Extraordinary Teen Awards 2020
Even in dark times, there is hope. These recent graduates are the kinds of future leaders we need.
The coronavirus arrived just as Arlington Magazine issued the call for nominations for our seventh annual Extraordinary Teen Awards. Then schools closed on March 13. Suddenly, the grand finale of senior year was swept away in a tide of pandemic fears, economic stress, social distancing mandates and the quest for disinfectant wipes.
For the Class of 2020, there would be no prom, no spring sports or spring musicals, boat parties, Beach Week, senior experience or packed auditoriums for cap-and-gown ceremonies. But that doesn’t diminish the collectively spectacular achievements of this year’s graduating class. In fact, quite the opposite. In a time of crisis, our shortchanged seniors showed not only academic, athletic and service leadership, but resilience, stamina, optimism and grace.
Says one of our 2020 award winners: “Every journey has adversity. It makes you stronger.” Words to live by, as we push forward.
Washington-Liberty High School
Combine tenacity, problem-solving and heart, and you get Max Gieseman.
During a family trip to Belize in 2017—inland, beyond the pristine beaches—the Arlington teen noticed crumbling infrastructure and unpaved roads between villages. He returned the following two summers with a church group to help build schools and provide summer camps for rural youth.
As a sophomore, after spending his first varsity basketball season on the bench, he doubled down with a trainer, put soccer (his other sport) temporarily on hold to play AAU hoops in the off-season and practiced every day. “I wanted to be a starter,” he says.
He finished out his senior year as W-L’s leading point scorer and rebounder (and captain for two years straight), leading the team to state playoffs for the first time in 53 years and scoring 70 points in four regional playoff games. He was named first team all-district for two years, all-region in 2020, and the Sun Gazette “Player of the Year” for 2019/2020. The Better Sports Club of Arlington named him 2020 High School Boys Basketall “Sportsman of the Year.”
In late 2017, not long after that trip to Belize, Gieseman’s dad, Ben, was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in his brain, liver and lungs. Gieseman took the helm of W-L’s annual Hoops for Cancer basketball tournament fundraiser, doubled participation and increased the proceeds (benefiting the V Foundation for Cancer Research) by 75%.
He credits his parents, Ben and Beth, as his mentors, his greatest champions. “They’ve always motivated me to be the best I can be, to broaden my mind, to have a strong work ethic, to show interest in a lot of different things,” says the 18-year-old. “After his diagnosis, my dad made me promise not to dwell, and to stay focused on the other important aspects of my life. Every journey has adversity. It makes you stronger.”
Ben died in April. Gieseman graduated with a 4.4 GPA and this fall will head to the University of Miami, where he plans to study finance. He’s determined to find ways to fund more infrastructure projects in Central America. “Without support, it’s hard to overcome hardship,” he says.
He was awarded the college’s Isaac Bashevis Singer scholarship, a full-ride academic prize named for the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Over the summer he plans to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, his dad’s favorite novel.
Looking back on his father’s final days, he says the quarantine was a gift. “My older sister was home from college, my younger sister and I were out of school, and we spent every day together as a family,” Gieseman says. “We got to spend quality time with my dad until we couldn’t anymore. It was a blessing in disguise.”
Wakefield High School
On a spring break trip to the beach during her sophomore year, Ela Gokcigdem dove into the ocean and hit her head on the seafloor. The resulting concussion changed her life—but in a good way.
She became noise sensitive and decided to put her love of technology, the environment and entrepreneurship to work by inventing noise-canceling earbuds made with recycled plastic.
Gokcigdem has so far sold around 300 sets of earbuds through her website, epearltech.com, with plans to start selling them on Amazon now that she’s 18.
“I like to keep busy,” says the Arlington teen, grateful to have moved beyond that frustrating concussed time when she couldn’t look at screens or keep up with her studies.
Environmental stewardship is a passion for Gokcigdem, who has organized kayak cleanups of Four Mile Run and is a member of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability.
Her latest venture, a nonprofit called the Youth Environmental Society (YES), centers on an environmental literacy course that awards a certification to participating high school students. She hopes it will inspire more teens to “integrate a sustainable mindset into any career path.” She expects it to launch in Arlington this August.
In addition to winning numerous business and entrepreneurial awards, including being named a Harvard Business Academy Best Entrepreneur, Gokcigdem speaks four languages, plays eight instruments and was active in numerous clubs and organizations. Among them: the History Honor Society, Wakefield’s varsity tennis and swim teams, Northern Virginia Symphonic Winds, the National Honor Society and the Arlington Sustainability Committee.
