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2020 Star Senior Videos
Continuing our tradition of recognizing graduating seniors, Fulton County Schools proudly launches its “Star Seniors: Class of 2020” web and video series. These 17 outstanding seniors – one from each high school – embody the spirit and fortitude of the Class of 2020. We are profiling high academic achievers, all-star athletes and award-winners, students with unusual or unique stories to share, and those who have beaten the odds to graduate.
The unforeseen arrival of COVID-19 made the stories of this year’s Star Seniors even more important to share. These students and their peers deserve to be recognized for overcoming obstacles and moving their studies online to continue the path towards graduation. Star Seniors and the Class of 2020, we salute you for your grit and can-do attitude. There is no doubt this unexpected experience will equip you for life’s surprises and pave the way for a successful future.
Today we are profiling our first five honorees, and over the next two weeks on Friday, May 1 and Friday, May 8, we will spotlight the remaining 12 Star Seniors. Check out their inspiring stories here and tune in to FCS-TV and our social media channels for more in-depth information on each student.
Centennial HS Star Senior - Jennifer Rangel Santos
Centennial High School’s Jennifer Rangel Santos has overcome economic, cultural and language barriers with a smile on her face and hope in her voice. Born in Chicago, she and her family moved to Mexico when she was six years old, and by middle school, she and her siblings had to go to work to help support her single mother to make ends meet. As a teenager, Jennifer immigrated to the U.S. without her mother, speaking no English, and lived with extended family while attending Centennial. She was placed in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program and gradually gained language proficiency. There, she met other international students from across the globe and formed friendships born of their common immigration experiences.
Math quickly became one of her favorite subjects due to being more numerical and less language based. Her ESOL math teacher Hyejoo Jeong recalls how she initially “came into the class very nervous to speak in front of other people.” Jeong also noticed Jennifer was often tired and learned she was working at a job seven to eight hours after school. But Jennifer worked hard and proved to be a strong student, showing herself to be focused, dependable and self-motivated, and Jeong says Jennifer is the kind of student every teacher wants. Jennifer’s combined interests in history, fascination with cultures and application of workplace Spanish has helped shape her career goal of being a professional translator. “I really want to help this community since I’m a part of it,” she said. “I have the opportunity to speak for them.” Centennial Counselor Bianca Lopez, who met Jennifer early in her senior year, sees in her a passion for working with people and supporting them the way they need.
Like all other seniors, Jennifer has experienced firsthand the changes to learning due to the pandemic which necessitated the closure of school buildings, yet she’s taken it in stride. “Doing online assignments is good and I like it a lot!” she said. “It is flexible, and it is very comfortable doing our jobs at home because we can relax and at the same time, we stay safe and healthy! It is also a good way to stay on track for college.”
Jennifer shared that her greatest motivation is her mother. “Whenever I’m struggling, I think of her, raising three kids alone in a country with socio-economic problems.”
In the fall, Jennifer plans to go to Georgia State University and major in anthropology. After college, she hopes to be a cultural anthropologist and eventually a translator, but first on the agenda is bringing her mother to the U.S.
Released Friday, May 8, 2020
Chattahoochee HS Star Senior - Jyotsna Rao
Chattahoochee High School’s Jyotsna Rao is marching to the beat of her own drum. She is clear on what she wants to do in life. Music is her focus, and her goal is to become a music therapist, combining her two greatest interests: music and psychology.
At Chattahoochee, Jyotsna is well-rounded, pushing herself academically, involved in clubs and volunteering, and enjoying chorus – her favorite subject. “I’m a huge music nerd, so chorus has been number one since middle school,” she declared. Being highly creative, Jyotsna appreciated the opportunity to be free for 50 minutes with other student musicians under the direction of choral conductor Jennie Fabianski. “Jyotsna is the kind of girl everybody wants to be around: fun, bubbly, enthusiastic,” said Fabianski. She saw Jyotsna’s willingness to be vulnerable and ask questions aloud without fear as an example for other students to also express themselves. Of Chatthoochee’s culture, Jyotsna said, “It is so inclusive of all mindsets, all groups and so diverse. Thinking outside the box and dreaming big is very much encouraged.”
