Extraordinary Teen Awards 2016
Our third annual teen competition honors outstanding high school students in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean
Wakefield High School
Eyerusalem Meaza is a study in contrasts: A young woman fiercely interested in science and math, but with a keen eye for the arts; a first-generation American who embraces the culture of her parents; a straight-A student who is bubbly and popular.
Born in Arlington after her parents fled Ethiopia in the early 1990s, Meaza has taken to heart the stories of how her parents struggled, both financially and culturally, to make a life in the U.S. “Their hardships helped me to be stronger,” she says, “and convinced me of the power of education.”
At the same time, many of her strengths—like her affinity for math and science—come naturally. “Growing up I was always into numbers. They seemed to click in my head,” says the 18-year-old, who plans to study engineering at the University of Maryland this fall. “Not many girls or minorities are interested in math or science, unfortunately.”
To change that, Meaza has spent time speaking to middle school students about STEM topics and teaching computer code to elementary school girls.
For her Senior Project experience at Wakefield High (a self-driven exploration of math, engineering, economics and medicine), she attended summer programs at Howard University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania; a workshop at the Federal Reserve; and the University of Maryland WIE (Women in Engineering) DREAM conference.
But she has other interests, too, including long- and middle-distance running, the French Honor Society and photography. In a May ceremony at New York’s Carnegie Hall, she received a gold medal from the National Scholastic Art Awards for a moody black-and-white photograph that she took of her younger brother.
Though Meaza leaves Wakefield with a 4.3 GPA, she doesn’t put too much stock in that metric. “My mind goes 200 miles per hour and I talk a lot. Being smart has little to do with your GPA,” she says. “It’s all about hard work and putting in the time.”
“She has created a legacy of excellence,” says Wakefield minority achievement coordinator Alan Beitler. “She is driven and determined, and I know will make her mark on the world.”
The Potomac School
Madeline Dubelier still remembers watching a 60 Minutes segment on the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. It’s what set her on the road to studying mechanical engineering at Cornell University.
During the show, a woman demonstrated her ability to operate a prosthetic hand with her mind after the artificial limb was integrated into her neural network.
“I was fascinated by how seamlessly the biological system was integrated with the mechanical, manmade system,” says Dubelier, 17. “I began thinking about how I could do similar research within the limitation of my high school lab.”
In The Potomac School’s Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC), Dubelier used a 3-D printer to create a prosthetic hand that simulates a sense of touch in the fingertips by using vibration motors in the arm.
“While none of this is super-advanced technology, it shows that we don’t have to have thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to restore [some] sensory control to those who have lost those capabilities,” she says. In fact, the application has real-world promise, says Donald Firke, who heads the Upper School at The Potomac School. “This project has the potential to be a low-cost, noninvasive solution that would improve the quality of life for radial amputees and burn victims.”
In addition to her work with SERC, Dubelier was an active member of her school’s robotics team and a four-time qualifier for national or world championship robotics competitions. She credits her robotics instructor, Mary Jarratt, with helping her find her place among female engineers, and for introducing her to STEM programs geared toward girls.
An avid squash and tennis player, the McLean student has also been a leader in the school’s YouToo Tennis Club, which runs weekend programs for children with autism.
“Role model is a phrase that gets used frequently when teachers talk about Madeline Dubelier,” Firke says. “She does a tremendous amount and yet maintains her poise and balance.”
—Emily Van Zandt
H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program
“I’m proud of being a Mexican-American,” says Fernando Rocha, a rising senior at H-B Woodlawn. “I go to school in English but at home I speak Spanish and am part of the Hispanic community. It’s a good balance.”
A lifelong Arlingtonian, Rocha has embraced the culture of his parents (who came to the U.S. from Mexico City), learning to perform various styles of Mexican dance. But his biggest passion is giving a voice to others through filmmaking.
Last year, with a grant from the Arlington Community Foundation, he and two friends from H-B started Momentum Films, a production company that enlists other teens in making films as a service to local nonprofits. The fledgling company has already made several short documentaries—on issues ranging from arts programs for homeless people to multiple sclerosis—and a short film on military service that placed in the White House Student Film Festival.
“Even at a school as arts-rich as H-B Woodlawn, Fernando is the type of student who raises the level of creative work throughout the student body,” says H-B film and theater teacher Thomas Mallan.
Rocha also volunteers with a weekly program that engages older adults at a nearby affordable housing site in creating film and theater projects. And he’s on the radio. He and another student, Flor Selena Caceres, recently began hosting a show called “Latinos Unidos” on Arlington’s new community FM radio station, WERA.
