Walsingham Academy student wins Harry F. Byrd, Jr. Leadership Award

Special to the Gazette

It takes determination for a gifted high school student to succeed, according to Walsingham Academy Upper School Director Angie Baker. But it also takes "graciousness of spirit," and heart.

The award committee for the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. Leadership Award seem to have found both in spades with Walsingham Academy student Burke Lawlor.

The award, given to one high school senior in each of Virginia's 11 congressional districts, is presented to the student who displays "a combination of excellence of character, qualities of leadership, devotion to duty and academic accomplishment," per a press release.

Former U.S. Senator Harry J. Byrd, Jr. established the award in 1994, which comes with a prize of $10,000. The award is administered by the University of Virginia Foundation.

Students apply through their principal, who then recommends potential candidates to an award screening committee.

Three students from each district are selected to interview over a two-day period by an award selection committee, made up of Virginia Supreme Court Justices, Virginia attorneys and college presidents.

Lawlor, 17, was announced the winner of the award January 24th. and will be officially honored in a ceremony February 15th, at the Supreme Court of Virginia in Richmond.

Lawlor has had many academic achievements. During his junior year, he took five Advanced Placement (AP) courses, earning a top score of 5 in four. He also attained a perfect score on the SAT II Chemistry Subject Test.

Baker, who was Lawlor's chemistry teacher during the 2015-16 school year, seemed to know he was destined for great things. A driven student, Lawlor initially expressed interest in becoming a neuroscientist.

But he never let his ambition supersede a giving spirit.

"A lot of sharp kids express frustration with the kids who are behind," Baker said. "Burke was never like that. He was always willing to help."

Lawlor credits some of his academic success and achievement to the time his family spent in Switzerland.

Because of his mother's work at the State Department, Lawlor's family lived outside the states up until 2014, when his father was diagnosed with cancer.

Thus, Lawlor's schooling occurred mainly at international schools, whose education goals differed from schools in the states.

"It's a lot less memorization, a lot more critical thinking," he said. "It helps a lot with math and science, being able to think like that."

Kim Lawlor agreed with her son. "I think being in Geneva, around the UN, was really eye-opening for Burke."

Math and science have been Lawlor's focus in school, most particularly neuroscience and chemistry.

Lawlor lit up when he talked about his experiences interning as a part of Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical Science Internship Program (MSIP), shadowing Ph.D. and medical professionals in a biomedical engineering lab at VCU.

Working in the lab was a bit of a steep learning curve at first.

"I'd say for the first three weeks I had no idea what was going on," he said.

"But after being exposed to it for a while you get used to it. And it's great, because now I have this knowledge on such a specific part of proteins in lungs."

Lawlor's achievements extended far beyond simply academic accolades. Lawlor and his family have volunteered and run fundraisers for the Kelly Weinberg Foundation, a local non-profit aimed at providing support groups for cancer survivors and their loved ones.

Since 2015, the Lawlors have organized a dodgeball tournament fundraiser for the organization, which has helped their own family cope with cancer.

Lawlor has also organized "Dress Down" days at Walsingham to benefit the organization, where students can pay $2 to skip their usual uniform.

As for extracurriculars, Lawlor is an avid sailor, swimmer and tennis player, having last year won the Iron Trojan Award for participating in three varsity sports that year.

Lawlor looks forward to potentially attending college at schools like the University of Virginia, Columbia or UCLA.

It's perhaps no surprise that he would chose such different schools as his potential college, given his diverse background.

"He's adaptable," Kim Lawlor affirmed. "He's always looking for something different."

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
52°