Liu Impresses Teachers With Her Academic Range

It was an oratorical competition at Huntington Middle School, and Matthew Slimp, the speech and debate coach at San Marino High School, had agreed to be one of the judges. He probably blinked in disbelief as the very first participant, an 8th-grader, concluded her speech.
“I thought she was outstanding,” Slimp said a few days ago. “She had poise, strength, charisma. She was a natural when it came to platform speaking.”
Like a lot of teachers at San Marino High who were about to be wowed, he had just had his first encounter with Rachelle Liu.
Somehow, the other judges missed it, and Liu didn’t get first place in the competition, but she had this teacher’s vote. And, after guiding her through three-plus years of speech and debate at the high school, he wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear that she had dazzled a different, notoriously demanding set of judges: those who choose the Rose Court each fall.
Liu, a senior at SMHS, is a princess on the court, entering her final week of public appearances in the run-up to the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game on New Year’s Day.
The selection of the Rose Court, though unmistakably a beauty contest, also places a heavy emphasis on academic achievement and community service, and Liu is one of those students who has glittery credentials in each. After talking to a few of her teachers, one gets the sense she can write her ticket in pursuing a career.
“She’s a kaleidoscopic talent,” Slimp said.
For the record, Liu says she is particularly interested in majoring in the biological sciences, with an eye to going into medicine. Don’t be surprised if she embarks on that course at an Ivy League school next year.
“I think a lot of that has to do with my past,” Liu said one recent afternoon at the Tournament House. “I suffered from severe allergies. I was in my doctor’s office twice a week for shots. It’s something that really affected me as a child.
“After I saw what a difference the treatment could make … it’s almost like when you get a new pair of glasses and you see the world in a completely different light. Being able to breathe better had the same effect on me. It was almost like I’d been suffocating my whole life. That lifestyle difference, and being able to do that for someone else, is something that is really rewarding.”
In preparation for this line of work, Liu seized an opportunity to work at the Neuroscience Department of the Beckman Research Institute at the City of Hope this past summer, according to her counselor at SMHS, Kathy Stein.
Liu is obviously someone who is not overwhelmed by academic rigor. Her course load for the fall semester included advanced placement government, calculus and English literature, speech and debate, and honors physics (“which is essentially an AP physics class,” teacher Scott Barton said). Into this mix came the Rose Court responsibilities, roughly 100 public appearances over the final three months of the year.
As with the other members of the court, this has caused Liu to miss great swaths of class time. She said her teachers have been gracious in working around her schedule, while a couple of friends send her information daily — including photos of what was on the board in class.
When she is able to make it to class, her teachers are often dumbfounded by her contributions.
A while back, Nancy Beagle’s AP English literature class studied William Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us.” More recently, it launched into Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which compelled Beagle to take up the notion of the noble savage.
“It’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea, and his being discouraged with modern man,” she said. “I said, ‘Where have we seen this recently?’ People were coming up with all sorts of things. Rachelle said, ‘Well, it’s the Wordsworth sonnet we just read.’ I said, ‘Kids, Rachelle hasn’t even been in class much and she gave me the answer.’”
Liu said her educational advances at San Marino High reflect the commitment of the community to the public schools. “You have freedom in taking classes,” she said, “and there is never a shortage of resources for the students. There are new Chromebooks that they’ve installed, where every student in the classroom is able to have a Chromebook. The faculty they hire, the athletic programs — literally anything you want to do, it’s available to do in San Marino.”
Two of the programs she’s latched onto, speech and debate and mock trial, are credited with developing the ease with which she handles the public stage –— vital traits for a 17-year-old Rose Princess who is interacting with adults at an endless string of appearances.
Peter Paccone, who leads the mock trial team, recently spent time writing college recommendation letters for Liu. “The highlight point of my recommendation,” he said, “was that she has this ability to take a vast amount of information — especially highly technical, complex information — and explain that to others in simple and easy-to-understand words. And she can do it without a lot of prep work. She takes it in, processes it and out it comes.”
Slimp noted that Liu’s preferred format is platform — the prepared speech — “but she is quite talented in extemporaneous delivery.”
Perhaps because he demands it of all his students. No matter what a student’s specialty is, Slimp still requires that he or she deliver an impromptu speech.
“You get a topic two minutes in advance,” Liu said, “and you have to give a five-minute speech. So we get a lot of practice on our feet, because we have to speak spontaneously. He trains us not to use filler words, to use our hand gestures effectively, [to maintain] eye contact.”
Liu believes the communication skills will come into play in whatever career field she chooses to pursue.
If it’s medicine? “I think she’d be good at it,” said Barton, the physics teacher. “It’s not only based on her intelligence, but her demeanor, how she interacts with other people. She’s one of the most pleasant students I’ve had.”
Paccone cited the impressive leadership strides Liu has made while serving as captain of the mock trial team this fall. He laughed and said, “If Rachelle really is headed into medicine, it wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere down the road, in her 40s or 50s, she wanted to run the hospital. Or own it. Or advocate for health care.”
Beagle observed: “She’s extremely disciplined. She’s a very intelligent young woman. I think whatever she chose to do, she’d do it well. It’s just that simple.”

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