Santa Fe High School graduate Faris Wald was known to wake up at 5 a.m. weekdays to start studying for his classes.
He performed in the school’s marching band, participated in Model United Nations and captured numerous science fair awards.
As a ninth grader, Wald — who would become salutatorian of Santa Fe High’s Class of 2021 and a future West Point cadet — made headlines for taking the $25,000 top prize in a Broadcom MASTERS science fair in Washington, D.C. His winning work explored how the sun’s coronal holes impact weather patterns.
This spring, the 18-year-old standout was surprised to learn of another honor: He was named one of the nation’s 161 Presidential Scholars.
“When I learned I was a Presidential Scholar, I gave out a pretty big scream,” Wald said. “Loud enough for my mom to be like, ‘What just happened?’ “
The award might not have been so shocking to his teachers and outgoing Santa Fe High Principal Carl Marano, who nominated him for the honor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever, in my 23 years of education, been around such a well-rounded student,” Marano said. “Faris has so many amazing qualities and just a wide range of talent. … Not only that, but just an amazing character.”
Wald is the only Santa Fe High student in recent memory to receive the honor. Nominees undergo a vigorous application process and are selected by the White House Commission of Presidential Scholars based on qualities such as academic success, community involvement and commitment to high ideals.
In one of his essays for the award, Wald paid tribute to his late grandfather, Robert Irwin Wald. He was a man, Faris Wald said, who always seemed to know exactly what to do.
Science is a passion Wald has been cultivating since third grade, when he started participating in science fairs. His father, who studied nuclear and electrical engineering, would take him to a planetarium and help him prepare for competitions.
Wald plans to pursue a career in science, possibly chemical engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
“There’s just something about a West Point grad, or a Naval Academy grad or an Air Force Academy grad that makes them stand out among the best,” Wald said.
“There’s just that look in their eyes that I’m trying to have myself. That’s one of the reasons I’m going to West Point.”
Wald will report to the academy at the end of June.
That means rushed goodbyes with friends as he works to finish his required exams for the school, pack up his belongings and continue a vigorous workout schedule so he can keep up during basic training.
While some teens might feel disappointed by a lack of summer free time, Wald looks at the bright side.
“I get to see my future slightly earlier than others,” he said.
Like other teens finishing up a senior year amid the coronavirus pandemic — largely learning remotely and lacking some of the usual traditions, such as prom — Wald admitted he struggled with “senioritis.”
He was supposed to be drum major of the marching band this year, but coronavirus dashed those plans. The pandemic also put a stop to the usual gatherings with friends. Halloween parties were among his favorites, he said.
“It was rough, I’ll tell you that,” Wald said. “I’m not alone in it. I struggled with staying motivated during this school year.”
But he’s a firm believer that when one door closes, another opens.
“I was able to go hiking more and enjoy nature,” he said.
Wald spent much of his free time in the past year working out in preparation for the physical exam required for entrance into West Point. Getting in shape, he said, has been one of the biggest challenges of his high school career.
It started his sophomore year, when he set his sights on attending a military academy.
“I was not up to par for West Point,” he said. “I wasn’t physically fit whatsoever. I had to work my tail end off to become physically fit.”
In an ordinary year, Wald would have the opportunity to fly to Washington, D.C., to receive his Presidential Scholar medal. But this is no ordinary year. Because of the pandemic, the event will be held virtually.
That means he won’t be able to meet the president face to face.
“Which of course is a big bummer,” Wald said.
In the meantime, he’s preparing himself mentally for changes that await him at West Point. That includes accepting that he might never see some of his peers again.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s a tough feeling but I just know that whatever happens, it’s just meant to be.”
He wants future high schoolers to know the importance of having fun while they’re young.
Wald leaves Santa Fe High with some helpful advice — not just for students but for anyone.
The first, he said, is to keep a daily mental checklist and stick to it.
But also “take every opportunity you can and just see what happens, and for all you know, you could be surprised,” he said.
“Because I surprised myself multiple times by taking a chance.”