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Princeton's top two are from the Philadelphia area

When Princeton University seniors Aman Sinha and Amelia Bensch-Schaus were summoned to the dean's office, they both wondered: What did they do wrong?

Aman Sinha of Ivyland, Bucks County, left, is valedictorian of Princeton's Class of 2013. Amelia Bensch-Schaus, a classics major from Swarthmore, Delaware County, is salutatorian. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Aman Sinha of Ivyland, Bucks County, left, is valedictorian of Princeton's Class of 2013. Amelia Bensch-Schaus, a classics major from Swarthmore, Delaware County, is salutatorian. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff PhotographerRead more

When Princeton University seniors Aman Sinha and Amelia Bensch-Schaus were summoned to the dean's office, they both wondered: What did they do wrong?

"It's sort of like being called down to the principal's office," Sinha said. "It's either something really good or something really bad."

It turned out to be something really, really good.

Sinha, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major, was named valedictorian of the 2013 graduating class, and Bensch-Schaus, a classics major, was salutatorian. They had not only graduated from one of the most elite institutions in the country, but emerged at the very top of the 1,300-member senior class.

They both hail from the Philadelphia suburbs. Sinha, 21, is a graduate of Council Rock High School North and a resident of Ivyland, Bucks County. Bensch-Schaus, 22, is from Swarthmore and a graduate of Westtown, a private school in West Chester.

Both will speak at commencement on June 4. Bensch-Schaus' speech will be in Latin, a centuries-old Princeton tradition.

"It's definitely a really great honor," Sinha said. "It's good to see that hard work pays off."

The two were nominated by the Committee on Examinations and Standing, chaired by the dean of the college and made up of faculty and administrators. Selection is based on the "breadth and depth of the academic record" and recommendation letters, a university spokesman said. Sinha, who had a 3.98 GPA at the end of last semester, earned a dazzling 14 A-pluses and won a Churchill Scholarship to study at Cambridge University next year.

Bensch-Schaus exceeded a 3.9 GPA and also was recommended for her proficiency in Latin.

Both attribute success to intrinsic motivation.

"Being passionate is the most important thing," Bensch-Schaus said. "You have to get to the point where you're doing this because you want to."

Of the eight Ivy League universities, Princeton is one of three that select a valedictorian and salutatorian, along with Columbia and Dartmouth.

As a child, Sinha liked to take apart remote controls and other devices and put them back together. He especially loved projects with his father, Neeraj, who has a master's degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton and who runs his own firm, Craft Tech.

Sinha exerted his independence as a youngster, said his mother, Vandana. In sixth grade, his teacher asked him to give a presentation on India, his parents' native country.

"He didn't want our input," she said.

Nor did he want her at the presentation. She watched secretly from an open doorway as her son wowed the crowd.

The family traveled extensively, provided educational games for the children, and moved to the Council Rock district for the schools.

"We gave [Sinha and his sister] every possible exposure," Vandana Sinha said.

Sinha won several prizes and distinctions as an undergraduate. In a feature about him by Princeton's communications office, professor Alexander Smits called Sinha "the most promising undergraduate I have seen in my 31 years at Princeton in terms of creativity and deep physical insight."

Clarence Rowley, a professor and Sinha's adviser, said Sinha readily absorbed difficult concepts and produced concise, powerful work, all while remaining laid back.

"You almost wouldn't guess he was such an academic superstar," he said.

Sinha's senior thesis focuses on the way large groups reach a consensus. He looks at techniques, for example, used by flocks of birds that move seamlessly together.

"I was trying to design a method that would make that agreement happen more robustly and more efficiently," he said.

After Cambridge, he plans to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford University. His career dream?

"I'd like to sort of work at the intersection of academia and the tech industry," he said, preferably in research and development in Silicon Valley.

Areas that particularly interest him are "big data" and artificial intelligence: "Can you really make computers think for themselves?"

He's not sure what he will say in his three- to four-minute graduation speech.

"I definitely would like to be reflective," he said, but also looking forward, hence "commencement."

Bensch-Schaus grew up immersed in academia. Her father, Stephen Bensch, is a medieval history professor at Swarthmore College, and her mother, Margaret Schaus, is lead research and instruction librarian at Haverford College. Her stepfather is an associate university librarian at Rutgers-New Brunswick. Her father's partner, Rosaria Munson, is a classics professor at Swarthmore.

The family cats - Persephone, Orpheus, and Herculana - were named for characters in Greek mythology. Her mother read Greek myths to her, and she routinely traveled with her father on research trips to Spain, where they visited the ruins of medieval castles. She also traveled to England with her mother and stepfather, Tom Izbicki, for his work.

"I remember growing up, my mother would always say, 'In the Middle Ages,' this would be happening,' and I would say, 'Mom, it's not the Middle Ages,' " Bensch-Schaus recalled. Now, she uses a similar line on her mother.

"I've sort of gone backward, and I say, 'Oh, well. In ancient Rome . . .."

Bensch-Schaus distinguished herself as a scholar early on. When assigned a five-page paper in eighth grade, she turned in 41 pages on Ida Tarbell.

"She worked on it late into the night, night after night after night," her mother said. "It seemed as if she was kind of channeling Ida Tarbell."

At her mother's suggestion, she began taking Latin in seventh grade and loved it, staying with it for six years. Izbicki translated the opening passage from the TV show Law and Order into Latin, much to her delight, her mother recalled.

There was no question she would major in classics at Princeton.

At Princeton, she plunged into Latin and ancient Greek, taking upper-level courses in those languages. She spent junior year studying classics at the University of Cambridge and one summer in a French immersion program at Middlebury College. Her favorite ancient hero is the Trojan prince Hector from the Iliad; she named a kitten after him.

"She's the ideal student," said Michael Flower, a senior research scholar at Princeton, "in that she combines hard work with original ideas."

Neither Bensch-Schaus nor Sinha is on Facebook or Twitter, popular pastimes for many students.

"It never seemed like meaningful communication to me," Bensch-Schaus said.

After graduation, Bensch-Schaus will head to Dorset, England, to teach Latin to eighth and ninth graders at the Sherborne School.She plans to do graduate work in Greek literature.

She hopes to become a college professor.

But first, she must write her speech. It took her six hours to get the first draft, which focuses on her time at Princeton and how the students have grown.

"I have a lot of work ahead of me," she said.

That does not seem to bother Bensch-Schaus.

Or Sinha.