VINALHAVEN, Maine — If there’s anything Kassandra Hopkins is sure of, it’s that the road to destiny is paved with chance encounters and surprises.
Hopkins is the recipient of a mammoth $250,000 Leonore Annenberg Scholarship to attend any undergraduate college or university in the country. As the first student from Maine to receive the prestigious award, all that’s left for Hopkins to take the next step toward her dreams is deciding where to spend it and what to study when she gets there.
Inspired by a children’s book about a mouse-dentist called Dr. De Soto, Kassandra Hopkins wanted to be a dentist until a new inspiration gripped her in the most unlikely of places: a hospital bed.
Hopkins broke both of her front teeth when she was 8 years old. The injury caused few problems until two years ago when she woke up one day with her face so swollen that it pinched one of her eyes closed. Initially misdiagnosed with an MRSA infection, she spent 16 nights in the hospital in late 2009.
“It was horrid,” she said. “I was sleeping 14 hours a day. I couldn’t even keep water down.”
Amid the fog of infirmity, though, Hopkins found fascination in the bustle around her. From the machines that pumped antibiotics into her veins to copies of X-rays and CAT scans of her ailments to the compassion she witnessed from nurses, Hopkins soaked in the details and decided her calling is in the medical field.
With a quarter million dollars in her pocket and a near-perfect academic record, Hopkins will graduate in June 2012 from the K-12 Vinalhaven School at the age of 16. Her parents, James and Angela Hopkins, saw academic promise in their eldest of three children long before she reached kindergarten.
“She was reading when she was 4 years old,” said James Hopkins. “It was obvious that she was interested in learning even before she could talk.”
When she was in kindergarten, James and Angela Hopkins suggested to Kassandra’s teachers that she skip a grade, but they said it was a “terrible idea,” said James. By the fourth grade, though, she proved her teachers wrong and they suggested mid-year to advance her to the fifth grade.
Since then, Kassandra has torn through her academic career. In high school, she has stacked her schedule with so many advanced courses that she has never had a study hall and she has never earned a grade lower than an A-minus.
Though Kassandra’s academic future was obviously bright, the issue of how to pay for college was always on her and her parents’ minds. James Hopkins is a stern man on a lobster boat. Angela Hopkins also used to fish for lobster, but has been forced into early retirement by a medical issue.
“The financial piece was always something I was trying to put in the back of my mind,” said Kassandra. “I was always trying to not allow it to hold me back.”
James Hopkins said he counted on his daughter winning scholarships, though he has suggested to her more than once that she consider attending a military academy — an idea Kassandra balked at.
“With everything she’s made happen in her life, I knew she’d make this happen, too,” he said.
Kassandra’s guidance counselor, Yvonne Thomas, secretly nominated her for the Annenberg Scholarship through the Rural School and Community Trust. The Annenberg Scholarship, which annually selects up to five high school juniors with “uncommon intelligence, empathy and drive who overcome challenging circumstances,” was established by the late Leonore Annenberg “to prepare the next generation of national and international leaders,” according to the organization’s website.
After she made the first cut, Kassandra submitted essays and other materials, including letters of reference from community members. Thomas told Kassandra that she had won the scholarship in April.
“I cried,” said Kassandra. “I think I screamed. People had to come into the office to see if anything was wrong.”
That included Tristan Jackson, who has worked with Kassandra and many other students for several years developing the 1,200-person island’s Arts and Recreation Center and a nonprofit cyber cafe.
Though Kassandra is impressive, Jackson said she’s one of many high-achieving students — including one currently attending Harvard University — on Vinalhaven, an island of about 1,200 residents several miles off the coast of Rockland. He attributes Kassandra’s and other students’ success partly to their isolation.
“On Vinalhaven you don’t just go from prepackaged entertainment to something else that’s prepackaged,” he said. “The students here have learned that if you want a rec center, you’ve got to build it. I think that has had a real benefit to their brain development.”
Kassandra, who is eyeing Amherst College in Massachusetts, agreed. She says it’s a surreal experience to witness others her age on the mainland constantly texting and calling one another on their cellphones; there is little or no cellphone reception on Vinalhaven. Kassandra said Friday and Saturday nights are usually spent with large groups of students watching movies at each other’s houses. It’s that tight-knitted closness that has her peers in strong support of her as opposed to being jealous, said Kassandra, who is humble about her accomplishments.
“I’ve just kind of started to understand that this just is what I do,” said Kassandra. “I don’t see my accomplishments as such a big deal anymore.”