Extraordinary Teen Awards 2021

Their pandemic senior year was anything but ordinary—which makes these graduates all the more extraordinary.

Talia Penn
Arlington Tech at Arlington Career Center

Do not underestimate Talia Penn. She may be small (standing 4 feet 11 inches) but she is more than comfortable taking charge, whether it’s teaching a hesitant first-grader to read or serving as a flight commander for JROTC, which she did as a high school freshman. If someone tells her she can’t do something, she’ll prove them wrong, like the time a restaurant co-worker sniffed that she wasn’t strong enough to carry a bucket of ice from the kitchen to the front—and she ended up carrying not one, but two. (She still works there.)

“I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” says the 17-year-old. “Especially as a woman of color, society has tried to dictate who we should be, what we should wear, where we should go. I try not to let society dictate who I will or will not be. The world is mine to explore.”

Penn has explored a lot already. In high school, she served as a JROTC squadron commander, leading 40 to 60 cadets in community cleanups and other service projects. She competed with her unit’s drill team, was a cheerleader for her home high school, Wakefield, and was a top student at Arlington Tech, a rigorous, project-based learning program housed within the Arlington Career Center. She took dual-enrollment courses at Northern Virginia Community College and, for her capstone project, helped a local health care entrepreneur open a fertility clinic, handling the marketing and PR surrounding the launch.

She now plans to attend Duke University and later, medical school, to become a pediatric psychiatrist.

Penn comes from a large family. She became interested in working with kids during her junior year, while serving as a Montessori teaching assistant as part of an early-childhood education class. The first-grader she was assigned to tutor had a learning disability and was convinced he couldn’t read. “Yes, you can,” she insisted, helping him sound out the words. One day he greeted her with excitement, saying he had learned to read the words his teacher had assigned him.

“I don’t think he’d had all the encouragement he needed,” Penn says. “I just want to be able to give that to other people.” –Lisa Lednicer

Categories: People