What’s next for the 16-year-old? After his graduation from H-B in 2017, he hopes to study film at the University of Southern California and eventually become a documentary filmmaker. “I want to do more than just make art,” he says. “The demand for Spanish content for Hispanic viewers is not being met, and I want to fill that gap.”
In the meantime, he’s maintaining solid A’s and B’s at school, and is hard at work on a documentary about immigration—which he is filming in both the U.S. and Mexico.
George Mason High School
Blaise Sevier makes things happen. Especially when her mission involves a cause she feels passionate about—like the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), which distributes groceries weekly to more than 2,000 area families that are food-insecure.
“When I read about [AFAC] and felt the enthusiasm of the volunteers, I knew I wanted to be part of [it],” says the 18-year-old, who moved to Falls Church in eighth grade after several years abroad in Cairo and Belgrade, courtesy of her mother’s job at the State Department.
In October, Sevier helped organize the George Mason Halloween Hootenanny, a holiday event for children of all ages that raised more than $2,000 for the nonprofit. Four months later, she spearheaded a fundraiser with Chipotle that generated an additional $500 for AFAC.
“Blaise burns bright in this world,” says George Mason High School counselor Valerie Chesley. “She is someone who constantly champions the underdog. Peers look up to her kindness, leadership and approachability.”
Philanthropic efforts aside, Sevier also spent her senior year serving as president of George Mason’s Student Council Association Executive Board, and as a student liaison to Falls Church City Public Schools’ Gifted and Talented Committee—and still found time for track, cross-country and swimming.
She plans to attend the University of Virginia this fall, but until then is busy working on another goal—earning the Competent Communicator award at her local Toastmasters International club, where she’s easily the youngest participant by a good 20 years.
“I saw a Toastmasters flier at Starbucks,” she says with a smile. And then she made it happen.
—Emily Van Zandt
McLean High School
This fall, Karynne Baker heads to Ohio University on a full field hockey scholarship. But hockey isn’t her only sport.
During her four years of varsity stardom at McLean High School, she nabbed All-State and All-Met designations in field hockey, an All-State nod in track, and was twice named All-District in basketball. She also coached younger field hockey and basketball players in the McLean Youth Athletics and AAU Club leagues—an experience that she says deepened her appreciation for her own coaches. “You are a teacher, a motivator and a counselor all in one,” says the 18-year-old Falls Church resident. “My coaches have been some of the most influential people in my life.”
There are many skills to be gleaned from athletics, she adds, not the least of which is time management. “Getting schoolwork done while juggling sports takes some serious planning, but most of all it requires you to get things done early and not procrastinate.”
Baker, who graduates in June with a 3.6 GPA, is more than an athlete. An aspiring broadcast journalist, she produced her school’s afternoon news show and earned a state award for one of her videos from the Virginia High School League. She also served as senior class vice president, and as an executive mentor in McLean High’s McLeadership program.
“She is intuitively a role model for other students,” says Principal Ellen Reilly.
Making a difference is its own reward, Baker says. “I’ve learned valuable life lessons…most importantly to listen, to lead by example…and to work with intensity.”
—Emily Van Zandt
Jacob Fishman can trace the person he is today all the way back to McLean Little League. It’s where, at 6 years old, he learned to shake off disappointments.
“When you get out in baseball, you just need to forget about it and move on,” says the McLean native, who played catcher for Bullis School. “It’s a good life lesson to move on from your mistakes. The best baseball players are only successful 30 percent of the time.”
And yet, Fishman, 18, has enjoyed more success than most. As a junior, he received the Bullis Principal’s Award for excellence in academics, leadership, citizenship and extracurricular activities. This year, as a senior, he captained his school’s baseball and ice hockey teams and helped carry his travel hockey team, the Reston Raiders, to a Virginia State championship win.
Off the ice, he served as a Bullis School student ambassador, touring prospective freshmen through the halls and offering advice. “Take advantage of every opportunity that’s in front of you,” he says. “You never know what it could lead to.”
Fishman—who graduates with a GPA of 96 on a 100-point scale—foresees a future in amusement parks. He discovered a love of engineering early on, soaking up lessons in mechanical engineering and AP Physics classes that he hopes will someday come in handy at this dream job: designing roller coasters as an Imagineer for Walt Disney World.
But first comes college at the University of Virginia, where Bullis counselor Lynn Kittel predicts continued success for a young man whom teachers describe as “alert to life.”
“He possesses a rare gift of clear and concise communication,” Kittel says, “displaying both the logic of an engineer and the creativity of an artist.”
–Emily Van Zandt
Bishop O’Connell High School
Some people are crushed by adversity, while others are inspired by it. Marissa Luna falls into the second category.
