By Brian Powell
Mary Plante graduated from Kofa High School in Yuma, Northern Arizona University, and finally, Harvard Law School.
But what happened next was most unexpected.
The Class of 2003 Flinn Scholar chose not to take the bar exam and instead return to her hometown in southwest Arizona to teach English and drama at Gila Ridge High School, choosing a profession where the accomplished student could pursue her passions and make a significant impact on Arizona’s future.
After a few years in Yuma, Plante moved to Phoenix to work as an English and drama teacher at Washington High School while continuing her lifelong love of the stage by performing in plays and musicals.
“Teaching is interesting, and rewarding, and challenging and different every day,” she says. “I think I found the right balance. This makes me happy, and I am happy where I am.”
Plante graduated from NAU in Flagstaff with bachelor degrees in theatre and English. She was named a Dean’s Scholar at Harvard Law by one of her professors, Alan Dershowitz.
But she realized during her time at Harvard that she did not want to be a lawyer. After graduating, she chose not to take the bar exam.
“I’m glad I took a step back and evaluated what I wanted to do with my life rather than just trying to look good on paper,” Plante says.
Plante attended a large public high school and was drawn to that type of school to teach. At Gila Ridge, she taught English and led a drama program that produced seven shows a year, including a major musical.
After three school years, Plante decided to move to Phoenix. She is now in her third year at Washington, a Title I high school with an A rating by the Arizona Department Education near Interstate 17 and Glendale Avenue. Plante is teaching Drama 1 and English at all grade levels, and works to instill the love of reading and theatre in all of her students.
She also has come to realize the difference she makes in the lives of the students.
“I have been surprised by the end of the year how attached they’ve become,” Plante says. “Many of my students do not have any adult role model in their lives except for teachers, so I try very hard to be a good person, because you might be it for them.”
Plante has acted in plays, including Shakespeare and musicals, since she was 8 years old. She’s directed performances, played piano and made costumes. She has fond memories of the NAU department of theatre, where she was able to build relationships with professors, develop close friendships, and enjoy lead roles in productions. She performed in community theater while at Harvard and continues to do so today, primarily in the Phoenix area’s West Valley.
She is performing this month in “All Shook Up,” featuring the music of Elvis Presley, with Theater Works at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. Later this year, Plante will star as Doris Walker, the Personnel Manager at Macy’s, in Miracle on 34th Street, with Stage Left Productions in Sun City.
“I’m not happy if I’m not in a show; it seems to be a part of my DNA,” Plante says. “I couldn’t see not having it in my life.”
Plante was the sixth Flinn Scholar selected from Kofa High School. She was drawn, in part, to the Flinn Scholarship because it covered all costs—four years of tuition, fees, housing, meals and study abroad opportunities.
But her Flinn Scholar experience went far beyond benefiting from free tuition at an Arizona public university.
“The most life-changing was the ability to travel … which was very unique, and I would not have had the courage to do that on my own,” she says.
During one study-abroad program supported by the Flinn Scholarship, Plante taught 9-year-olds in a rural African village in a classroom she described as having some desks, chairs, a blackboard and the student’s own creativity.
Fast forward roughly a decade, and Plante was writing a recommendation for a student seeking the same merit-based scholarship she had received. That Yuma student “was far more qualified than I ever was,” she says, though the student ultimately did not receive the scholarship.
That outcome is indicative of the number of strong high-school students statewide, a primary contributor to the rapidly growing honors colleges at Arizona’s three public universities.
Hundreds of Flinn Scholarship applicants each year ultimately select those honors colleges. During last year’s application period, the Scholars Program received nearly 900 applications for 20 scholarships, an award rate of less than 3 percent.