This year seven Garland ISD students have earned a prestigious title shared by just 16,000 high schoolers nationwide. The academically talented seniors were named semifinalists in the 65th National Merit Scholarship Program – a distinction less than one percent of U.S. students received this year. 

The select group was among over 1.5 million juniors from more than 21,000 high schools who entered the 2020 competition by taking the PSAT/NMSQT. As some of the highest-scoring entrants in Texas, these students now have an opportunity to continue in the competition. In the end, some 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth more than $31 million will be awarded in the spring.

Among the seven GISD students is Rowlett resident and Garland High School senior Payton Blankenship. 

How does it feel to be a National Merit Scholar semifinalist?

It was a lot more than what I was expecting. I went into the program thinking if I get this it would help me with college, but there’s so much stuff that’s coming with it. 

It’s really cool to see the level of prestige that the title holds. It’s not necessarily something I wanted, but it has opened doors for me that I wasn’t expecting to open. 

Why did you chose to attend Garland high school?

I came for the IB (International Baccalaureate) and AVAPA (Academy of Visual and Performing Arts) programs. I wound up not doing the full IB program because of my schedule, and I have so many extracurricular activities. I couldn’t handle the homework and rigor of a full diploma, but I think I have a good balance of what I’m doing right now, the partial program. 

Explain what AVAPA is. 

It’s the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, and I’m taking it for band right now so it entails taking certain music classes. The reason why I’m not doing full IB is because if I did that I would only have my IB and AVAPA classes and there would be some overlap where it makes it really difficult to do both. Basically I’ll graduate with an endorsement and another core.

What’s your post-graduation plan?

I’m hoping to go to SMU, that’s my big goal, but because of National Merit I’ve gotten a lot of offers from colleges so I think I’ll be okay with going to a four-year university like I’d like to. My second school would be Oral Roberts University in Tulsa; it’s a Christian private school.

What do you plan to study?

My goal is to do a double major in computer science and music theory and composition. It’s not really a viable option at a lot of places, but if that winds up being the case then I’ll do my computer science major and do a minor in music. 

What sort of career would you want to go into?

I’m looking at cyber security right now. It’s a very open field and it’s only going to have an increasing demand in the future, so it’s really a safe bet for getting a safe and secure career. 

What has been the highlight of your senior year so far?

I really enjoyed this year’s marching season and really just everything. I’ve figured out my balance in life. At the beginning of this year was when it all fell into place; I have a lot of great friends that I spend time with, and all the activities that I’m involved in together help to really round me out as a person I believe. 

What are you looking forward to this year?

I want to cherish the time I have left before I have to take on the responsibility of being on my own and having full control of my life and where it goes from there. I’m doing everything that I need to do to be successful but not forgetting to have fun along the way.

Who has been influential in your life?

My youth pastor; I’ve developed a really great friendship with him over the past year that he’s been with our church. 

What advice would you give underclassman on how to be successful?

The biggest thing is do your work; I still struggle with that, and any way you can motivate yourself – definitely grab on to that. When you’re given an opportunity, don’t let it go to waste because I believe the only reason that I was able to become a National Merit Scholar semifinalist is because I was named a superintendent scholar and we were each given an opportunity to spend a summer at Karen Dillard College Prep, completely paid for by the district, if we completed the course. It was a lot of work over the summer and I had to give up having my first job, but it was really worth it because my scores went up about 160 points just from taking that summer to focus with a specific goal in mind.

How do you stay grounded in your faith?

The big thing is the people I surround myself with and the actions I take in my own life, and my primary friend group is from my church so we have each other for support. Honestly, I love God so much that it’s kind of hard not to. 

What’s one thing that not many people know about you?

I’m working on producing some of my own music. It’s still in the early phases, but I’ve gotten out a lot of what I’m going to do just for fun to see what I can do with it. 

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