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Graduate leaves Timberlake for MIT with a scholarship

Timberlake High School graduate Gaelen Guzman plans to attend  Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. (Kathy Plonka)
Timberlake High School graduate Gaelen Guzman plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. (Kathy Plonka)

In elementary school, while the rest of his class went outside to soak in the sunshine and let loose on the playground, Gaelen Guzman could often be found indoors. Standing at the chalkboard. Solving algebra problems.

This wasn’t punishment, either. It was self-inflicted betterment, and Guzman and a handful of other students preferred it that way. For a student who would rather solve for X than slip outside with the rest of his classmates, it’s a fitting example of Guzman’s approach to academics.

“I’ve always liked math and science. It’s something I’ve always understood,” said Guzman, his tall and thin frame hunched over a table in a coffee shop after a recent track practice. On his favorite subject, he said, “I like calculus because it’s really interesting and there are some interesting real-world applications.”

For the 18-year-old senior, who’ll wrap up his high school career with a 3.9 grade-point average, the years of dedication and hard work paid off. The salutatorian for Timberlake High School’s class of 2010 is a summer away from attending one of the most prestigious colleges in the country: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and he’s received a significant tuition waiver from the school that covers roughly 76 percent of the cost.

The institution is “devoted to the advancement of knowledge and education of students in areas that contribute to or prosper in an environment of science and technology,” according to its website.

According to those who know Guzman, he’ll fit right in at the revered university.

“He’s a dream student – he’s one of those kids that you get into teaching for. I absolutely know he’s going to do well in whatever challenges are in front of him because he works through the problems,” said Scott Thomson, a teacher at Spirit Lake Elementary who had Guzman in his sixth grade class when he and a few other students opted to forgo recess for problem solving. “He’s a special kid, that’s for sure.”

Originally from Los Angeles, the Guzman family, including parents Robert and Patricia, and 15-year-old brother Colin, moved to North Idaho when Gaelen was 6. He’s always enjoyed math and science, earning the nickname “NASA boy” because of the space-themed T-shirts he frequently wore in middle school. During seventh grade, he was even bumped up a year to take eighth-grade math.

Throughout high school, Guzman has been a member of the National Honor Society, and played a pivotal role on Timberlake’s quiz team, which he joined his sophomore year and helped in bringing back trophies at regional competitions.

“When I have questions about homework, he’s the person I go to,” said fellow graduate Natalie Lambert. “Gaelen is a very supportive person, and he encourages people to be the best they can be. He’s one of those people who’re very selfless.”

Guzman has been a member of the school’s track and field team since he was a freshman and runs several of the 200- and 400-meter races. He had a second-place showing on the 400-meter relay in the state meet recently, that hasn’t always been the case. “I was kind of not athletic at all,” Guzman said about his early years.

To his teachers, the senior was an ideal student.

“Gaelen’s not just a one-dimensional student; he’s a well-rounded young man. He’s going to be a good asset to our society and that’s the most important thing to me,” Thomson said.

Chris Sabatke, a physical science and physics teacher at Timberlake, said Guzman was a quick study in almost any subject.

“He’s been an exemplary student,” Sabatke said. “He’s one of those across-the-board students. He’ll do well in whatever he sets his mind to.”

As for his college career, MIT wasn’t Guzman’s first choice. In fact, he only applied at the suggestion of his parents.

“My dream school was to go to Stanford. I have a lot of family that lives around there. The only reason I filled out the MIT application was my parents wanted to see what would happen,” he said. “So I filled it out and I was accepted, which I’m really happy about … My parents were really excited. It actually took me a while to realize it – for it to sink it – on what it’s like to be accepted there.”

Nanotechnology is one possible study path Guzman is considering. “It’s just something I’m interested in and I’d like to know more about,” he explained.

Before leaving for Massachusetts, Guzman is planning on working at a youth summer camp. The thing he said he’ll miss most about North Idaho are the friends and family he leaves behind. “Definitely my friends,” he said. “It’s kind of cool how everyone knows each other at Timberlake. It’s nice to know everyone in school.”