Forest Parker Olivia Mott’s hard work in high school and middle school has paid off. Mott, who graduated from Trinity High School in June, is a National Merit finalist, one of only 8,300 students among the 1.5 million nationwide who take the PSAT test in their sophomore year.

As a finalist, she found doors opening for her when it came to colleges.

“Most of the schools I looked at offered me scholarships like Loyola and Marquette and the University of Illinois. But even with the money, I still couldn’t afford them,” said Mott, who is the daughter of District 91 school board President Frank Mott.

Then University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa contacted her and began what she called “an aggressive letter campaign. Two or three letters in the beginning and then more and more.” Her counselor told her she might be able to study marine biology at Alabama. “I wanted to be a vet,” she said, “but I didn’t like the blood. So I’m studying marine biology.”

The school offered her a full scholarship in the marine biology program, including two summers on Dauphin Island Sea Lab in the Mobile Bay of the Gulf of Mexico. She will also visit Australia and see the Great Barrier Reef. “I had never heard of [the University of Alabama] before, and then I went down to visit and loved it.”

A red “Bama” flag flies outside their Forest Park home now and her iPad has a University of Alabama cover. She’ll be studying chemistry, biology, geology and Spanish. “I want to get a graduate degree, definitely.”

Mott loved the campus, which boasts several ante-bellum buildings. “But sometimes the accents are hard to understand,” she observes. “On campus tours they talk a lot about the Civil War.”

Olivia, who admits she gets “high-strung and panicky and stressed” when it comes to school work, said she had a couple of recommendations for students who want to make the most of high school.

“Take classes that will challenge you into learning something you don’t already know,” she said. “Get all you can in your high school experience to get ready for college.” But “don’t get ahead of yourself, just get your work done one day at a time.”

Academics aren’t everything, she said. “I was on the swim team and in choir. Find a couple of clubs that you really love and only do those. Don’t waste your time in any club you don’t really love.”

Not surprisingly for a future marine biologist, water is important to her. Mott is a lifeguard and diving teacher at the Forest Park pool and participated on the Trinity swim team all four years.

Practice at 5:15 a.m. before school was challenging, but “I was the only person who was really awake in first period classes.” She also said while swimming and singing in choir she could relax and “take a mental break from all of the homework. I could stop and think and breathe a little bit.”

She also had a routine for studying: “I would drink herbal tea and I had friends who would encourage me to keep studying. We text each other and there’s a Facebook group for each class to help each other working through test [preparation].”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...