Class of 2017: East Mecklenburg High’s ‘change-maker’

Sara Holley is a lot like the roller coasters she loves: moving forward at full speed, attacking every dip and curve, and climbing to new heights.

The East Mecklenburg High senior has been a force behind many initiatives during her high school career, most notably TEDxEastMecklenburg, a showcase for student ideas and speakers. Graduating June 10, she also is a candidate for an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma and was recently named a Morehead-Cain Scholar, one of the nation's premier academic awards.

The scholarship is given by the Morehead-Cain Foundation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), which Sara will attend in the fall, and covers all expenses of four years of undergraduate study at the university. Selection criteria include leadership, moral force of character, academic achievement and physical vigor, and recipients are chosen based solely on merit and accomplishment.

Outside school, Sara has a range of interests, including taekwondo. She has been a martial artist since she was 9 years old, has been teaching since she was 14 and recently earned her third-degree black belt. She also loves fashion, UNC (especially basketball) and roller coasters, sharing the latter two passions with her family.

"My parents attended UNC but they didn't push me to go there," Sara said. "My family is very close and it's important to me to have a bond with them."

"Sara is always on the move and has great enthusiasm and a strong, uplifting personality," said Principal Rick Parker. "She keeps her eye on her goals, is a positive influence on those around her and is, at the same time, calm and confident. I am so proud of her and the legacy she leaves behind at East Mecklenburg."

Part of that legacy is TEDxEastMecklenburg, which Sara created last year after attending a TEDxTeen conference in New York City. She worked from the ground up, securing funding, managing the speaker application process and coordinating the organizing team. The TEDx talks are now an annual event and Sara is training one of the participants to continue the series.

"There's no point in doing it without a sustainable impact," Sara said. "From its fruition, I wanted it to be repeated and there is so much younger talent here to carry on. It's all about staying committed, which is part of my core values."

5.30.17.SaraHolley_inside pic.jpgSara's values revolve around education and improving her school and community. At UNC, she plans to major in global studies and to double-minor in entrepreneurship and education. However, she has another option: to major in business with an emphasis in international business and to minor in education. Whatever route she takes, she hopes to use her degree to pursue a career in social enterprise and to use business to solve the world's problems.

"She's more amazing than she lets on," said IB teacher Bill Allen. "In my Theory of Knowledge class, she does not cease to surprise me with her deep insights on various topics and her high-level thinking. She is a natural leader and accomplishes great things, yet she is so unassuming."

Bringing her visions to life hasn't always been easy, but Sara said high school is the place to grow, learn from your mistakes and develop your values. She started East Mecklenburg's Speech and Debate Team when she was a sophomore and found it difficult at first to generate interest. Now, there is a core group that competes regularly in events and Sara said the experience with the club helped springboard her to TEDx. She also gives tours of East Mecklenburg because she believes it is underrated and wants to bolster its image.

"I do a lot of things from principle," Sara said. "What helps me maintain is choosing things I'm passionate about. You have to find things you are generally interested in, pursue them and be the best you can be."

As a Morehead-Cain Scholar, Sara will participate in a summer enrichment program that includes an outdoor leadership course. She will live on a boat for 20 days with no electronics, sailing the coast of Maine and acquiring a variety of skills.

"A small part of it is solo and I've heard it's very meditative," Sara said. "I hope to have a challenging summer."

Social studies teacher Kathryn Kinser said Sara is a change-maker and that she is unlike any student she has ever met.

"Her vision, drive, passion and dedication are unmatched," Kinser said. "Sara has a unique ability to get people to believe in her vision as passionately as she does, a feat most leaders well beyond her age cannot achieve. At 25, I find myself thinking more times than I'd like to admit, 'I want to be like her when I grow up.'"