WASHINGTON — From across the nation 141 Presidential Scholars came here this week to receive the nation's highest academic honor, but scholar Vindu Goel of La Jolla High School pointed out, "This is not just a meeting of nerds or brains."
Harvard-bound Goel said he was thrilled by the White House ceremony in which President Reagan praised the outstanding high school seniors and Education Secretary William Bennett gave them their awards. But Goel said the best part of the trip has been meeting the other scholars, whom he described as a well-rounded group.
"You'll find the full range of high school activities here," he said, not quite suppressing a mischievous grin.
"What I'm really getting out of this is the people, the intellectual atmosphere," Goel said.
"In the past two nights I've had four hours sleep because we stay up all night talking. Last night it was about psychology and Einstein's theory of relativity."
Students who tally the highest college board scores are identified by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars and invited to apply for the yearly award, established by executive order of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
In addition to this week's activities, which include tours, picnics, receptions and seminars with such people as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, artificial-heart surgeon Dr. William DeVries and former Iranian hostage Bruce Laingen, the award includes a $1,000 scholarship.
Twenty of the recipients, including three Californians, are recognized for achievement specifically in the arts and put on a performance at the Kennedy Center, as well as an exhibition in an art gallery.
The California winners are Goel, Chad Krentzman and Phillip Lewis of Beverly Hills High School, Cara Robertson of Westlake Girls School in Los Angeles and Jeffrey Shelp of Venice High School.
Goel and Robertson will attend Harvard in the fall, while only Krentzman is considering a California school, UCLA.
Goel, 17, said that smart kids "do have to fight, to some extent," the nerd image.
"People get jealous. That's what we have to fight," Goel said. "We can become outcasts."
Goel, 17, grew up in New York and has lived in La Jolla for a year. Like virtually all of the other scholars outside the arts category Goel has a straight-A average. He was so tired of filling out college applications that he almost didn't apply for the Presidential Scholar award, but his father encouraged him to. "I'm glad he did," Goel said, even though the application required "about nine or 10 essays."
One of them was supposed to be a conversation with a famous American, living or dead. Goel, who hopes for a career in journalism, had his conversation with author Mark Twain.
For classmates Krentzman and Lewis of Beverly Hills High, it seemed incredible that of the thousands of students who applied for the medallion in the acting category, the two winners would come from one school.
Krentzman, 18, has been acting since he was 10, having done 13 commercials for McDonald's, Kool-Aid, milk and Mattel toys. He has also appeared in television dramas. From Washington, Krentzman is planning on heading for New York to do several auditions.
The award, Krentzman said, "really gives you confidence. And as an actor, you're always looking for confidence. You would like every week of the year to be like this one."
Krentzman is undecided between UCLA and American University, and is not sure whether he will attend school full time or work or do both. He does know, he said, that he wants "a taste of what the other side of life is like back East."
An Inverse View
Lewis, 18, seems to hold the inverse view. He grew up in Washington and moved to Los Angeles last year to live with friends and work on his acting while attending Beverly Hills High. He, too, has been acting since he was 10, playing in the musical "Storyville" at Ford's Theatre.
Lewis' plans for next year, he said, are "to start work in Los Angeles and be on my own."
Wearing their best suits and dresses, all 141 of them sat for more than two hours on the White House south lawn for the awards ceremony as both the temperature and the humidity soared above 90.
A White House spokesman told the large group of students, family members and teachers as they awaited the President that it was "permissible to leave if you feel you are going to faint or be sick." (A few left during the ceremony.)
Robertson said she was reminded of a quote by Thomas Alva Edison, "that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
Like many of the others Robertson marveled at how patriotic the ceremony was, with the Marine Corps band playing various American anthems.
"It felt like 'America Sings' at Disneyland," Robertson said. "I expected the White House to start twirling."
Robertson was student body president of the 680-student girls' school, and participated in debate, the model U.N. club, the school newspaper, sailing, skiing and softball.
One of her essays was a conversation with Dr. Seuss.
"I wanted to rhyme it," she said.
Shelp, a 17-year-old visual artist and one of the 20 arts winners, recorded many of the week's activities with his video camera. One day, between activities and dressed in purple and white swim trunks, a yellow and white striped shirt and fluorescent green sunglasses, he talked about the week.
'I Feel Honored'
The visual artists displayed some of their work at the Wallace Wentworth Gallery in Washington, and two of Shelp's pieces sold at the opening.
"I feel honored, of course," Shelp said. "The opening was the personal highlight for me. Then finding myself sitting outside the White House was pretty exciting, too."
Shelp will attend Bennington College in Vermont to study liberal arts.