Call to service leads to 'presidential scholar' honor for local student

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It isn't easy standing out in the Woznica family. Edgar's oldest brother, Donald, is set to start medical school this fall. His older sister, Maura, who's about to graduate from Notre Dame, plans to go to medical school, too, but wants to take a year off, maybe work in Africa.

Fortunately, it's not a competition, Edgar says.

"We all do our own thing. They try to cut me down to size, but it's all very friendly."

The reason they think he needs to be cut down to size is that Ed was just named a U.S. Department of Education Presidential Scholar, the first from either Fenwick or Oak Park.

For that there was some competition.

"It was crazy," Ed says. "A lot of the other candidates had done research and published their results."

When the invitation arrived last winter, Ed's mom, Celine, thought it was one of those vanity compendiums, like "Who's Who" where you have to pay to get included.

Instead, Ed was one of just 2,500 high school seniors around the country invited even to apply, based on their SAT and ACT scores. He got a perfect 1600 on his SAT and a 35 out of a possible 36 on the ACT, but so did pretty much everyone else in the applicant pool.

As part of the process, he had to submit six essays. Both he and Celine, who served as his editor, think it was his focus on service projects that put him over the top. He was named one of three scholars in the state of Illinois and one of approximately 130 nationwide.

"I think they were looking for people who are more well-rounded," Ed theorized.

Service comes about as naturally as breathing for the Woznica family. Ed's parents spent years as lay missionaries in Central America and Mexico before moving to Oak Park 12 years ago. Don Sr. is a physician. Celine has a Ph.D. in public health.

All the kids have been involved in the youth ministry program at Ascension Church, which offers the Appalachian Service Project (ASP) each June, a "Habitat for Humanity"-style work detail in some of the country's poorest areas. As an offshoot of that experience, Don Jr. started Young Neighbors in Action in Tijuana. By the time Ed came of age, he had two summer service projects to choose from. Each year for the last three years, he chose both.

This year, oddly enough, both trips have been put in jeopardy by this honor. He and his dad will have to cut short their work in Appalachia and find their way to Washington D.C. for the official ceremonies, scheduled for June 25-28. The honorees stay in dorms at Georgetown University, said Celine, along with the teacher each named as most influential. In Ed's case, that was Ramzi Farran, a former Golden Apple winner himself, who teaches chemistry at Fenwick. Ed says the one-armed former refugee from the Mideast has taught him and his classmates as much about life as about science.

"He's an amazing guy with a great life story," Ed says. "He's way overqualified to be a high school chemistry teacher." Partly because of that and the fact that the language barrier forced him to communicate in simpler language that everyone can understand, he doesn't need the full class period for chemistry. This meditative Mennonite spends the first 10 minutes of every class talking about life.

"I love it," Ed says. "Everybody does."

The June festivities include a reception at the White House, which may be attended by the president, depending on his schedule. Barack Obama's office already contacted the Woznica household about meeting with the senator during the visit.

The award isn't monetary, but it does open some intriguing doors. The National Committee on U.S./China Relations, for instance, invites presidential scholars to apply for a two-week trip this summer to China for the grand sum of $250. Ed is hoping to be one of the 12 chosen, though it would mean sacrificing the Tijuana trip.

Celine says Ed's honor is also a tribute to Ascension's "fabulous youth ministry program" and the sense of community in South Oak Park.

"That connectedness helps launch children in a positive way," she said.

Ed is being launched to Brown University in the fall. He's been accepted to a special 8-year liberal arts medical school program, which allows undergrads leeway with their course choices in order to help them become more well-rounded. Ed hopes to take psychology, anthropology, and dance.

"I've always wanted to take a dance class," he says.

"My umbilical cord is buried in the jagged mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico," Ed wrote in one of his application essays. "Local belief dictates that if I ever leave the land of my birth, the buried cord will call me back home. ... Through service projects, I have discovered that my umbilical call is not so much to a place, but an orientation. For me, service is not a one-time deal but rather a fact of life. I have felt the absolute joy in seeing another person's grateful smile. It is in this joy that I have reconfirmed my commitment to the life my parents taught me?#34;one of service."

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