Extraordinary Teen Awards 2023

Greatness comes in many forms, whether it’s pioneering research, soul-bearing works of art or the simple gift of making people laugh. Meet this year’s exemplary students.

Arlington County Youth Poet Laureate Ribka Desta (Photo by Matt Mendelsohn)

Ribka Desta

Yorktown High School

Ribka Desta always wanted to be an author. On Career Day at Arlington Science Focus Elementary, she dressed up in a long brown dress, her hair in a bun and a book at her side, because that’s what she thought authors looked like. In fourth grade, she wrote a memoir and passed it around to her classmates. “That’s when I realized I was good at writing,” she says, “and I loved being good at writing.”

Now 18, the Arlington teen has embraced poetry as her preferred medium. Selected as Arlington County’s Youth Poet Laureate for 2023, she has shared her work in spoken-word events at Busboys & Poets and at libraries in D.C. 

A child of immigrants from Ethiopia who arrived in the U.S. not speaking English, she describes her poems as “very raw.” 

“With poetry, you can write about yourself in metaphors and make things beautiful,” she says. “Poetry gives you unlimited time to think about things.” 

The literary form also gives her a way to express her complicated relationship with her mom, which she does in “Writing for my mother”:

Sometimes, I write long, bitter monologues about my mother, 

when I’m tired of the echolocation we do in burning bright rooms, 

when she sees me in black and white. 

She wouldn’t understand my writing anyways

(the dancing between the lines, 

the desperate references).

Kelly Dillon, the faculty adviser for Yorktown’s literary magazine, praises Desta’s “clear sense of voice.” “Ribka’s really unique because she has stayed true to herself. She tackles difficult subjects, but in a brave way.”

In high school, Desta was president of Yorktown’s Letters of Love Club, which writes letters to people in hospitals, nursing homes and veterans’ facilities. She also mentored kids in after-school programs at AHC, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. 

“I love volunteering because I can be who I needed when I was younger,” she says. “I want to be the person who can help them with homework or just have fun.” 

Desta heads to Stanford this fall on a four-year, full-ride QuestBridge scholarship. 

Categories: People