Top of the heap.

That's where Mark Camphouse, Radford University's director of bands, says his star student Dan Boothe belongs, not just in Southwest Virginia but "at the top of the heap anywhere."

Apparently, a panel of brainiacs commissioned by USA Today agrees.

Boothe, a senior at Radford University, was one of 20 students nationwide named Thursday to USA Today's All-USA College Academic First Team, sharing recognition with the best students from such lofty institutions as Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Boothe is not alone in representing the Old Dominion. Ashley White of Virginia Tech was named to the prestigious poll, as was Scott Erwin of the University of Richmond.

But Boothe's recognition marks the first time a Radford student has achieved such academic notoriety. In the 16-year history of the USA Today program, the newspaper's judging panel of academics has selected four Virginia Tech students, including White, for the first-team ranking.

"I'm sure that Yale and Harvard are just absolutely thrilled to be associated with Radford University," Radford spokesman Rob Tucker said. "It's great that we have two students here in the New River Valley ranked among the top 20 in the nation. That speaks highly of us. We must be doing something right."

Camphouse said Boothe, a music composition major, won a spot "because of his talent and because of the passion he has for music."

While the list of academic accolades for both Boothe and White is tremendous, this recent award speaks to their human side. The two wrote essays on their experience with music as a spiritual rejuvenator.

"I composed a piece of music to celebrate and honor the lives of three children and celebrate youth as a whole," Boothe noted. "I believe music has the potential of crossing over, transcending what is here and now. When I wrote 'Trinitas,' it was with the belief that maybe it could cross over and connect with three souls."

The three souls that touched Boothe's emotions were those of Andrea Markannem, Jenny Sandhal and Michael O'Hagan, all teenagers who played music before they died from unrelated causes. Richfield High School, where the Minnesota teens were students, commissioned Boothe to write a symphonic piece in their memory.

"I really wanted to meet the families and see the community," Boothe said, explaining that his journey began in Minnesota where he sat down with parents and friends of the deceased teens and learned their stories.

"The school, this community, they had endured a lot," he said. "My essay basically talked about how I witnessed music affect a whole community and helped heal them."

"Trinitas," the composition Boothe finished after much soul-searching, was performed in a concert by the school's symphonic band and went on to win the National Band Association's Young Composer's Mentor Project. Boothe was told by USA Today that he is the first music composition major ever selected for the All-USA College Academic First Team.

"This whole situation is nothing I would have ever expected," he said, noting that he credits the university for his success. "I believe in this place. I attribute every opportunity to the nurturing I get here. Radford is a little undiscovered treasure."

Ashley White echoes Boothe's sentiments when she speaks of Virginia Tech - a bit strange, considering she was dead set against going to Tech when she graduated from Warwick High School in Newport News.

"I applied to something like seven schools," White said. "Virginia Tech was definitely ranked sixth.... I was generally opposed to going to state schools. My parents weren't because they were cheaper, but at the time, I believed my life would go nowhere if I went to a stupid state school."

Now, the 22-year-old Tech honors student says she "couldn't imagine having gone to any other school." Because she received a full scholarship from Tech, White ditched plans to attend Johns Hopkins University.

"I have never regretted it," she said, adding that Tech was the one school that supported her desire to seek a double major in music and engineering.

White's essay for the USA Today award resulted from a trip to Mexico and South America last summer where she worked with youth orchestras. Upon returning, she started developing an exchange program between a youth orchestra in Paraguay and the Hampton Roads Chamber Players. The violinist said she believes music is the best way to bridge cultural and geographical gaps.

"I grew up playing Bach and Mozart," she noted, explaining that her first trip abroad showed her the importance of folk music as an inspiration for young musicians.

"Whenever the Mexican youth perform, they wear scarves - red, green and white for their country. At the end of their performance, they wave their scarves around. The kids were so excited about playing."

In his 15 years as director of Tech's honors program, Jack Dudley said he has learned that students don't get on the All-USA College Academic First Team by being "lucky." When he nominated White, it was because "she was the one who was head and shoulders above even the honors students."

"She's an incredible person," he noted. "USA Today really looks for a student who has done something incredible. I'm delighted that Radford has a student receiving the honor, and it's very pleasing that Virginia Tech is a continuing player."

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