Night of Celebration

Published 5:06 pm Thursday, November 30, 2023

GATESVILLE – The atmosphere at the Gates County Community Center was filled with excitement on Nov. 17 as it hosted the Saunders Science Scholars (SSS) dinner.

Saunders Science Scholars and their guests wait for the meal to be served at their gathering on Nov. 17 at the Gates County Community Center. Contributed Photo

This event, featuring delicious food, lively music, and even some dancing, highlighted the importance of academic enrichment opportunities in rural America.

Participants, school administrators, members of the Board of Education, and elected officials were in attendance. Many took the opportunity to share their meaningful experiences with the Saunders Science Scholars Program, a unique initiative that promotes STEM education in Gates County.

J’Yanah Powell, an SSS Core participant, expressed her excitement about the program, saying, “I am eager to see the program’s growth. It helped me find my passion, and now I aspire to become a neurologist and attend Winston Salem State University.”

Semiyah Saunders, another SSS Core participant, shared her enjoyment of connecting with fellow participants in the program, stating, “I loved meeting new kids and forming bonds with people I never thought I would talk to. This program has allowed me to know their personalities and create lasting connections.”

Logan Kronbauer, an SSS Core participant, talked about the importance of choosing the right college by saying, “The college I choose will play a significant role in shaping my future. Duke University is where I see myself, particularly in the Chemical Engineering Department. As we toured the campus, I could imagine myself fitting right in.”

Parents also had inspiring stories to share. Krystal Brooks, Assistant Principal of Gates County High School, revealed the transformation of Trey, an SSS Core participant.

“When Trey joined our family, he used to say, ‘I am not going to college.’ However, during a recent Zoom call with UNC staff, he was asked about his future plans, and for the first time, he said, ‘I think I am going to college.’ He now has individuals supporting him and showing him the endless possibilities,” Brooks stated.

Educator Cindy Barber emphasized the positive impact of the program on students, saying, “After witnessing the achievements of the first cohort, we made sure our daughter, London, became part of the program. Our students have access to experiences and connections that go beyond what they would typically have. I hope funding continues beyond 2025-2026 because the Saunders Science Scholars Program allows our students to explore opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

The Saunders Science Scholars Program is a unique collaboration between Gates County Schools, Gates County Community Partnership, and Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Its primary goal is to help students explore science through hands-on activities, providing them with new enrichment opportunities and igniting their passion for STEM disciplines.

Beyond impacting students, the program benefits the wider community through its mobile programs and public events like the Saturdays of Science, which make science enjoyable for all.

Brian Rountree, Gates County Commissioner, praised the program, saying, “As a director of Gates County Community Partnership, I witness firsthand the positive outcomes of the Saunders Science Scholars Program for the program participants, Gates County Schools, and our local area. UNC Chapel Hill and Morehead Planetarium and Science Center have become guiding lights for our community. They have not only provided educational opportunities but also formed relationships and shown genuine care for us. The initial spark has grown into a flame, and we now have a clear vision for our future.”

The Saunders Science Scholars dinner highlighted the importance of academic enrichment and the necessity of high-quality STEM education. This event underscored the undeniable need for accessible, comprehensive, and engaging educational experiences in rural America.

The outstanding success of the Saunders Science Scholars Program reaffirms the belief that academic excellence should be accessible to all, not just a select few. Through its dedicated efforts, the program illuminates the path of rural education and promotes a brighter future for everyone.

The main benefactors of the Saunders Science Scholars Program are Stephen Butts, a former member of the Morehead Advisory Council, and his wife, Addie. Their vision was to boost students’ self-efficacy in science, enhance their confidence in STEM subjects, and provide mentoring support that encourages them to pursue rewarding careers in STEM fields. The program truly lives up to their equitable vision each day.

The program is named in honor of the late Benjamin C. Saunders, Sr., a respected educator with 40 years of experience in Gates County Schools. In 2021, Governor Roy Cooper posthumously honored Saunders with the prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society Award, recognizing his exceptional service and remarkable contributions to the state and his community.