The only two students in Maryland to be named Presidential Scholars — one of the country’s highest honors for graduating seniors — this year are both from Montgomery County.
The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday announced the 161 winners from across the country. On the list were Dhruv Bhandarkar Pai, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, and Sarah Rachel Thomas, a senior at Clarksburg High.
The principals of Montgomery Blair and Clarksburg high schools each described their winning student in interviews on Thursday as humble, generous students who prioritize “giving back” to their communities.
The Presidential Scholar program, established in 1964, recognizes public and private school students largely based on their SAT and ACT test scores. The top high school seniors from each state, and some nominated by state superintendents of schools, are selected as candidates who can apply for the program. There are usually about 4,000 candidates, according to the Department of Education.
Students who apply are evaluated by a review committee based on their “academic achievement, personal characteristics, leadership and services activities, and an analysis of their essay,” the Education Department’s website says. The pool of candidates is narrowed to 650 before a final review to select the 161 winners.
This year, there were 202 finalists from Maryland, including 107 from Montgomery County.
Montgomery Blair Principal Renay Johnson said Pai has won 30 local, state, regional and national awards this year, including a Congressional gold medal and being named one of Disney’s 50 “Magic Makers.”
He is “the nicest, most humble student there is,” Johnson said.
Pai is one of the founders of Teens Helping Seniors, an initiative started during the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver groceries and other essentials to older people or immunocompromised people.
Pai was named one of Bethesda Magazine’s “top teens” in 2021.
“When I first heard the news, I thought, ‘Of course it’s Dhruv,’ because he’s so wonderful and outstanding and conscientious,” Johnson said. “… I love not only his academic achievements, but also how much he gives to the community.”
Thomas said Pai plans to attend Stanford University next fall.
Clarksburg High School Principal Edward Owusu said Thomas is an avid reader, often seen walking with her nose in a novel. He said she could have attended any of the magnet programs offered by Montgomery County Public Schools, but she chose to stay at Clarksburg (her assigned school) “to prove a point … that you can be a scholar and you can do all of these amazing things at your home high school.”
“Our motto at Clarksburg is, ‘Be good, do good,’ and that’s Sarah,” Owusu said. “She’s representative of our school culture and our kids to the max, and I’m just so proud that she has gotten this award, very deservingly. It’ll be a beacon to other kids, as well, to do the same thing.”
Owusu said Thomas plans to attend The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, after graduation.
Pai and Thomas will be awarded the U.S. Presidential Scholars medallion in June, according to the Department of Education.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org