Luna says her resolve to enter a life of leadership and service—and to eventually study medicine—began when she was in the third grade.
That’s when she and her family accompanied her baby sister, Keira, to Norfolk for surgery to correct the infant’s cleft lip and palate.
That experience, combined with her mother’s 2009 diagnosis and subsequent triumph over breast cancer, left the McLean teen determined to step up and be a positive force for her family and community in times of trouble.
So far, she’s delivered on that promise. In 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan devastated areas of the Philippines, Luna (who is half Filipino) organized a clothing drive to aid disaster victims. In 2014, she and her older brother, Kylan, founded We2You, a local program that helps elementary school children face their own family struggles in positive and constructive ways with the help of teen mentors. (Match-ups are formed in partnership with elementary school counselors.)
As a senior at Bishop O’Connell, Luna was elected president of the student council after serving three years as president of her class. She earned a 4.6 GPA, tutored students at Tuckahoe Elementary School, attended youth leadership conferences at James Madison and George Mason universities, and organized her high school’s annual 12-hour dance marathon that raises money for cystic fibrosis research.
“I hope I will be remembered for my optimistic personality and my commitment to serve,” says Luna, 18, who heads to Stanford University this fall.
Joe Natalicchio, a school counselor at Bishop O’Connell, has every belief that she will. “Marissa is a shining light at our school. She is already making the world a better place,” he says, “and we know the best is yet to come!”
Yorktown High School
Not many high school students would willingly spend up to six hours at school every Saturday for two months. But Bilguunzaya Battogtokh did. And it paid off handsomely. The extra hours she put into her junior science project—an inexpensive, sustainable water purification system—earned her the Grand Prize at the 2016 Northern Virginia Regional Science and Engineering Fair and a trip to Arizona for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May.
Battogtokh and her family moved to Arlington from their native Mongolia when she was 5. “I hated it at first because we were away from my relatives,” recalls the 17-year-old, whose friends know her as “Zaya.” “I don’t think I said a word in kindergarten that first year.”
She’s since assimilated, but hasn’t forgotten the country of her birth. “My interest in water [for my science project] came from seeing the scarcity of water in Mongolia, and also how polluted it can be,” explains the rising senior, who has earned straight A’s since the sixth grade and scored in the 97th percentile on the SATs her freshman year.
“One of her main goals is to help the environment and to help people who are less fortunate,” observes her counselor at Yorktown, Yuchen Zhang.
Last summer, as an intern at the National Institutes of Health, Battogtokh worked on a computational biology project in which she trained a robotic computer to recognize human retinal disease (a scientific paper by her mentors is forthcoming). She hopes to do the same this summer, while still making time to have a little fun. “I have a great group of friends who are into academics, but also many who are social butterflies,” says the Arlington teen, an active member of Yorktown’s Future Business Leaders of America club who admires SpaceX founder Elon Musk because “he is using science to benefit people.”
Though college is still a year away, she has her sights set on Johns Hopkins or MIT. After that, she says, “I would like to make a difference in the world through scientific research.”
Washington-Lee High School
Allie Webster started gymnastics as a preschooler, but not because her parents saw in her some inherent talent. “They signed me up because I was incredibly clumsy,” she laughs, “but it didn’t really help.”
In fact, her early years in the sport were difficult. “Every month when the invoice came, my mom would ask if I still wanted to do it,” recalls the 18-year-old.
She stuck with it, and eventually reached Level 7 in the Junior Olympic gymnastics program of USA Gymnastics.
In 2013, a back injury forced Webster to take a step back from that program, but she didn’t stop competing. By the end of her four years at Washington-Lee (where she co-captained the gymnastics team), she had earned eight state champion titles in the USA Gymnastics Xcel program, along with four varsity letters in gymnastics and two in competitive cheer from W-L (this, in spite of starting her senior year with a broken ankle).
And yet, her feats in the gym aren’t Webster’s proudest achievements. The highlight of her high school experience, she says, was attending the Virginia Governor’s School for Math, Science and Technology in the summer of 2015, where she chose to study genetics.
“Going was so meaningful for me, especially being with 160 other students who were also interested in math and science,” says the teen, who served as a math tutor and mentor for fellow students and as secretary-general of her school’s Model U.N. team.
A member of Club Ukraine and Young Democrats, she graduates in June with a 4.5 GPA and a full International Baccalaureate diploma.
As she prepares for her freshman year at Tufts University, Webster is reluctantly considering a break from gymnastics. “It didn’t matter to me how I did in meets,” she says. “I just enjoyed my teammates. We were super-close friends. And flipping is just so much fun.” n