Maharishi School held its 2019 commencement exercises Saturday in the Henry Ogden Clark Auditorium.
Three graduates received their diplomas from the school: Pranav Chhaliyil, Wang Fei and Olivia Goodale. Head of School Richard Beall thanked the graduates for how they have “embraced this unusual situation,” referring to the small class size, and that they had become terrific role models for their younger peers.
All three students had a chance to speak on what the school meant to them, how they’ve grown intellectually since they first stepped foot in the building, and the teachers, parents and friends who’ve helped them become the mature adults they are today.
Pranav Chhaliyil was the class’s valedictorian and was chosen to give the Student Pioneer Address. In welcoming him to the stage, Beall remarked that Chhaliyil is probably the most decorated science student in Iowa’s history. His accolades include being named the Iowa State Science and Technology Fair’s Grand Champion in the Junior and Senior divisions, winning the International BioGENEius Challenge’s GENEPool competition, earning a spot as a finalist in the International GENIUS Olympiad, being the only Iowan to become a semifinalist to the Regeneron Science Talent Search, on top of countless other national and international science honors.
Beall remarked that he and his wife attended last year’s Iowa State Science and Technology Fair. Hundreds of projects lined the floor of Hilton Coliseum on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames. As the top winners were being announced, the speaker said, “This one only needs one name: Pranav.” Chhaliyil received thunderous applause.
“It was palpable. These people loved this student,” Beall said.
Pranav’s foray into independent science research all started years ago while he and his family were attending Kiwanis Kids’ Day. A woman had set up a booth on oral hygiene, and Pranav’s parents joked as they walked by about how their son doesn’t like to brush his teeth. Pranav said it was partly true; he didn’t like brushing at night, only in the morning. His dad told him he should spit in a petri dish to discover all the bacteria he was allowing to grow in his mouth.
In seventh grade, Maharishi School teacher Barbara Hays encouraged her students to pursue a project to show at a science fair. Chhaliyil was interested, but didn’t know what to study. He recalled the teeth-brushing incident from Kiwanis Kids’ Day, and realized that might make a good science project.
“I wanted to find out if brushing was really effective, or if people just said it was,” he remarked.
Pranav’s research on teeth-brushing was the basis for the science fair projects he showed in grades seventh through 10th. For his junior year, he focused on how sugar affects oral health, and for his senior year, he did something completely different, studying how mulching affects microorganisms in soil.
Though Pranav has a budding career as a dental hygienist, he actually wants to chart a new course in college, where he will study business and neuroscience. He has received a full merit-based scholarship at Arizona State University in the school’s accelerated program in neuroscience.
Chhaliyil said Hays and Evelyn Ellinghaus are his two favorite teachers at Maharishi School. Hays helped him discover his passion and put all his energy behind it. Ellinghaus, who has taught him Spanish, has been a mentor to him, someone he could lean on for support.
During his address to the crowd, Pranav thanked his parents for making so many sacrifices for him. He told about how his mother, Priya, at the peak of her career, dropped everything she was doing to devote her full attention to him. His father, Pradheep, has been a great coach and has helped him refine his scientific reasoning.
In addition to his independent research, Chhaliyil has done copious volunteer work in his parents’ native country of India. Since 2014, Pranav has hosted dental awareness camps every summer to children in slums and poor villages. He raised $16,000 to rebuild a school destroyed by a cyclone in Pondicherry.
Pranav also teaches classes to children in India via Skype while he is here in the U.S. Before he goes to his own class at Maharishi School, Pranav spends half an hour in the mornings reviewing science and English curriculum with the students, teaching them in their native language of Tamil. Tamil is one of Pranav’s four languages, the others being Malayalam (his native tongue), English and Hindi. He’s planning to add Spanish and Arabic to that list in the near future.
Wang Fei grew up in Shenzhen, China, just north of Hong Kong. She is completing her fourth year of study in the United States: two years in Rochester, New York, and the last two years at Maharishi School.
Wang, which is her family name, said she feels a deeper connection to people in Fairfield than in her home city of 12.5 million people.
“In Shenzhen, people don’t know each other and they don’t say hi to each other,” she lamented.
Fei said her favorite teacher at Maharishi School was Cynthia Cornell. Fei had a hard time deciding on a major for college. Her family wanted her to study medicine, but that wasn’t her dream. Cornell assured Wang that no matter what she chose, she would be a success. Instead of medicine, Wang plans to study business when she enrolls at the University of South Carolina.
Wang’s father and one of her cousins came all the way from China to attend Saturday’s graduation ceremony. During her address, Wang delivered a message in Mandarin to them and her family watching the ceremony online.
“I told my parents that I loved them, and thanked them for all the support,” she said.
Fei was selected by her peers to receive the Global Citizenship Award, making her the first to receive what will be an annual award.
Olivia Goodale spent her entire academic career at Maharishi School. She told the audience how she has a faint memory of her older sister escorting her to school on her first day. Goodale has participated in theater, debate and tennis, where she has excelled, becoming the leader of the girls’ tennis team and earning accolades such as the Paul Eskenazi Award for Sports Dedication.
Goodale remarked that her fellow students inspire her to be courageous, especially her teammates on the tennis team.
“I looked to the other girls for inspiration,” she said. “They were always beams of positivity, and I just tried to hold up a mirror to show them what they were capable of.”
Goodale said her favorite teacher was Asha Sharma because of her “passion, honesty and huge heart.” She spoke about how her dad, Dean, has been an indispensable coach, teacher and friend.
She recalled how she brought home three straight A-plus tests in biology during her sophomore year. Her dad remarked on how proud he was.
“Now do that in all your classes,” he said.
Karen DeAngelis has overseen the school’s greenhouse for many years. When Goodale was in eighth grade, she was a shy girl and did not enjoy coming to school. DeAngelis discovered that Goodale was interested in gardening, and sought to cultivate that interest. Goodale took it upon herself to beautify the entrance to the garden by adding flowers and a stone path. At Saturday’s graduation ceremony, DeAngelis presented Goodale with a decorative sign that read “Olivia’s Entrance,” which will hang outside the garden in her honor.
Olivia will attend the University of Iowa to study biology.