Student Nomination Story

It’s safe to say that the life I live has only been made possible by the monumental efforts of my Calculus AB and Honors Oracle teacher, Mrs. Alyssa Cotton. It’s incredibly difficult to properly encapsulate in writing the extraordinary effect she has had on me, both academically and as an individual. I’m proud to call her my teacher, my closest mentor, and a friend; she’s genuinely one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Truly an inspiration, I consider her to be the hero of my life story, a godsend for which I will always be thankful. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of recognition; her intelligence, work ethic, and compassion are simply nonpareil. I entered into my Junior year on an admittedly questionable path. My teachers had, throughout my schooling, continuously pushed me to pursue the creative arts. Though I was a decent writer, I rejected these notions; I simply wasn’t interested in such a life. I instead dreamed of a career in computer science, working for a major corporation such as Amazon, Microsoft, or Google. Yet my immense struggles in mathematics had forced me to ponder whether such aspirations were practical; my inability to grasp even the most basic of algebraic concepts had led me to seriously question my ability. With some incredibly difficult STEM courses on my schedule - AP Physics, AP Micro/Macroeconomics, and AP Computer Science, just to name a few - I needed a miracle to restore my faith in myself and keep me from imploding. I’ll never be sure what Mrs. Cotton saw in me, a cynical student with debilitating self-confidence issues. I had neither the technical skill necessary to excel in her courses nor the work ethic needed to overcome my deficiencies. While I quickly identified her as a remarkable individual worth knowing, I was clueless as to what I could possibly offer her. Yet, despite my poor attitude, she believed in me. I’ll always remember the conversation that occurred at my school’s Open House a few weeks into my Junior year, where I was shocked to hear her tell my mother that she thought that, despite my struggles, I had an incredible amount of potential. She claimed that she’d “be able to turn me around”, and even went so far as to state that between Calculus and Oracle, she thought I’d “end up as her new recruit.” A fraction of me thought she had lost her mind; I was surely too far gone to be saved. Yet her words that night also awakened something within me, a single spark that’s created the wildfire that has become my life. It was a light in the darkness, the first sign that perhaps my situation wasn’t as precarious as it seemed. On my very next Calculus test, I earned a perfect score; the first math test I had aced in years. From that moment on, I made the decision to give her nothing but maximum effort; she was my only chance at redeeming myself. We began working together constantly - before, during, and after class. For much of the second semester, I spent my study halls in her room receiving extra assistance; never once did she send me away, instead choosing to sacrifice an ungodly amount of her prep time. Eventually, my scores across not just Calculus, but all of my STEM courses began to steadily improve as I finally acquired the algebra skills that had eluded me for so many years. With her aid, I learned four years of mathematics in nine months - Algebra II, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus AB, making a complete turnaround. It needs to be established that no teacher in our district works harder to ensure that their students are successful. She records each and every lesson she teaches, uploading them online for students who need additional practice. She spent her own money on test prep books, designed to prepare students for the AP exam, as well as computer programs, created to assist students in visualizing mathematical concepts; these tools were instrumental in aiding my recovery. It should also be noted that I was far from the only student receiving support outside of our regularly-scheduled classes; Mrs. Cotton routinely remains in her room well past dismissal, as well as during her prep and lunch periods, to assist struggling students. Her efforts have paid off; I was one of 29 students at Trinity to pass the AP Calculus Exam in 2017, earning a max score of five. Trinity’s passing rate of over 80% is far above the national average of less than 58%, and the number of students interested in taking Calculus BC has doubled since she took over. Last year, Trinity secured a grant with the National Math and Science Initiative, a program designed to increase student participation in AP testing for STEM fields. It provides additional training to our faculty and helps eliminate the financial barriers that prevent many students from partaking. Mrs. Cotton was instrumental in acquiring this grant for the school, which has boosted by 188% our year-over-year numbers for qualifying AP scores, the largest increase in the country of any school with 50+ exams. Furthermore, her teachings helped to demonstrably raise my standardized testing scores in mathematics, increasing from the 73rd to the 98th Percentile on the SAT. My dramatic improvement led top colleges, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, to reach out to me via email, encouraging me to attend their information sessions. While I was extremely hesitant - my parents had never even attended college - Mrs. Cotton, the only teacher I felt comfortable talking to about such decisions, helped convince me to consider listening to their proposals. Without this encouragement, my life today certainly wouldn’t be recognizable. However, Mrs. Cotton is far from your standard mathematics teacher - she also works as an Adjunct Instructor for the Oracle Academy, a division of Oracle dedicated to helping teenagers pursue careers in computer science. It contributes an annual grant to my school valued at over $133,000, and serves 3.5 million additional students in 120 countries around the world. Mrs. Cotton regularly contributes to curriculum development and testing for this program, and teaches three Oracle-based courses at my school. These courses, Honors Oracle I, II, and III, are easily my favorites that I’ve taken throughout my thirteen years in the district. They’ve reaffirmed my dream of acquiring a degree in Computer Science, and the success I’ve seen as a result is simply unparalleled. In