Of all his high school memories, Kelso senior Robin Hardwick said coming out as transgender best summarizes his experience.
He overcame a bout with depression early in his high-school career, when he “didn’t really feel comfortable in my body at all.” He started the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at the high school. And earned the respect of his peers and teachers, he said.
And now Robin, 16, is in the running for one of the nation’s highest academic honors.
“Generally cisgender people get their pronouns and they get to be respected, whereas if you are trans and you are in the academic workspace, you have to be like, ‘Yes, I am trans, but I am also smart,’ and you have to prove yourself every time,” Robin said.
Transgender students are more likely to have significantly lower grade point averages, more likely to miss school and less likely to plan on continuing their education, according to GLSEN, a national education group that focuses on LGBTQ issues in grades K-12. But Robin has a 4.0 GPA and big dreams of attending college to study political science.
“Robin has taken on a lot of challenges with grace and has become a role model, especially in the LGBTQ community,” said his counselor Kali Dalton.
He is Kelso’s first nominee for the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program in at least a decade and a half. Jewell Barnes of Mark Morris High School is also in the running for the award, but she could not be reached for comment Monday.
“I think it means representing Kelso in that way that hasn’t been done in a long time,” Robin said. “I also get to represent this minority community that I’m a part of, so other people that may not feel accepted right now or feel like they can’t do as much because of this identity they have, (I’ll show them that) you can do anything you want to.”
Though Presidential Scholars do not receive any financial award, they do earn a medallion, an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., and access to “important national and international figures,” according to the U.S Department of Education. For Robin, that would be the first trip to the future workplace of his dreams.
“For a long time I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I started taking AP government and politics this year ... and I realized I could go into politics and make a change, and I could be a role model. That was something that really spoke to me,” Robin said.
Each year’s winners — two from each state — are selected through a process of elimination. First, two students from each school in Washington are forwarded to the State Board of Education, which selects the top 20 applicants for consideration at the national level. Then, a federal selection committee chooses semi-finalists and finalists to win the award.
Kelso High School has not had a student in the running for this award since the U.S. Department of Education started its digital record of candidates in 2003.
Dalton said Kelso selected its nominees through a schoolwide “rank report” to identify the seniors with the best grades. Robin was one of only two seniors this year with a 4.0 GPA, Dalton said.
He’s also maintained his perfect GPA while taking enough classes to fulfill his graduation requirements early. He spent last summer finishing two year-long courses in just about one month so he could enroll as a senior, he said. He grew up with the class of 2020, but he will graduate this year because he is “so far ahead,” Dalton said.
Though academic achievement is important to the federal honor, it also considers community service, leadership experience and personal character. Students must be “well-rounded” to be honored as one of the nation’s most outstanding students, Dalton said.
Robin’s high-school experience has allowed him to explore many of his varied interests, he said. He is a section leader and president of the Instrumental Music Council in the school band, a volunteer tutor at school, a part-time employee with his parents’ business and a community health worker for the Noble Foundation.
“I really love what I do. I love music, I love learning things every day. Some people ask ‘How do you sit down and do homework for five hours and not go crazy,’ but that’s what I like to. It’s fun,” he said.
Robin said earning the title of a 2019 Presidential Scholar would mean “seeing all my work pay off in such a cool way.”
“Even if it gets hard with all the studying I have to do, with the leadership and all the pressure that can be on me sometimes, it’s really cool to have the reassurance that you are doing it. ... The staff is so much more accepting of transgender people now because they have seen this person who can do all these things despite that.”