Cathedral Secondary School prodigy wins prestigious $100,000 Schulich scholarship

There must be something in the water at Cathedral High School.

Over the past six years, three of its students have earned a Schulich Leader Scholarship, one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for young scholars entering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) college programs.

The last? Becca Barbera – a teacher prodigy said “you wait your whole career to have in the classroom”.

The annual Race for a Nod to Schulich, now in its 11th year, sees 1,500 students from different high schools across the country compete for just 100 scholarships available at 20 universities.

Getting one means you’re one of the most coveted first-year STEM students in the country. To be offered two or more is to say that you are the crème de la crème.

And Barbera belongs to the latter category.

The teenager has been offered a pair of $100,000 scholarships from McMaster University and the University of New Brunswick – enough to cover four years of tuition and more. She chose the former because of its proximity to her home and the school’s world-renowned reputation for engineering research.

“I’m still in a state of disbelief,” said a humble Barbera, who was in French immersion at the cathedral. “I feel like this is a moment in my life that I’m going to look back on and say, ‘That’s when everything changed. “”

A life-changing indeed – but one that comes with little surprise.

Barbera was described by teachers in interviews with The Spec as a dream student, intelligent and mature, with a relentless work ethic and a palpable thirst for knowledge.

“Becca is the type of student most teachers wait their entire careers to have in the classroom,” said longtime teacher Guy Larocque. “What she accomplished before high school is extremely rare…She will definitely set the world on fire.”

During four years at Cathedral, Barbera posted a near-perfect average of 99.6%, balancing three co-op placements — including one in Mac’s Engineering Physics department — with advanced classes in math and science.

She also had a paper on molecular dynamics and bioinformatics (nuclear energy) published in an acclaimed, peer-reviewed Japanese journal; picked up more than a dozen awards at regional and national science fairs; finished as a finalist in the chemistry category at the International Science and Engineering Fair (aptly dubbed the Science Fair Olympics); founded a non-profit blog sharing stories of seniors in Hamilton; tutored 9th graders at his school; and accumulated over 700 hours of Christian service.

In addition to the Schulich Scholarship, McMaster also awarded Barbera four engineering and research entrance scholarships totaling $27,000.

“It’s remarkable, this kind of work ethic, responsibility and drive that she has,” said Marzia Occhionorelli, who taught chemistry at Barbera for three years.

“I haven’t seen a student like her yet. She’s just a superstar.

Barbera is the third student at the cathedral in six years to win a Schulich Leaders scholarship, a feat its director called a great honor.

“Nothing in the water, just great kids and great staff,” said principal Mark Daly, whose son was the first cathedral student to win the award in 2016.

“I don’t think there are too many schools that can say they’ve had three Schulich Laureates during that time.”

David Goodman, vice president of the Schulich Foundation, said there have been cases of high school repeat offenders, but “it’s not entirely common”.

“It really speaks to the quality of education at these institutions that produce excellent graduates.”

He noted that schools in Hamilton have had consistent success. Azlan Naeem, a graduate student from St. Thomas More Catholic High School, received an $80,000 science scholarship from the University of Toronto this year — the second Catholic board winner in 2022. Two graduates from Ancaster High School have also won a Schulich Award each in 2021.

For Barbera, the credit for his success and that of Cathedral comes down to one thing: the teachers.

“My teachers were amazing,” she said. “Every achievement that led me to win was encouraged by them. I had the best of the best in town.

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