think I would have had that as often outside of the program. That encouragement and challenge has, I'm certain, been a huge part of making me who I am today, and I will always look back at gifted and my teachers in the program fondly. I can't possibly explain in writing how much I recommend this program if you're willing to put the effort into it.

​Jessica Beard
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2013, Valedictorian
Chemistry, Economics, Northwestern University, anticipated

The Academy really was my liberal arts education. I learned how to write, how to think critically, how to be a mature student, long before I entered the college classroom. It prepared me to win a major scholarship which covered my full cost of college. Comprehensive gifted education in the public schools is a rare gift. It's one I cherish and am grateful for every day.

​John Brown
Auburn HS Gifted  Academy, 2008
B.S. Mathematics, B.A. English, Indiana University
Master of Advanced Study Mathematics, Cambridge University, 2014

Looking back, I am honored and proud of the fact that I can call myself an alumnus of such a wonderful, rigorous program. The Academy challenged me and prepared me well for further education. The teachers were well-trained to work with the specific and special needs of gifted children. Just knowing that I was a part of that gives me pride.​

Bonni England-Randall
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1993
B.S. Psychology, University of Phoenix, 2013

The Rockford Auburn Academy program prepared me extremely well for college, and for that reason, I excelled in college, and I am currently excelling in my MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I am very thankful for all of the experiences that I had within the Academy program.

I am proud of being a President's Award recipient at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, and having my four years of undergraduate education being paid for in full at one of the best accounting programs in the country.  I am proud of becoming a Certified Public Accountant licensed in the State of Illinois, becoming a Certified Fraud Examiner, and becoming the Chief Audit Executive of a global $1 billion dollar public company before I turned 31 years old. In this role, I am instrumental in assessing risks throughout the company throughout the world, including Europe, Latin America and Asia. In addition to identifying frauds and risks, my role includes implementing controls and processes throughout the organization to mitigate risks and prevent frauds from happening in the future.​

As of writing this, (September, 2014) I am completing an audit project in Paris France, and I will be completing a project in Prague, Czech Republic, in November. Additionally, I travel extensively to Latin America, including Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Brazil, in order to fulfill the responsibilities of my role. Currently, I reside in Naperville, Illinois. I have been married for four years, and I just had my very first little baby boy named David who just turned 13 weeks old.​

Pedro Antonio Diaz de Leon
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1998
Accounting, Finance, Illinois State University, 2002
MBA, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, anticipated

Despite a home life that was less than ideal (divorced parents, essentially living in poverty), Auburn was a great experience and definitely helped put me on the path to success.

Melissa Rakow Worland
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1989
B.A. Biology, Rockford College
DVM (Veterinary Medicine), University of Illinois

I strongly believe that the Academy program provides the best possible education. It definitely gave me an advantage in college over students who came from schools with less rigorous classes. Our three children are in the program, and if anything, the Academy has gotten stronger and offers more to the students. Any student with the drive and ability must seriously consider taking advantage of the program. I am grateful that I had that opportunity, and am very proud and encouraged that my children will as well.​

Donald P. Shriver
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, ​1989
B.A. Economics, Knox College, 1994
J.D., Washington University, 1996​

Being a part of the gifted program in middle and high school was the best choice I possibly could have made. Being in the Academy meant I was surrounded by similarly-minded students who challenged and inspired me. I also had great teachers who prepared me well for Yale. I learned how to think critically, write well, and move through life with intention.​

​Madeleine Witt
Auburn HS GiftedAcademy, 2011
B.A. Art, Yale University, anticipated

The Academy helped me become better at asking questions. My teachers exposed me to many important philosophers, and they helped me to think critically about what I valued. I am very thankful that I was able to go to the Academy. When I got to college, I found it very easy in comparison with my classes at Auburn.

April Lundberg
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2006
B.A. Spanish, Wheaton College, 2008
Library Science, UIUC, anticipated

What is your Graduating Class Doing?


September 2014: My proudest accomplishment from my four years at Auburn was all the work I did through our Key Club chapter and National Honor Society to help better the Rockford community. It was definitely the most fulfilling experience I had at Auburn.  My proudest accomplishment outside of Auburn is the work I've done through a mentoring program called Strive for College at my university. I help students from low-income families navigate the college application process. My proudest moment was when the student I mentored called me to tell me about her full-ride to Lake Forest College.  Currently, 

I am in my junior year at Washington University in St. Louis. I was fortunate to receive a merit scholarship, the Annika Rodriguez Scholarship Program, that fully covered my tuition. The program is based on the pillars of commitment to diversity, leadership, academic excellence, and community service. Those last three pillars were very present in my experiences in the Academy. Academic excellence is the core of the gifted program, but in it you also found many of the leaders of our school, something that inspired me to take on leadership positions while at Auburn. My time at Auburn definitely helped me get to Washington University and into the Rodriguez Program and for that I am very grateful. I hope to continue on to get a Masters degree in Psychology after hopefully taking a gap year in France post graduation.