Inspired by her grandmother, who lives in India, Jyotsna is following her legacy of living her passion. “Ever since I was a little girl, my grandma told me to do what you want to in life,” Jyotsna remembered, “and don’t let anyone sway you. Despite the hardships my grandmother faced while growing up, she was able to do what she loved.”
Jyotsna’s proudest moment was earning a spot in All-State Chorus, the premier select chorus of the state. “I’ve always dreamed of being a part of this group,” she said. “I auditioned each year but finally got in in senior year.” Jyotsna’s talent doesn’t go to her head, said her counselor, Deborah Blount. “She’s completely unassuming, very modest, on top of things and trustworthy…but her voice is incredible!”
Jyotsna loves to volunteer and has taught dance at a children’s summer camp and worked with Trees Atlanta. This year, she interned at a local hospice where she shadowed music therapists, visiting patients and assisting in other ways. She hopes to use what she learned to conduct further research into how music can help patients with neurological disorders.
The COVID-19 isolation has provided more family time before leaving for college and life beyond. “I’m also self-reflecting, reading and writing songs. And my mom found a way for us to make masks to donate.” This fall, she heads to the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami as a music therapy major and psychology minor in a program that focuses on the neurological impact of music on the brain.
Fabianski concludes, “I am so excited that Jyotsna will become a music colleague as a music therapist, because her compassion and talent are so incredible. I know she’ll be able to change a lot of people’s lives.”
Released Friday, May 8, 2020
Independence HS Star Senior - Fatima Bibiano-Carmen
Independence High School’s Fatima Bibiano has had to learn about work-life balance earlier than most. Managing the responsibilities of work, school and parenting a two-year old child with little free time is a lot for a high school student, but her peers, teachers and counselor concur that she’s doing a great job.
Independence is a non-traditional school for students in need of a more flexible, supportive learning environment. Named Star Senior for her example of leadership and personal growth, Fatima believes her story illustrates her values. “I chose to never give up and to be the best version of myself,” she said.
While at Independence, Fatima said she has learned leadership, passion and willpower. “Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” she declared. “Also, teachers here not only do their jobs, they do them with love. They want every student to succeed.”
Independence history teacher Tashema Atkinson has witnessed remarkable growth and perseverance in Fatima. “I’ve seen her progress academically and personally,” Atkinson said. “I’ve watched her learn to advocate for herself. She’s small in stature but big in personality.”
Fatima’s favorite subject is math because she appreciates its real-world value. “I love solving problems,” she said. Atkinson affirmed Fatima’s ability to be a critical thinker, asking the “why” questions. Counselor Brett Szmendera observed that she is “always willing to go above and beyond, working with teachers, and asking for help to make sure she will be successful.” Atkinson added that Fatima often helped other students, wanting them to be successful too.
Fatima’s biggest motivation is her daughter Catalina, but she also credits her parents, Mexican nationals who made substantial sacrifices for her and her brother. They impressed upon her the importance of education, insisting that “graduating from high school and college is a must.” Fatima will be the first member of her family to graduate from high school and go to college. Not only that, she will be Independence’s salutatorian.
Her proudest moment was the day she gave birth to her daughter. “She changed my whole life,” Fatima said. “I matured so much and am so dedicated to schoolwork and her.” Szmendera agrees, “she made a commitment to do the right thing and took control of her life.”
Fatima’s goal is to study to become an occupational therapist, possibly at Chattahoochee Technical College. In the meantime, she’s excited about graduating, though COVID-19 has put the brakes on a live, traditional ceremony. During the shutdown however, she keeps busy researching colleges and spending time with Catalina as they look forward to when the parks reopen.
The best part of senior year coming to an end is meeting her and her parents’ goal of finishing high school. “I’ve been working my whole life for this,” she said.
Released Friday, May 8, 2020
McClarin HS Star Senior - Sheena White
Sheena White is McClarin High School’s Star Senior. An energetic, highly motivated student, White is an unaccompanied minor, supporting herself financially by working 30 hours a week. This determined young woman has the desire to graduate on time, even without the support most students have.