She’s headed to Babson College in Massachusetts this fall to study business, with a focus on environmental sustainability and social justice. Predictably, she has big dreams.
“I’d love to be a big billionaire and really set the path for social entrepreneurship,” says Gokcigdem. “I feel like that’s the only way a business can survive, especially with the current state of our environment.”
Yorktown High School
The summer after seventh grade, Dominick Cocozza attended a prestigious art program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, having secured one of only 12 international spots for his age group in the advanced drawing and painting program. He recalls the experience as both motivating and humbling.
“I was always used to being one of the more advanced people in my arts classes,” says the Arlington teen, “and that was a really eye-opening experience because I was kind of in the middle. It pushed me to be better.”
Since then, Cocozza has racked up accolades for his work, much of which centers on multicultural themes and social justice issues, including the plight of immigrants and Dreamers. He won first place in the Congressional Art Competition (his winning painting now hangs in the U.S. Capitol Building); attended the Governor’s School for Visual and Performing Arts; and was named Grand Champion in the fine arts and crafts category in the Arlington County Fair.
He maintains his own website and has been interviewed by CNN and the BBC.
Last fall, Cocozza landed a competitive internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and gave a gallery talk at the National Gallery of Art. His dream, he says, is to one day have his work in permanent museum collections.
He also managed to find time for varsity swimming and cross-country at Yorktown, and to serve as a board member and creative director of High School Minority Leaders United.
During quarantine, he continued painting classes (via Zoom) with his mentor, Gavin Glakas, of Yellow Barn Studio in Glen Echo, Maryland.
Now 18, he plans to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where he’ll concentrate on painting. He credits his parents with encouraging his entrepreneurial spirit, and hopes will give him an edge in the art world. “I’ve been focusing on promoting myself,” he says.
H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program
As an accomplished actor, director and award-winning playwright, Caroline Alpi is a triple threat. Her work strikes a chord with many—perhaps because her fearlessness often leads her to explore difficult and uncomfortable topics.
In 2017, the Arlington teen traveled to Myanmar to interview people about democracy for a journalism program.
During her junior year at H-B Woodlawn, Alpi won second place in a regional playwriting competition for her play Behind the Bookshelf, which portrayed two students hiding during a school shooting; it was subsequently performed by professional actors in a New York festival.
Playing the male character Reuben in her school’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat prompted her to research gender equality and female representation in the musical theater industry for a semester.
Even her Girl Scout Gold Award project, which she dubbed Pink Ribbon Playwrights, involved meeting with breast cancer survivors and high schoolers for eight weeks to work through their stories with readings, games and written reflections.
“At the end of the program, we performed for a live audience a collection of pieces written by the group,” recalls Alpi, 18, who plans to attend Columbia University this fall. “That was just a really amazing experience for me to be a leader in something I was really passionate about, to learn from people I don’t interact with every day, and hear and learn from their experiences.”
Like most of this year’s seniors, she is disappointed about all the events that were canceled due to Covid-19. Will she write about it?
“I’m sure I will,” she says, with a laugh. “Yes.”
Yorktown High School
At 18, Eli Waldman has already worked himself out of a job.
In eighth grade, Waldman, who has celiac disease and a severe peanut allergy, founded a support group for Arlington kids with food allergies, which he convened monthly for five years. Now, as he heads off to Stanford University, he’s passed the facilitator role on to two of his peers, but he’s not even sure the group in its current form is still needed. He’s charged his successors with reinventing the model.
“Five years ago, the attitudes toward food allergies were drastically different,” he explains. Going out to eat or to a friend’s house could be deadly. “Today you can go to a restaurant and they get that there are serious consequences. The curriculum I made is outdated. Before the [stay-at-home order] the group was already starting to lose members because it wasn’t needed anymore. Which is amazing.”
Waldman, meanwhile, has plenty of other ambitions. A talented documentary filmmaker, he interned at Arlington Independent Media (he credits AIM videographer and instructor Nathan Bynum as one of his most formative mentors) and, in the course of his high school career, created films on topics ranging from Arlington’s World War I heroes to the journey of a D.C. man moving from incarceration back to society. The subject of the latter film, now a friend, will be released from parole next year.
