A teen aspiring to someday walk the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress has been named a National Merit Scholarship finalist.
Michael Daniels, a senior at Payson High School, qualified as a scholarship finalist after scoring in the top 99th percentile among the 1.3 million high school students who took the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT).
"I thought I had done pretty good on it," he said. "I was pretty happy when I heard how good."
Payson High School Counselor Don Heizer estimated that in the past decade only five PHS students have earned the National Merit Scholarship finalist award.
Daniels was notified last week that he is an Arizona State University NMSA finalist scholarship winner and will be considered for additional scholarship help.
With the financial aid already awarded him, valued at about $12,500 per year, Daniels plans to enroll next fall at ASU in Tempe.
If he is chosen as a National Merit Scholarship award winner, he will receive an additional $2,500 in financial aid.
At Arizona State, the 17-year-old Daniels plans to major in political science, earn a masters in business administration and eventually a law degree.
"Then I'd like to get into politics and run for Congress," he said. "I know I'll need all the education and experience I can get to do that."
PHS assistant principal Tim Fruth is among those confident Daniels can achieve his lofty goals.
"He's bright and he's motivated," Fruth said.
Michael's mother, Eileen -- a local school board member -- attributes her son's success to hard work and good genes.
"He has a tremendous memory, he's good at taking tests and he is smart, which he gets from his father," she said. "But I did tell him at a young age that academics, not athletics, would be his ticket out of town."
In addition to Daniels' sky-high scores on the PSAT/ NMSQT battery, he earned the attention of National Merit Scholarship Corporation officials by maintaining a 4.021 GPA, a seventh place academic ranking in his class of 173 students and with a well-versed essay.
"The essay was a requirement. I wrote mine on community involvement," he said.
NMS officials say in selecting finalists like Daniels, candidate's academic record, essay, information about the school's curriculum and grading system, two sets of test scores, a school official's written recommendation and information about the student's activities and leadership are taken into consideration.
Payson High School principal Roy Sandoval penned Daniels' recommendation letter, writing the student was highly deserving of the scholarship.
In addition to maintaining academic excellence during his four years at PHS, Daniels is a discus thrower on the Longhorn track team.
"I enjoy doing that; I was second at the Apache Junction meet last week," he said.
Off the track and away from the classroom, Daniels' greatest source of pride comes from his work as a peer counselor.
"I've been at most all the elementary schools and it is something that is very rewarding," he said. "I've learned that there are some kids that don't have it the easiest in life. They come from rough backgrounds."
The key to being successful while working with those students, Daniels said, "is to make them feel comfortable with you.
"You can't help them if they don't trust you."
Following the announcement that Daniels was a scholarship finalist, counselor Don Heizer was among the first to applaud Arizona State for its selection.
"ASU made a great decision in giving it to him because he will go on and do great things with the education he receives there," he said. "In a few years, we will be hearing about what he has accomplished."
For Daniels, the hoopla of being named a winner has ended and he's ready to get on with preparing himself for life on the Tempe campus.
"I'm looking forward to the challenges and enjoying the entire college experience," he said. "I'm excited. It'll be a whole new world for me."