“Graduating on time is what motivates me,” White said. “It’s a struggle, but I’ve learned to stay calm, reflect, and motivate myself to keep going.” Another inspiration for White is her sister, Cosandra. “She didn’t finish high school but went back to school to get her technical degree as a nursing assistant,” White said. “She really motivates me.”
The secrets to White’s success are optimism and organization. “Sheena has fabulous handwriting,” said Melanie Smith, Graduation Coach at McClarin.” She’s organized and focused and has made tremendous sacrifices to stay in school.”
White’s favorite subject is biology, for one reason. “It’s hands on,” she said. “It gives you so much to think about.”
McClarin Principal Dr. Tashea Daniel-Harris said, “Sheena was selected as our Star Senior because of the strength she exhibits.” “Every day Sheena comes to school with a smile on her face. You would never know the personal challenges she faces on a daily basis.”
And while many are upset about not walking across the stage due to the Coronavirus pandemic, White is reticent. “It’s upsetting that I won’t have a traditional graduation,” White said. “But what’s important is that I graduate.”
Recently celebrating her birthday, White was excited. “My proudest moment was being recognized on my birthday as McClarin’s Star Senior,” she said. “It made me realize how much I’ve accomplished.”
After saving enough money to pursue her dream of a post-high school education, White plans to attend technical school when she is financially stable. Her goal is to follow in the footsteps of her sister to become a nursing assistant. “Everything is not as hard as it seems,” White said. “You just have to be motivated, be strong, and always have a game plan.”
Released Friday, May 8, 2020
Milton HS Star Senior - Ishmael Fong
Milton High School’s Ismael Gala Fong is an overcomer. Having to combat long-term illness while in high school, Ismael spent several years struggling to manage his condition, forcing him to be homebound for more than a year. Neither he nor his family felt confident that he would be back at Milton prior to graduation, but through determination, he was able to return. “I was able to persevere through it,” he recalls, “and complete school outside the classroom setting, then return and reconnect with everybody.” He considers the ability to spend his senior year physically at school his greatest achievement. “The whole year has been my proudest moment.” Milton Counselor Casey Lahman said, “I’ve known Ismael for four years; he’s truly an inspiration to our learning community. The way he navigated his sickness…he was so resilient.” Lahman also noted that he connects well with other students. Despite having endured so much, “he’s always joking around, giving high fives in the hall.
Ismael credits his mom with being his biggest inspiration. “She’s a very strong character,” he shared. “She has gone through a lot of hardship in life and has persevered through all of it. She’s just someone I look up to.”
In school, his favorite subject has been biology though he envisions a future academic focus in technology. Healthcare Sciences Teacher Diane Baule observed Ismael’s passion for engineering, healthcare, art and math. “He brings perspective and influence that goes beyond what’s asked or expected,” Baule noted. “He asks questions and researches more to find a solution, and challenges me as a teacher to dig deeper.”
Looking to college and beyond, Ismael is considering mechanical engineering or IT. “My Dad was an engineer, so I want to follow in his footsteps,” Ismael said, “but technology and computers have always interested me.” Baule noted that his inquisitive, curious, outside-the-box thinking will be advantages in his academic and career path.
Though the COVID-19 school closure has put an end to in-person school and some treasured senior year milestones, Ismael has hobbies that bring him joy such as art. “To make the best of this,” he shared, “I’ve been practicing my craft doing the things I love. I have a lot of art on my Instagram page.” He shared that it’s not so much about the final product, but the process, that gives him the most pleasure.
Ismael is hoping to attend Georgia State University and begin navigating his future. He has the skills to manage what lies ahead. As Lahman put it, “He has his priorities straight especially for someone his age. We’re at a time right now when it’s so uncertain and he’s already had that in his life. No matter what, he can tackle it.” Baule concurs saying “With Ismael’s amazing persistence, thirst for knowledge and curiosity, he will overcome any obstacle he faces.”
