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Cathedral Secondary School whiz-kid wins prestigious $100,000 Schulich scholarship

Becca Barbera’s win marks the school’s third Schulich winner since 2016

By Sebastian Bron
The Hamilton Spectator (June 22, 2022)

There must be something in the water at Cathedral High School.

Three of its students in the past six years have graduated with a Schulich Leader Scholarship, one of the country’s most prestigious awards for young academics entering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) university programs.

The latest? Becca Barbera — a whiz-kid one teacher said “you wait your entire career to have in class.”

The annual race for a Schulich nod, now in its 11th year, sees 1,500 students from different high schools nationwide vie for just 100 available scholarships from 20 universities.

To be offered one is to say you are among the most coveted first-year STEM students in the country. To be offered two or more is to say you are the crème de la crème.

And Barbera fits in the latter category.

The teen was offered a pair of $100,000 scholarships from McMaster University and the University of New Brunswick — enough to cover four years of tuition and then some. She picked the former because of its proximity to home and the school’s world-renowned reputation for engineering research.

“I’m still in a state of disbelief,” said a humbled Barbera, who was in French immersion at Cathedral. “I feel like this is a time in my life that I’ll look back on and say, ‘That’s when everything changed.’”

A life changer indeed — but one that comes without much surprise.

Barbera was described by teachers in interviews with The Spec as a dream student, whip-smart and mature, boasting an unrelenting work ethic and a palpable thirst for knowledge.

“Becca is the type of student that most teachers wait their entire careers to have in class,” said longtime teacher Guy Larocque. “What she has achieved before high school is extremely rare … She will definitely set the world on fire.”

Over four years at Cathedral, Barbera posted a near-perfect 99.6 per cent average, balancing three co-op placements — including one at Mac’s physics engineering department — with advanced math and sciences courses.

She also had a paper on molecular dynamics and bioinformatics (nuclear energy) published in an acclaimed, peer-reviewed Japanese journal; picked up more than a dozen awards in regional and national science fairs; finished as a finalist in the chemistry category at the International Science and Engineering Fair (aptly dubbed the Science Fair Olympics); founded a non-profit blog sharing stories of seniors in Hamilton; mentored Grade 9 students at her school; and accumulated more than 700 Christian service hours.

Besides the Schulich scholarship, McMaster also gave Barbera four entrance engineering and research awards totalling $27,000.

“It’s remarkable, that kind of work ethic and responsibility and motivation she has,” said Marzia Occhionorelli, who taught Barbera chemistry for three years.

“I’ve yet to see a student like her. She’s just a superstar.”

Barbera is the third Cathedral student in six years to win a Schulich Leaders Scholarship, a feats its principal called a great honour.

“Nothing in the water, just great kids and great staff,” said principal Mark Daly, whose son was the first Cathedral student to win the award in 2016.

“I don’t think there’s too many schools who can say they’ve had three Schulich winners in that time.”

David Goodman, vice-president of the Schulich Foundation, said there has been cases of repeat high school winners, but “it’s not totally common.”

“It really speaks to the quality of education at those institutions who are producing great graduates.”

He noted Hamilton schools have enjoyed consistent success. Azlan Naeem, a graduating student at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School, received an $80,000 science scholarship from the University of Toronto this year — the catholic board’s second winner in 2022. A pair of Ancaster High School graduates also won a Schulich award each in 2021.

For Barbera, the credit to her and Cathedral’s success boils down to one thing: teachers.

“My teachers were incredible,” she said. “All of the accomplishments that led me to win this were encouraged by them. I had the best of the best in the city.”

Cathedral Secondary School whiz-kid wins prestigious $100,000 Schulich scholarship