Waldman also spent a summer interning at USC’s Shoah Foundation, which was founded by director Steven Spielberg (after he made Schindler’s List) “to develop empathy, understanding and respect through testimony.” One of Waldman’s primary roles as an intern was formatting testimony from Holocaust and genocide survivors, from places like Cambodia and Rwanda, so that it could be posted on the foundation’s website.
What drives this Arlington teen, who graduated from Yorktown with a 4.2 GPA? Fundamentally, curiosity.
“A lot of people are motivated by someone telling them they can’t do something and the need to prove that they can,” Waldman says. “I’m the complete opposite. I’ve been fortunate to be able to pursue the things that deep down I just really want to do.”
Is college in California a path to becoming a professional filmmaker? Maybe.
But for now, Waldman says he’s looking forward to sampling the riches of Stanford’s liberal arts program.
“It could change my trajectory,” he says. “I could take a class in something completely different and fall in love with it. It’s an opportunity to explore everything.”
McLean High School
Rebeka Rafi caught the volunteer bug in elementary school. Back then, the McLean resident would head to her community’s soccer field and pitch in with coaching. As the kids became familiar with her, she started tutoring and later became a Fairfax County summer camp counselor.
“I just really enjoy communicating and working with kids,” says Rafi, 17, who has received a Presidential Scholarship to American University’s Public Health Scholars Program.
“My parents raised me to believe that when I’m in a position to help others, why not? They drove me to get out there and do whatever I can.”
Before her senior year was cut short, Rafi worked as managing editor and advertising manager of her school’s award-winning newsmagazine. She ran track and field and played softball for her school teams, maintained a 4.3 GPA, and plays soccer with a year-round rec league.
A graduate of the Leadership Arlington Youth Program, she also participated in the Fairfax County Youth Leadership Program and volunteered on environmental cleanup efforts organized by Friends of the Occoquan. She now hopes to put her leadership skills and philanthropic leanings to work in the medical field.
“My grandfather was basically always sick, and we always saw him in the hospital,” she recalls of her mom’s Iranian father. “The lack of communication and the language barrier fueled [my desire to pursue a career in medicine] to improve the overall treatment of patients.”
She’s already taken the initiative to help elders in the community. During an internship last year with the National Older Worker Career Center in Arlington, Rafi leveraged her social media acumen to help the organization raise a record-breaking $200,000 on Giving Tuesday—“the highest dollar contributions in NOWCC’s 22-year history,” according to NOWCC president and CEO Cito Vanegas. “I cannot wait to see what the future holds for such a bright individual.”
St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School
Allegra “Lili” Abizaid is like a walking United Nations, and not just because her family tree extends to England, Lebanon and Mexico. The Arlington teen speaks English, Arabic, French, Italian and Spanish proficiently—and she spent time during the coronavirus school closure learning Portuguese, Japanese and Haitian Creole.
The latter might come in handy for her nonprofit, The Marot Foundation, which she founded with a friend following a service trip to Haiti to deliver school supplies in 2018.
“We found that we were helping kids fix their shoes with duct tape and hair ties and thought, it’s a simple, small problem that we could hopefully help out with,” says the 17-year-old.
Since then, the foundation has collected more than 200 pairs of shoes for Haitian children—an effort that landed Abizaid an invitation to a state dinner (although she was unable to attend because she was interning with a study-abroad program in Verona, Italy).
Abizaid was chosen to attend the Virginia Governor’s School/Spanish Academy last summer. She taught French to schoolchildren and has won gold medals in national French and Spanish competitions. While she was predictably a leading member of her school’s Model UN chapter, there’s more to her than language accolades and a 4.12 GPA. She also loves tennis, photography and film, and worked on costumes and makeup for her school’s theater department before she graduated.
At the University of Chicago, she plans to major in political science and minor in art history while keeping up with languages, all with the goal of attending law school.
“RBG has been a huge influence on me,” she says of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I think it’s amazing to have leading women, and she inspires me every day.”
Michael Carter, her college counselor at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes says plainly: “Lili Abizaid is now and will continue to be a force for good in our world.”
BASIS Independent McLean
“The first time I made a game, I was in first grade,” Miller Hollinger recalls.
He laughs about it now, confessing that it was basically a renamed version of tag with a few tweaks. But it took off with the other kids—and Hollinger was hooked. “I would print out little paper pieces and sit at the kitchen counter and cut them out,” he says of his early game-making. “The rules were usually pretty incoherent, but my dad would play anyway.”
His father later bought him a game-design book that helped Hollinger realize he could parlay his passion into something more than a hobby. Last fall, one of his card games, Royale, was chosen by game-maker Button Shy as a competition finalist and selected to be published.