Released Friday, May 8, 2020
Tri-Cities HS Star Senior - Brianna Heyward
Brianna Heyward is Tri-Cities High School’s Star Senior. A Dual Enrollment student, Heyward entered Tri-Cities with many challenges. “I came to Tri-Cities while I was in foster care,” Heyward said. “They have been very patient with me.”
Recently, Heyward experienced unbelievable tragedy. “I witnessed my mother kill my dad in front of me,” she said. “I knew I wouldn’t get over it easy. I would have to go through the grieving process.” With a history of domestic violence, Heyward’s family life enabled her to develop strength. “Family violence is real,” she said. “My mother was involved in a lot of domestic violence and I’m a victim. It’s taught me strength.”
Shortly after her dad’s tragic death, Heyward met more adversity. “Two days after my dad died I was in a terrible car accident,” she said. “My brakes failed and I lost control of my car. I thank God that I was able to crawl out of the car with only chest pain and a burn mark on my arm.”
Through it all, Heyward has remained resilient. “I felt like I was in a movie,” she said. “I was living a nightmare.” Though Heyward has overcome much, it has not slowed her quest for success. “I ended up this year with all A’s,” she said. “I look at it as a sign from God, motivating me to keep going forward.”
Heyward has maintained high grades and held down jobs in order to solidify her future. In addition to working at a chiropractic center, Heyward has her own hair and makeup business. “I have an opportunity to get my cosmetology license from the courses I’ve taken at Tri-Cities,” she said. “I love hair and beauty.”
Tri-Cities Cosmetology instructor Jazasnette Turner sees a bright future for Heyward. “She is self-driven,” Turner said. “When she came to my class I did not know her story. I simply saw a student who was eager to learn.” Heyward’s love of cosmetology, coupled with her academic success, is a winning combination. “She has the academic mind as well as skills,” said Turner. “She’s going to go and get it!”
For her future, Heyward has many careers in mind. She’d like to be a cosmetologist, cognitive psychologist and music therapist. “My mother had mental disorders,” Heyward said. “She really inspired me to be a cognitive psychologist, that is, one who focuses on how people think. I want to get a PhD in psychology and open up a music therapy practice.”
While Heyward’s remembrance of her dad urging her to finish high school is bittersweet, she was anticipating the graduation ceremony. “My dad used to tell me he wanted to see me graduate,” she said. “I’m glad my Mom didn’t kill me. I’m glad I’m still here and I have a purpose.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the ceremony Heyward’s dad wanted for her, but her goal of graduation has been met. A confessed introvert, she also wanted to, for the first time since ninth grade, attend a school social event. “I’m bummed about not attending my prom,” she said.
With acceptances to Georgia State and Louisiana State universities on the horizon, Heyward has decisions to make. “Brianna has a goal,” said Tri-Cities Principal Shateena Love. “She’s had many ups and downs in her personal life but she has shown us she’s a responsible young lady with a bright future. She is very mature and responsible and that shows in her academic transcript.”
This resilient young woman has decided that she will never give up on life. “Life is a gift,” Heyward said. “The more you go through should solidify your resolve to never give up on life. God doesn’t give you certain battles unless He thinks you can handle it.”
Released Friday, May 8, 2020
Cambridge HS Star Senior - Noor El-Gazairly
Noor El-Gazairly is Cambridge High School’s Star Senior. She is an artist, athlete and a scholar. “I’m always trying new things, finding new passions,” she said. As an accomplished athlete, El-Gazairly represented Cambridge High as a triple threat in gymnastics with vault, floor and beam activities; and was a state qualifier for the varsity swim and dive team. She speaks French fluently and was co-founder and head officer of the Young Democrats and Model United Nations.
“Noor stands out because she has so many diverse interests and so many accomplishments,” said Jennifer Evans, a counselor at Cambridge. “Noor is a leader. Other students and faculty gravitate toward her because she is passionate about what she does.”
A key passion for El-Gazairly is art. “I’m an artist,” she said. “I’ve had an internship at the High Museum of Art since my sophomore year in high school and I do public programming.” Natalie Hudson, Visual Arts Department Chair at Cambridge, enjoys working with El-Gazairly. “When she’s engaged in the concept, she knows what she wants,” Hudson said. “She’s also curious and receptive to feedback. She’s like a working artist.”
