The 2023 National Merit Scholarship Finalists from Polk County Public Schools. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

The Polk County School Board recently recognized its best and brightest students: the seven students — five of them Lakeland residents — who are among this year’s National Merit Scholarship finalists.

High school juniors are able to become National Merit semifinalists and finalists by performing well on qualifying tests; those ultimately selected are the highest-scoring entrants from each state, representing less than 1% of seniors nationwide.

The students took the Practice Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) in October of their junior year. From those results, the National Merit Scholarship Corp. named the semifinalists in September of their senior year. Last month, they named the finalists.

The finalists are:

  • Cullen Wyatt, Lakeland High
  • James Barrios, Neil Dave, Elijah Englund and Keshav Singh; International Baccalaureate at Bartow High School; all are Lakeland residents.
  • Gianna Junqueira, Davenport High
  • Payson Keown, Haines City High IB

 “Being a semifinalist is a high honor. Being a finalist is a prestigious honor,” said Ann Everett, the district’s senior director of acceleration and innovation. “These students are highly sought after by our most elite programs across the country.”

Everett said the students now qualify for the Benacquisto Scholarship Program, which covers the entire cost of attendance at nine universities in Florida, including tuition, books, room and board, and travel.

The PCPS students are among more than 16,000 “academically talented” U.S. high school seniors competing for National Merit scholarships this year. Approximately 7,250 National Merit scholarships worth nearly $28 million will be awarded this year.                                              

LkldNow spoke with two of the finalists, who both live in Lakeland.

Cullen Wyatt

Cullen Wyatt, center, with School Board member Lori Cunningham and John Miller III, curriculum specialist for accelerated programs. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Cullent Wyatt, 17, is the son of Jason and Kristin Wyatt. In addition to high academic achievement, Wyatt is a member of LHS’ varsity soccer team and a member of the Spanish Club and National Honor Society.

Wyatt said he juggles all of his responsibilities through disciplined time management.

“I don’t necessarily start my homework at the same time every day, but I try to make the most of the time that I dedicate to studying so that I have time for other activities,” Wyatt said.

With a 4.698 grade point average, he is a contender for valedictorian. He hasn’t yet decided on a college, but his top choice is Georgia Institute of Technology, where he plans to major in chemical and biomolecular engineering. He hopes to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

Neil Dave

When Neil Dave, 17, got word that he was a National Merit finalist, he said he wasn’t surprised.

“I was definitely pretty excited, but in all honesty I kind of expected it,” Dave said. “I tend to take tests well, so I didn’t really extensively prepare, though I did take the PSAT in 9th and 10th grade as well which provided some practice.”

He said his after-school activities are “consumed” by either studying for the county Academic Team, or taking various dual enrollment courses at Polk State College. He also volunteers with Bartow High’s Key Club, and is president of BHS’ Mu Alpha Theta club.

“One thing that I really like doing is volunteering as an animal care assistant at the SPCA,” Dave said. “I really love dogs.”

In previous years, he also played tennis.

He is the son of Jay and Priti Dave.

This isn’t Dave’s first brush with academic excellence.  As an 8th grader at Lakeland Christian School, Dave was one of 565 students who participated in the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where he made it through two rounds before being eliminated.

He is currently undecided on a college or university, but wants to study math, along with computer science and possibly engineering.

“I’m undecided on a career path, though likely something that’s heavily STEM-involved so that I could continue working with mathematics,” Dave said. 

Dave is on track to be Bartow High IB’s valedictorian. He said he didn’t want to reveal his GPA, wanting to save it as a surprise for graduation day.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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