these courses, Mrs. Cotton displays a truly astounding level of creativity; during the holiday season, for example, she has her Oracle I students design and present a database for Santa’s Workshop that takes into consideration the business requirements of the North Pole. Guest speakers who work in the industry are occasionally brought into the classroom to help enlighten students as to the employment possibilities that exist in the field. As part of the curriculum, she also requires students to build an academic portfolio containing, among other items, a resume, academic achievements/awards, a community service record, practice college essays, and examples of student work; it’s proved an invaluable resource to me for improving upon my weaknesses, and made the college application process immeasurably less stressful. My natural affinity for these courses very quickly propelled me to the top of the class; I’d often finish my work early and then spend my remaining time aiding other students who were having difficulty comprehending the material. Mrs. Cotton noticed this extra effort, and opened up additional courses for me that aren’t normally accessible to other Trinity students. From these courses, I’ve thus far been able to acquire two SQL Certifications at the Junior and Professional level. After graduating from high school, I plan to take additional courses in order to further expand my credentials. Mrs. Cotton, with her various contacts in the industry, has also gotten me exclusive meetings with employees at both Oracle and Google; interviews where I was able to gain additional insight on the industry, seek advice as to my next steps, and make connections that will inevitably prove useful when seeking internships in the future. In addition, my story has proven remarkable enough that the Oracle Academy has chosen me, out of its millions of students, to be the first spotlighted on its website. Throughout these past eighteen months, she’s continued to encourage me. I’ll always remember the notes she’d write on my portfolio or on the assignments she graded: “Great work!”, “Keep it up!”, “I’m sure you’ll do great things!”, “Awesome job!”. Though she might not even remember writing them, these small words of encouragement meant the world to me; I kept each of them, cherished reminders of how important her support has been to my success. It’s important to note that Mrs. Cotton is also an active member of our community. For the past five years, Mrs. Cotton has raised money for and participated in “Walk to End Alzheimer’s”, a nationwide organization dedicated to fighting the tragic disease. This October, she led a team of Trinity students, collecting nearly $3,000 for the Washington County event. Her willingness to help others has personally inspired me to seek out service opportunities of my own; I took the skills I developed in her Oracle classes and used them to assist the CCIS of Beaver/Washington Counties in modernizing their website for daily usage by their clients; for my efforts, I received a Certificate of Recognition from the Washington County Board of Commissioners. I’m also currently helping Trinity’s History Department construct a SQL database based on surveys completed by freshman World History students; the teachers hope to use it to reform their curriculum. Mrs. Cotton has served as a close advisor throughout this process, and while it’s invigorating to use my skill set to aid others, I’d be lying if I said I could’ve done it without her help. I’m honestly in awe at the life I’m living today. Thanks to her, I’m one of the five Valedictorians of my Senior class, dominating the absolute toughest STEM courses Trinity has to offer - AP Calculus BC, AP Physics II, and AP Statistics, among others. I hold high-ranking positions in numerous clubs, and have received numerous accolades across the local, state, and national levels for my efforts. Last fall, I was one of 799 students admitted early into Princeton University, where I’ll be seeking a BSE in Computer Science. I’m the first Trinity student in well over a decade to be admitted to an undergraduate program at an Ivy League University, and due to my family’s financial status, I’ll be attending for less than $5000 annually. I also hope to acquire a Certificate in Applied and Computational Mathematics; Mrs. Cotton inspired me to do so. I’ll be working alongside some of the brightest individuals in the world - Nobel Prize laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Fields Medal Recipients. I, a student from a small-town of less than 15,000, will have the opportunity to spend a semester abroad in exotic locals such as Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, or Hungary. Though I still don’t know exactly what my future holds, I’m genuinely excited about it for the first time. Whatever unbelievable opportunities await me, know that my success is only possible because of Mrs. Cotton’s guidance. Without her, it’s my belief that I would have had zero chance of being admitted; even if I’d have had the courage to apply, the man I was before meeting her simply wouldn’t have made the cut. And in truth, that’s the best way to sum up my relationship with Mrs. Cotton; she’s transformed the entirety of my character in ways I never thought possible for a teacher. I’d never have predicted such a dramatic turn in my life; for who could have imagined that someone outside of my immediate family would go to such incredible lengths to aid me? Nowadays, I get out of bed with a smile on my face, enthusiastic about the opportunities each new day brings. My family and friends have certainly noticed a change in my personality, wondering what’s happened to Zach Dinch. Gone is the cynicism, the self-doubt that held me back, replaced by a newfound confidence and a fervent desire to aid others. Mrs. Cotton’s teachings are so much greater than that of any mere subject; she taught me to love my life. Though she’d surely claim otherwise, Mrs. Cotton is truly a one-in-a-million person whose kindness continues to inspire me every single day. If I, along with the rest of society, was able to exhibit even a fraction of her character, the world would be a much better place to live. It is with the utmost sincerity that I implore you to provide her with the recognition she has undoubtedly earned. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Zachary Dinch

To see more exceptional teacher nominees, visit The Honor Roll.