Inspired by strong women in History, El-Gazairly counts Amal Clooney as one of her heroes. “She’s an activist lawyer and litigator,” she said. “I see her as such a force.”
Visual Arts and Social Studies are El-Gazairly’s favorite subjects. “I get to combine the two in Art History,” she said. “I really love international affairs and global policy. I’m passionate about institutions that allow me to serve the community.”
The recipient of the Posse Foundation scholarship, El-Gazairly plans to attend George Washington University. “Global pandemic allowing, I want to major in Art and Political Studies,” she said. “I’d also like to attend law school and work in Art Law litigation. I want to work to restore stolen artifacts, as many Egyptian artifacts are displaced all over the world.”
Through the end school year, El-Gazairly and friends have studied Art History on the Teams digital platform. “I really try to stay on top of my work,” she said.
The abrupt end to her senior year because of the Coronavirus crisis has been difficult. “It was a bummer to see my senior year evaporate and see how futile everything that I thought was permanent is,” El-Gazairly said. “I’ve taken a lot of solace in the fact that everyone is going through it together.”
Released Friday, May 1, 2020
Johns Creek HS Star Senior - Christopher Bodea
Johns Creek High School’s Christopher Bodea wants to make a lasting impact, and he has a plan. Known not only for leadership, Christopher is recognized as an empathetic problem solver. “I want to bring something new,” he shared, “to make school life more exciting, energetic and fun.” His energy came in different forms. The fun side spilled out of his outgoing personality into activities like emceeing pep rallies and organizing lunchtime cornhole tournaments. Johns Creek Principal Chris Shearer acknowledged Christopher as a born leader who “leads his peers in caring, instructional and professional ways,” and “has built a bridge of communication and respect between faculty and students.” Shearer noted that in addition to academic success, Christopher’s emotional intelligence enhances his ability to interact with people; “he truly brings everything to the table.”
Christopher has served as Student Government Association president, Varsity Swim Team captain and School Governance Council Student Representative, among other roles. He has even given a TEDx Talk on achieving happiness. Tony Daniels, his counselor, said “he’s been the go-to person for students and is always willing to assist with last-minute requests.” “With his knowledge of the student psyche, Christopher brought in puppies before finals week to de-stress students,” he said.
The son of Romanian immigrants, Christopher is keenly aware of his roots and credits his dad as his inspiration. The immigrant spirit “motivates me to be best version of myself,” he said, “to learn as much as I can and make my dad and family proud.” He has celebrated that spirit through volunteering with World Relief Atlanta, where he helped a family from Afghanistan adapt to life in America.
Christopher’s favorite subject is engineering, “the junction between math and science.” His greatest interests are cars, airplanes and autonomous systems, and he founded Johns Creek’s first Automotive Engineering Club. Dr. Steve Sweigart, his engineering teacher, observed that Christopher doesn’t see barriers just opportunities to solve problems. “Chris always brings questions to me about his vehicle or things he’s working on.” During the summer, Christopher has stretched himself by attending a product innovation program at Columbia University and successfully pitching BMW for a student internship.
Finishing school via remote learning due to the COVID-19 crisis was unexpected. “Although it’s sad to see dreams of senior year, prom and graduation wash away,” he lamented, “it’s important to remember the best investment anyone can make is in themselves.” He feels this is the time to cherish the smaller parts of life and invest in a learning activity.
Christopher’s future plans include attending Georgia Tech where he will major in Industrial Engineering. His dream is to combine his three interests and design the first commercially available driverless flying car to help people save time. His clear vision of his life and future goals will always include helping people.
Released Friday, May 1, 2020
Langston Hughes HS Star Senior - Nicole Acevedo Rosa
Nicole Acevedo Rosa is Langston Hughes High School’s Star Senior. Displaced by Hurricane Maria while living in Puerto Rico, Acevedo Rosa came to Georgia in 2017. “I lost everything in Puerto Rico,” Acevedo Rosa said. “After being in Georgia for three months, I enrolled in Langston Hughes. The first semester I felt like I couldn’t do it. I kept begging my parents to send me back to Puerto Rico.”
