Roan Scholar keeps eye on the prize

Published 11:13 am Monday, February 9, 2015

Star Photo/Brandon Hicks

A lifetime love of learning paid off in a major way for Unaka High School student Joe Oliver.
The reward for Oliver: four years of college through Roan Scholar program at East Tennessee State University, where he plans to double major in biology and chemistry. He hopes to use his bachelor’s degree toward a career in genetics or go on to medical school to be become a pathologist. Winning the scholarship felt amazing and helped take some of the stress out of Oliver’s senior year, he said.
“There were a lot of sleepless nights before I found out,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do next. If I got it, then I was set. If I didn’t, then I would need to start checking into other options.”
Even after receiving the letter informing him he was in the 2019 Roan Scholar class, Oliver said it was a little hard to believe that he had been selected out of the field of applicants.
“It took about two days for it to sink in,” he said. “I kept thinking there was going to be a call that said, ‘Sorry, we made a mistake and you really didn’t get it,’ but then it really hit me that I had college paid for through one of ETSU’s most prestigious awards.”
The process to become a Roan Scholar took around three months from the time Oliver first applied until he was selected. The first step was to apply at the school level. Because his mom, Betsy Oliver, is Unaka’s principal, she had to remove herself from the selection committee.
“I am so proud of him,” she said. “When we had two students apply, and one of them was my son, I stepped away from it. After the applications were sent from the school, it was out of our hands.”
After the school selection, the applications were sent to ETSU, where the field was narrowed to 108. Students were divided into smaller groups for interviews, and two from each district were selected. The 15 finalists were brought in for all-day interviews before the final seven Roan Scholars were picked.
Students were told they would be notified within about who had been chosen. Oliver joked the selection process seemed to be like one for a higher calling.
“The selection process to me seemed like when they choose a pope,” he laughed. “They would lock themselves in a room, and when they send up the white smoke, they have their next group of Roan Scholars.”
Oliver has known since middle school that a field in science would be in his future. He was always good at science and liked the subjects, but it was with the help of television and video games that he learned it was the path for him.
“I was watching the TV show “House” in the seventh grade, and I could understand what they were talking about,” he said. “I knew that meant something. I was playing a video game and heard about genetics. I looked it up and thought, ‘That is what I want to do.’ ”
Oliver is amazed at the progress that has been made in the field of genetics in the past few years and wonders at what could be possible in the future.
“It can help a lot of people,” he said. “Genetics is not really understood. It used to be sort of taboo to even mention it, but it is amazing what can be done by understanding genetics. We will be saving lives with this in a few years.”
Oliver is especially interested in genetics for what it can do in terms of cancer treatments. He said many of his family members had been stricken with cancer, and there is usually a genetic link in the disease.
Oliver comes from a family of educators. His mother is UHS principal. His father, Kelly, is a teacher, and his sister is an elementary school librarian. Oliver has no interest in following that path. Instead of sharing information, Oliver wants to be the one making new discoveries, he said.
“I have always wanted to discover something,” he said. “Not for the fame, but because no one has ever seen it before. I love to learn.”
Oliver, who has a GPA of 4.0 and has never made a B in school, takes his love of learning into other parts of his life. One of his favorite pastimes is spending time outdoors and kayaking.
“You can see what God has given us in its most basic form,” he said. “It is free. It is not being controlled. The outdoors are beautiful and relaxing.”
Oliver is active in Caldwell Springs Baptist Church. He believes his faith in God and love of science are not at odds with each other.
“God made these things, and he has given us the knowledge and the ability to learn about these topics,” Oliver said. “He would not have given us this knowledge if He did not want us to understand. I heard a quote once that said ‘Science doesn’t open doors. Science makes key and we have to decide what door we open with it’.” I want to open the door to help people.”
Oliver said language drives him “crazy” but he loves to read. His favorite stories are ones about Sherlock Holmes and other mysteries. He said he also enjoys nonfiction books and comic books featuring Spider-Man and the Avengers.
He called himself a “walking textbook of useless knowledge” and said he browses the Internet daily to find new facts to share.
A new one he shared with the Star: Vinegar is partially a bacteria. Another: A new gene found in a fly might accelerate evolutionary processes.
Not your typical “nerd,” Oliver is an athlete, too. He played football for Unaka, serving as team captain and line captain. He started playing football in middle school, and while he loved it, he doubts he’ll continue playing the game in college.
Oliver was vice president of his senior class and a member of the National Honor Society, the Key Club and the Future Business Leaders of America.
He was also a member of the Carter County Chamber of Commerce Youth Leadership Program, serves as a member of the Carter County “Clean Teens” organization, volunteers with the American Red Cross and is a youth mentor at his church.
Oliver is the second Roan Scholar for Unaka High School. Two years ago, James Grindstaff was selected for the program. Coincidentally, Oliver and Grindstaff are cousins. Both attended Range Elementary and attend the same church.

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