NU valedictorian wins Cal alumni scholarship award |

NU valedictorian wins Cal alumni scholarship award



Nevada Union High School graduate Mara Van Tassell. (Photo submitted by Bob Martinet)

The Gold Country Chapter of the Cal Alumni Association (GCCAA) selected 2021 Nevada Union High School graduate Mara Van Tassell as recipient of its annual scholarship award. Van Tassell will receive $3,000 to attend the University of California at Berkeley in the fall where she plans to pursue a career in marine biology.

A three-member committee recognized 17-year-old Van Tassell’s talent, resilience and stellar academic performance. She was the valedictorian of her graduating class. As a freshman she received “Most Outstanding Student” awards in biology, geometry, English, world history and Spanish — despite a challenging academic background replete with frequent moves and attending a plethora of schools in and outside of the United States.

Two days before starting high school, Van Tassell moved to the Republic of Palau, an island country in the western Pacific, where her father took a job as an attorney and relocated the family from Santa Barbara.

“I had already attended seven different schools during my academic career, but this transition presented unique challenges,” wrote Van Tassell in her university application essay.

Many of her teachers were college-aged missionaries scarcely older than herself, and the curriculum was laden with strict religious interpretations of popular culture. For example, Harry Potter books and nail polish were deemed as “satanic” and Van Tassell was given bewildering writing prompts, such as, “Do you believe in dinosaurs?” It was in Palau that Van Tassell said she cultivated a resilience and toughness as she adjusted to the religious school.

She also became involved in extensive volunteer activities, such as running a clothing drive for the Palau Red Cross Society. She conducted research for the Coral Reef Research Foundation where she reviewed more than 1,000 photos captured by an underwater motion-sensing camera, then collected, recorded and organized information about Palau’s underwater wildlife. Flexing her artistic side, Van Tassell prepared a new headquarters office for the Palau Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), designed and painted interior and exterior murals for the shelter and created signage. Along the way, she also developed a passion for scuba diving and the fragile ecosystem of coral reefs.

Van Tassell moved to Grass Valley two years ago from Palau, to attend her junior year at NU. She took two math courses to prepare her for calculus in her senior year; and enrolled in college-level French. Honing her critical thinking skills, she tackled each challenge with tenacity as she defended her opposing points of view, even when they differed from those of her teachers. She then went on to start a mock trial club.

Just as she began to feel her education was “back to normal,” she faced the rigors of distance learning imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fortunately, I could apply the resilience and independence I had developed in Palau to cope with the upheaval,” Van Tassell wrote. “It hasn’t been easy, but all these transitions have taught me how to adapt and thrive in a world that is constantly changing.”

The GCCAA scholarships are funded solely by local donations from Cal alumni and are awarded to students who have been accepted to UC Berkeley and have submitted a statement of intent to register.


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