Langston Hughes Principal Charles Chester knows how hard Acevedo Rosa worked to succeed in high school. “She knew some English but wasn’t fluent,” Chester said. “She immersed herself in our school and our community. There was no barrier that prevented Nicole from overcoming as a student.”
After tackling the language and her subjects, Acevedo Rosa quickly became a leader inside and outside of the classroom. “She has had her hand in many things in addition to being a top student,” said Art Teacher Mary Breazeale. “Nicole is SGA President, National Arts Honor Society President, and she’s attending Georgia Military College to get her Associates Degree. She’s also leaving a legacy with our senior tile project, where students put inspirational tiles on our school’s ceiling.”
This dedicated senior has another distinction. She is the first student from Langston Hughes in seven years to be a semi-finalist for the Bill Gates Scholarship. “Nicole is the type of student every teacher dreams of,” said Karin Mason, Chair of the Langston Hughes Science Department. “She loved the math of science and always went a step further. She was doing things in my class that students are doing in General Chemistry college classes.”
Succeeding against all odds has required much from Acevedo Rosa. “It has taken a lot of study of both the language and material at school,” she said. “It also required a lot of effort from my family.” And while she excels in all of her studies, Acevedo Rosa’s favorite subjects are Art and Math. “In Puerto Rico, we didn’t give that much emphasis to art,” she said. “Being able to develop and create is important. And, I don’t see my life without the routine of Math formulas and numbers.”
COVID-19 cancellations will mean Acevedo Rosa will now miss two important rites of passage. “I didn’t have an 8th grade graduation and now I won’t have one for 12th grade,” she said. “At least I finished high school, even if my family can’t celebrate with me. It’s nice, though, to know that Principal Chester and Dr. Looney have our back. They know how we feel.”
Next for Acevedo Rosa is enrollment at Kennesaw State University. “If I get the Bill Gates scholarship I plan to transfer to the University of Southern California and major in Architecture,” she said.
Acevedo Rosa says her motivation to keep going is “the fact that I’m the first person in my family to come to the U. S. and graduate with an Associates Degree at the age of 17. I make sure that the work I do is in honor of my family and friends who have not had the same opportunities.”
Released Friday, May 1, 2020
North Springs HS Star Senior - Matthew Rott
North Springs Charter High School’s Matthew Rott knows about sheltering in place. Having grown up with an inherited immune deficiency, he has spent much time at home or in the hospital managing illness. Yet he has kept up with schoolwork and maintains a 4.0. School Counselor Chanell Shabbaz said, “He’s very humble, spiritual and not afraid to talk about it.”
Even when homebound during his sophomore second semester, he stayed current on assignments. “I want to make a difference in the world,” he said. “My amazing teachers inspire me to keep at it.” At school, Matthew is recognized for his math abilities, and AP Calculus teacher Rahim Ghassemian commends his out-of-the-box thinking. “Matthew is a no-nonsense guy,” said Ghassemian. “When Matthew talks, everybody listens.” Due to varied reading material, Matthew possesses “broad knowledge and insight into problem-solving that gives him an edge.” His favorite subjects are math and science, especially physics, and he’s invested in projects involving these interests both locally and globally. At school, he participated in the robotics club, the Spartabots, which advanced to the First Tech Challenge state championship this year.
Volunteering from home has been a safe way for him to give back, and one exciting initiative is the Folding@Home project in which citizen scientists run a software program while their CPUs are idle that performs protein dynamics simulations. The data is collected for researchers to better understand diseases and how to cure them. COVID-19 is currently a high priority study subject. Another fascination is meteorology, and Matthew is a certified Skywarn Weather Spotter. A National Weather Service program, Skywarn trains a network of people to spot severe localized weather systems and file spotter reports that aid forecasters in their storm coverage.