Jissell Torres
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2012
B.A. Psychology, French, Washington University, anticipated​

April 2015:​​ I am currently a high school biology and dance teacher at Noble Street Baker College Prep in Chicago. Additionally, I work as a choreographer for a record label based in Chicago, and am involved in the Chicago hip-hop dance community. My experience at Auburn High School highlighted the impact education can have on youth, and I​ intend to continue teaching on the South Side and working within the education field.

Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2010
B.A. Economics & Educational Policy, University of Chicago, 2014​​


April 2015: In my third year at Harvard, I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society, as one of only 24 students in my class of 1600 to receive the honor as juniors. Achieving such a distinction in a class filled with graduates from the nation's top prep schools and highest-profile public schools brought me a deep sense of pride for my hometown, my family, and the talented, dedicated teachers who supported me along the way. Indeed, the specific work that this recognition required--not only a near-perfect academic record but also deep study in multiple areas outside of my major--was a natural continuation of what was asked of me in high school. Building on the foundation of broad intellectual curiosity fostered by my experience in the Academy, I simply took courses that intrigued and challenged me, and I avoided conventional paths. Although I knew I wanted to go to medical school, I ended up pursuing a major in Social Studies, for which I studied primarily philosophy, anthropology, and history. Meanwhile, I took classes in math and physics well above the level necessary for the pre-medical requirements I needed to fulfill. I believe that my academic journey, apart from the external markers of achievement I have achieved, will help make me a much more effective, creative, and influential physician than I would have been had I limited myself to the laboratory.​

I graduated college in 2013, and I will start medical school at Johns Hopkins in August of 2015. I finished my stint in wilderness therapy this March, and since then, I have been staying with my brother Ganesh (another Academy alumnus, from 2003) and his wife in New York City to help take care of my newborn nephew. In the next few months before medical school, I will be traveling throughout East and Southeast Asia, attending a couple of weddings, and spending a month or so at a language school in Guatemala. I'm obviously very excited!​

Siva Sundaram
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2009
A.B. Social Studies, Harvard University, 2013

April 2015: I work for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, where I help high school students and their parents in the Rock Valley area through the college admissions and financial aid process.  My gifted classes were a struggle! I will not pretend I didn't think about quitting a few times. But as it turns out, my college-level work was incredibly easy to adjust to as a result. Plus, graduating a year early because of AP credits saved me thousands of dollars, which was awesome! I recommend this program wholeheartedly.

Danielle Long
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2009
B.A. Philosophy, Northern Illinois University, 2012

October 2014: Currently, I work as a Success Advisor for College Success Arizona. CSA is a nonprofit organization in Phoenix, Arizona that provides scholarships to low-income students across Arizona. My role is to mentor students in the scholarship who attend Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University through college graduation. I also plan and implement programs at four universities to foster student relationships with their peers and teach college success strategies. I conduct surveys to evaluate our programs and provide information to donors and community members. In July 2014, I served as a chaperone for the Girl Scout Oxford Leadership Youth Program in Oxford, England. Twenty-five high school Girl Scouts from around the country participated in an intensive leadership program for two weeks. I volunteer as an ESL teacher for undocumented unaccompanied minors living in a nonprofit group home. I also serve as the Leadership Scholarship Program Alumni Board secretary.

Kalah Polsean
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2009
B.S. Elementary Education, ESL, Nonprofit Administration, Arizona State, 2013
M.A. Social Work, anticipated

September 2014: This year I was a published author for National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM's) Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School Journal.  I am a Robert Noyce Teacher Scholar funded by NSF.  I received 1st Place in Chandler Star Miller Scholarship Competition for Piano at Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center 2009. I am currently teaching Algebra to 6th-8th graders at Nichols Middle School in Evanston, IL.

Jennifer Dao
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2009
B.S. Mathematics, University of Illinois


June 2014: Kelsey Beach is the 2014 winner of the Every Writers Resource 50 Word Short Story Contest.  Kelsey currently works for Delta Airlines in Atlanta, Georgia while pursuing her passion for writing in her free time.