“They’re going to produce a thousand copies of the game, which was kind of a shock for me,” says the young entrepreneur, whose restless mind has him constantly dreaming up new card games, board games, video games and apps.
Before the school year ended, Hollinger could often be found providing tech support for teachers and students at his school in McLean. He founded the Computer Science Club, participated in the Problem Solving Club, was co-leader of the National Spanish Honor Society, maintained a 3.91 GPA, was a National AP Scholar and participated in national mathematics competitions. This fall he’ll be studying computer science at U.C. Berkeley.
Since his final trimester at BASIS Independent required research and an internship, he jokes that his time in quarantine ended up feeling a lot like normal life for a gamer.
“My research is virtual reality, so I experienced zero disruption from coronavirus,” says the 18-year-old, “except for [the challenges of] getting groceries and seeing friends.”
Wakefield High School
Claire Brophy is, shall we say, presidential. Prior to her graduation in May, she served as senior class president at Wakefield, not to mention president of three other school groups—the Interact Club, Women at Wakefield and Girl Up. The last one, she explains, “raises money and awareness for girls in developing countries who don’t have access to health care, equality and education.”
Does she have political aspirations? “I honestly am not opposed to it,” says the Arlington 17-year-old. “But I definitely want to do the military first and see where that leads.”
With her 4.34 GPA and strong extracurriculars, including varsity soccer and swim, plus volunteer work with Best Buddies and the Special Olympics, Brophy has been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy. She’ll be following in the military footsteps of her parents, siblings and many other family members.
“The Naval Academy pushes and shapes you into a leader—or makes you into a better leader,” she says.
She’s already demonstrated her mettle. As class president, she helped revive Wakefield’s homecoming parade and tailgate, which hadn’t happened for a few years, and launched a “get involved” campaign, encouraging fellow classmates to join clubs and attend school events. Her longtime goal of raising school spirit and getting students more engaged was finally coming to fruition at the beginning of the spring semester—making the truncated school year an undeniable disappointment.
But Brophy is not one to brood. Instead, she stayed positive and pivoted, transforming her school’s planned Earth Week activities into an online effort. “It’s just really fun bringing a lot of people together volunteering,” she says.
Now she’s on to the next chapter. “Claire will take these amazing attributes and apply them to a life serving our country,” says her soccer coach, Ashley Neal. “I hope that one day we will see Claire Brophy with a ‘Madame’ in front of the word President.”
Washington-Liberty High School
Danny Arabshahi was in elementary school when he started volunteering with the Cherrydale Health and Rehabilitation Center in Arlington. He already had considerable experience working with memory-care patients when he discovered a museum that was using art therapy to help individuals suffering from memory loss and decided to replicate the program in his hometown.
Plus, it was personal.
“My grandfather had Parkinson’s. My great-aunt and a great-grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and both passed away from that,” says the teen, now 18. “I have a strong passion for neuroscience because of family experience, and I wanted to help out in any way I could.”
As part of a school project, Arabshahi proposed that the Arlington Arts Center (AAC) create and implement a memory-care art program. He then researched, developed a timeline and budget, and assisted in the development of what would become the fully operational Creative Encounters program at AAC.
During his time at W-L, Arabshahi also played varsity tennis, served as co-president of the Chinese club, co-founded the Card Magic Club, volunteered at Virginia Hospital Center and interned at the social cognition lab at George Washington University and The Nature Conservancy.
These accomplishments, plus a 4.4 GPA, earned him a spot at the University of Virginia, where he intends to study neuroscience.
With an Iranian-born father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother, it’s no wonder that Arabshahi also lists languages and culture among his passions. He’s studied Farsi, Hebrew, Spanish and Mandarin. He hopes the latter will provide an edge in his career.
“Chinese researchers are leading the way in neuroscience,” he observes. No doubt his language skills will prove useful indeed.
Bishop O’Connell High School
In the spring of her junior year, Skye Ferris helped carry Bishop O’Connell’s varsity softball team to its eighth straight division championship. In the process she earned first team all-conference and second team all-state honors.
That wasn’t the centerfielder’s only sport. Every day, after softball practice, she beelined to another practice, for her Grit Volleyball club team, getting home each evening around 10 p.m.—all while taking a grueling course load of AP and honors classes.
“It took an emotional and physical toll, but I’m glad I did it,” she says in retrospect. “Everyone told me I would be overwhelmed, but those teams were like my family. They were one of the reasons I woke up every morning.”