Shabbaz insists he will one day be “Dr. Rott” and sees him as the next big tech guru. Both Ghassemian and Shabbaz acknowledge his resilience in the face of his health limitations. “Sometimes you see students go through struggles and use them as an excuse not to strive,” said Shabbazz. “But Matthew – when he’s in the hospital - he keeps lines of communication open. It’s that maturity piece; no matter what he’s going through, he still keeps his eyes on the goal.” Ghassemian concurs. “I’ve learned a lot from him and his resilience,” he said. “He always came back strong, worked super hard and studied way above average hours to get back to where he needed to be. I think Matthew is going to go places.”
While he misses his friends during the COVID-19 shutdown, Matthew says staying busy helps.
Matthew heads to Oxford College of Emory this fall double majoring in computer science and physics and will study quantum computing, a technical field that uses more powerful computers. “You can do a lot of incredible research with those computers,” Matthew emphasized. He hopes to work meteorology into his major and future work as well.
Released Friday, May 1, 2020
Roswell HS Star Senior - Gissell Martinez Blanco
Gissell Martinez Blanco is Roswell High School’s Star Senior. One of the founders of the Hispanic Culture Club, she is also active with Student Council. “Roswell High opened my eyes to volunteering,” Blanco said. “Giving back to the community is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
In the classroom, Blanco excels. “Gissell is able to bring her critical thinking skills out during discussions about politics and government,” said Roswell High American Government instructor, Rebeccah Masters. “She brings in perspectives we may not have experienced.”
Academically, Blanco has overcome obstacles to push for success. “She has worked very hard,” says school social worker Valerie Rogers. “It would be difficult to imagine some of the obstacles she’s gone through. Still she has amazing grades in her Honors classes.” When she ran for student body president at Roswell High, she narrowly lost the race. “She kept going and was still determined to be a vital part of our student body,” Rogers said. “She’s incredibly well-respected by her peers.”
Inspired by an older sibling who passed away, Blanco would like to someday be a pediatrician. “My favorite subject is Biology,” Blanco said. “I want to find a medical solution for every problem.” In pursuit of that medical degree, Blanco will attend Kennesaw State University as a freshman. Later, she hopes to attend Emory University for graduate and medical school. “Ten years from now I have no doubt Gissell will be a successful pediatrician or pediatric surgeon,” Rogers said. “She is someone who works very hard to accomplish her goals.”
Blanco sees both good and bad outcomes as a result of finishing her senior year away from the traditional classroom because of COVID-19. “I’m trying to make the best of it,” Blanco said. “It’s been hard to do online classes, but I always get the work done. It has brought me closer to my family.”
Released Friday, May 1, 2020
Westlake HS Star Senior - Aaron Johnson
Aaron Johnson is Westlake High School’s Star Senior. A participant in the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Magnet Honors programs at Westlake, Johnson has mastered a difficult program of study. “He’s really been a student that stands out in my five years here at Westlake,” said English teacher Elizabeth Thorne. “He has completely excelled in a curriculum that pushes students to be better people as well as lifelong learners.”
“For me, IB has been an in-depth course that feels like its student led,” Johnson said. His favorite subject is Math, for an interesting reason. “I enjoy Math because there are always definite answers and definite ways to get to those answers,” Johnson said. “I love the challenge.”
Recently, Johnson accepted another challenge in a quest to help students in his community. He applied and was accepted as a representative on the Georgia State Superintendent’s Advisory Council. “I was able to sit with students from all over the state,” Johnson said. “We came up with collective ideas on how to better education. Our theme was Making Life Better for Georgia Students.”
The list of this Star Senior’s extra-curricular activities is a long one. He is a member of the Westlake Marching Band, National Honor Society, Science National Honor Society, Tennis team and is president of HOSA, an organization that guides students who aspire to careers in health science. “We did CPR certification through the American Heart Association,” Johnson said. “Our organization is about helping students gain the knowledge they need to excel in the health field.”
“I don’t know how he finds the time to do all the things he does,” said Westlake Principal Jamar Robinson. “He has a vast array of talents that make his future unlimited.”
In the fall, pandemic permitting, Johnson will enroll at Howard University in Washington, D. C. with a major in Biology and Math. “I plan to become a cardiothoracic surgeon,” he said. “A cardiothoracic surgeon is involved in the surgical treatment of organs in the thorax, or chest, including heart and lungs.”