​​Kelsey Beach
Auburn HS, Gifted Academy, 2003
B.A. English, B.S. Mechanical Engineering, Rice University, 2007
M.S. Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2009


October 2014: Since graduating I attended NIU, earned my BSME, while owning my own business – opening and closing it twice. I have also adopted twin girls. The academy was the foundation of my education and ultimately life. Most of my early college courses were a breeze because of the preparation and discipline I learned in the academy. In fact, I took an English course at RVC one summer, wrote about Greek Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics and the instructor accused me of plagiarizing. I was flattered, but it spoke to the quality of education I received in high school.

Loren Gayden
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2002
B.S. Mechanical Engineering


​April 2015: ​​I work at the Central Iowa VA hospital and recently took a position as the supervisor for the clinical pharmacist services for our facility which includes five other clinics in addition to the main campus. Outside of work, I have traveled to Ireland, Mexico, Spain, and hiked the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu in Peru.

​Mary (Reed) Rasmussen
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 2001
Pharmacy, Drake, 2007 


January 2015: I was promoted to digital editor at the Rockford Register Star at the beginning of 2015. In that role I lead news coverage, both online and in print, help develop new content and work to engage the community. My husband, Brian, and I have three children. Ellie, 5, is in kindergarten at Brookview Elementary; Katie turns 3 on Feb. 3; and Charlie is almost 10 month.

Dorothy Schneider Wallheimer
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1999
Journalism, University of Illinois, 2003
Public Affairs Reporting, University of Illinois-Springfield, 2004


October 2014: I live with my family in Janesville, WI. I have two stepchildren who are both in college now. I also have one daughter who will turn 4 in October, and we're expecting to add to our family next year. I work as an Accountant for a software company, and my husband is a web developer for CUNA Mutual. I obtained my Associate's degree in 2008 at Rock Valley College, and graduated with honors, a member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society. I have made a great career for myself in Accounting, completing my degree with 15 years experience under my belt. I've gone to school for the past 10 years while also working full time and raising a family.

Mary Watson Richards
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1998
Accounting, Upper Iowa University, 2015

September 2014: While at Illinois State as Student Government Chief of Staff, I worked to create a service leadership program.  I was President of Phi Alpha Delta Legal Fraternity at Northern Illinois and Vice President of the Student Bar Association.  I opened a solo Family Law and Juvenile Law Practice in 2011.  I represented Doctors and Hospitals at a Medical Malpractice Defense firm from 2005 to 2008.  I handled civil rights and employment discrimination on behalf of workers at a boutique firm from 2008 to 2011. My children are now in the elementary program at Washington. My second child has the same first grade teacher that I had. Mrs. Bubnack rocks!

Steven Whitmore
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1998
Political Science, Illinois State University, 2002
J.D., Northern Illinois University, 2005


September, 2014:  I am proud of having worked as a forensic scientist for the Illinois state police.​  I currently stay home with 7 children and am expecting #8.​

Kelly Kiley Smitley
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1990
B.S. Chemistry, University of Illinois, 1994​


September, 2014: I am proud of graduating from a school that prepared me for "real life". I left Auburn knowing that I could have a meaningful conversation with people from all socioeconomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Being a parent is the hardest and most rewarding thing I have done. I am now a Practice Manager and Licensed Clinical Social Worker for the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of Kentucky. Basically, I manage a clinic and provide therapy to all of us when we were in high school.

Elizabeth Johnson
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1989
B.S. Social Work, B.S. Sociology, Illinois State University, 1993
M.S. Social Work, University of Kentucky, 1995

September, 2014: In school, I enjoyed being on the NIC 10 all-star team in soccer 3 years in a row.  My proudest accomplishments are completing a challenging 100+ hour a week OB-Gyne residency and my 4 year old son, I am currently employed at SwedishAmerican Hospital as an OB-Gyne.

Lee Sessler
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1989
B.S. Biology, Drake, 1993
M.A. Biology, Drake, 1995
M.D., University of Illinois, 1999


September 2014: In school, I am proud of getting Kay Boyer (Teacher) voted "Best Legs" for the class of 1989.  I am currently a  Product Manager, for enChoice, Inc.

Joseph Cervanna
Auburn HS Gifted Academy, 1989
B.S. Economics

September 2014: I am a full time Accounting Instructor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL. I have a wife and two kids, a son who is a freshman in high school who is an honors student, a football player, and an all around good person who I am very proud of. My daughter is in Kindergarten and will grow up to be the most beautiful woman in the world, tied with her mom.

Christopher Ferro
Auburn HS Gifted​ Academy, 1989
Finance, NIU
MBA, NIU, 2006​

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