As a senior, Ferris was named MVP of O’Connell’s varsity volleyball team—as well as first team all-conference and all-state—after taking the squad to both conference and state semifinals. Teachers and counselors at the school unanimously laud her as the whole package—a superb student, athlete, leader, team player and mentor for others.
Though the coronavirus squashed the Knights’ hopes of clinching another softball championship (and, for Ferris, the goal of going four for four), it did little to damper her athleticism. She started running on the W&OD trail, which passes by her house in Falls Church. In April, she ran a half-marathon.
“I’m a goal-oriented person. I like to set little milestones and push myself,” says the 18-year-old.
Perhaps it’s just in her DNA. “My mom played softball at Catholic University and my dad was a competitive swimmer,” she says of her parents, whom she reveres as role models. One older sister is in the Coast Guard, and another plays field hockey at the University of Mary Washington. Her brother, Luke, who has autism, is a swimmer (pool and open water) and a Special Olympics athlete. He was partly the inspiration behind Ferris’s commitment, throughout high school, to serve as a peer mentor for a fellow student and friend with special needs.
“It’s important to surround yourself with people who inspire you to be the best version of yourself,” she says.
Ferris graduated with a 4.56 GPA and was named “Praetor of the Year” (third in her class). This fall she’ll begin her freshman year at the University of Virginia.
The Madeira School
When Neshmeeya Abbas started playing squash as a freshman at The Madeira School, she was inexperienced, asthmatic and smaller than most of the other players. That didn’t stop her.
By her sophomore year, the Falls Church teen had risen to varsity co-captain and held the No. 2 spot on the team.
She won a U.S. Squash Association Scholar Athlete Award three years in a row and expects to win a fourth time this year (winners will be announced in September), for a straight sweep. “I’m really proud,” she says. “I really struggled a lot because of my physical problems.”
She’s a champion in other areas to boot. As a first-generation Pakistani American, Abbas is dedicated to empowering girls and women in her parents’ native countries. She volunteers with the State Department’s Summer Sisters Exchange Program, which encourages female Pakistani high school students to pursue an education in the U.S.; travels to Pakistan to teach girls English; and has helped raise funds to build cancer hospitals there.
“The girls there have so many less opportunities than here,” says the 17-year-old.
During her sophomore year, Abbas interned with Brightview Senior Living in Great Falls, where she developed a mobile app to help residents with memory issues.
She also volunteers for Best Buddies and donates her travel photography to Habitat for Humanity to adorn the walls of newly built homes.
She will likely go to UCLA or one of the European schools she’s waiting to hear back from, and plans to study economics and international relations.
“I’m looking for a career that can incorporate a lot of my travels and bettering girls’ education,” she says.
The Potomac School
Natalie Martin visited a battery lab at MIT during her sophomore year of high school, and something clicked.
“I just fell in love with it,” says the McLean teen, now 18, who finished high school with straight A’s. “There’s so much room for improvement well beyond the current technologies we have today.”
That exposure prompted Martin to develop multiple research proposals that landed her an opportunity in the U.S. Army Research Laboratory last summer. She would also attend several prestigious scientific gatherings, including the International Battery Association Conference in San Diego, where she got to meet 2019 Nobel Prize winner Stan Whittingham, developer of a major component of the lithium-ion battery.
“Searching for answers on the surface is not Natalie’s way,” says Doug McLane, head of Upper School at The Potomac School. “She digs deep until she has exhausted every bit of data, every plausible answer to a question.”
Martin dug even deeper with an independent research project as part of her school’s Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) program. She says that while most battery research aims to optimize sales, she wanted to change the way scientists think about batteries. “I didn’t want to commercialize anything,” she says. “I wanted to push the knowledge of how we can make safer systems.”
This spring, she took third place in the regional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, a tri-service STEM competition sponsored by the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.
At the same time, her interests extend beyond power sources. During her years at The Potomac School, Martin played varsity soccer, basketball and lacrosse, headed the student paper, tutored in the school’s Math and Science Collaboration Center, participated in Model Congress and volunteered with Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity and Women Giving Back.
But she does plan to make battery research her life’s work after studying chemistry at Harvard. She loves collaborative problem-solving—it’s one of the things she missed most when schools closed due to the pandemic.
“I’m hoping to run a lab that invites as many different types of scientists as possible to really rethink the way scientists approach the problems in our world,” Martin says.