Principal Robinson came up with a unique way to honor Johnson and his fellow seniors when the Coronavirous pandemic cancelled traditional senior activities. Robinson featured the Top 25 seniors on billboards in the South Fulton community. Johnson’s Star Senior billboard has been featured in newspaper articles and television segments about the tribute. “What Mr. Robinson did for all of us shows that he cares about the seniors and that we’re not forgotten,” Johnson said.
Released Friday, May 1, 2020
Alpharetta HS Star Senior - Suchetas Bokil
Alpharetta High School’s Suchetas Bokil may be on an election ballot one day. This accomplished senior has earned his Star status through numerous leadership positions and competition winnings. A national policy debate champion, Suchetas is highly engaged in politics, government and leadership, but is also community-oriented with an end game of improving his community.
Balancing his strong academic standing with his other interests, Suchetas is driven to create change. His resume is already impressively full from activities at Alpharetta High School, where has served as president of both the Social Studies Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America, vice president of Student Council, captain of the Policy Debate Club and member of the School Governance Council. He considers his Student Council role one of his most significant because it allows him to represent the student body in many important school decisions.
In several school clubs, Suchetas worked to enhance the experience by inviting influential speakers and initiating community service projects. This civic engagement has shaped his future plans to one day become a policy maker. “My goal is not to necessarily worry about the problem that is presented,” he said, “but how to solve the problem.”
Though he has won hundreds of debate awards and risen to the Top 10 in the nation, he considers it valuable to mentor younger debaters “to show them the importance of politics and current events and how they play into our lives.”
Alpharetta High School teacher Andrew Bolin has observed Suchetas in his student-led Peer Leadership Class and believes he has the resilience to withstand a career in government. “Suchetas is able to bring out leaders in everyone,” shared Bolin. “He has the knowledge and passion to use information to affect change on a really high level.”
Suchetas draws inspiration from his grandfather, a physicist who overcame his blindness to be successful. His grandfather’s can-do attitude, critical thinking, passion for learning and willingness to help others despite his disability, has continually inspired Suchetas to power through his own challenges. He honors his grandfather by volunteering as an audio book checker for a nonprofit organization that provides resources for the visually impaired.
Though COVID-19 has closed in-person school and senior year-end activities, Suchetas immediately went into crisis mode to help his fellow students. Counselor Allison Kornegay praises his problem-solving ability. “The second this came to light he began generating ideas with Student Council to make the end of senior year as special as possible,” Kornegay said. “He just started thinking about how to help others.”
This fall, Suchetas heads to Harvard University to take his plans to the next level and move toward a career in government. “I think there are effective ways to use legislation to make things better. That’s why I want to be a policy maker.”
Released Friday, April 24, 2020
Banneker HS Star Senior - Xavier Shankle
Xavier Shankle is Banneker High School’s Star Senior. The Senior Class President and member of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project was born blind in his right eye. “I’ve never been able to see out of my right periphery and my glasses are really thick,” Shankle said. “Although I may not have perfect vision, I still have a vision for the world I want to live in.”
Shankle’s vision includes a distinct way of looking at the world. “I want to change the narrative of what it means to be an African American male in the business world,” he said. “I want to have a career as an investment banker. Ideally, I’d like to also pursue a career in politics where I can have the best opportunity to help people.”
Dr. Jason Stamper, Banneker High Principal, sees Shankle as focused. “He is a silent leader, but a vocal leader,” Stamper said. “He’s a silent leader because everyone knows him and they look at how he moves and conducts himself and they want to emulate that. He’s also a vocal leader because he’s going to speak his mind in terms of what is right.”
In the classroom, Shankle is also vocal. “We had a prompt in our study about Confucianism,” said Matthew Patterson, ELA Department Chair at Banneker. “The question was, is it better to do what is right or what is correct? If you’re not able to do what is correct, are you a coward? Xavier broke it down into Existentialism, and Unitarianism. He was able to synthesize it immediately. It was an incredibly impressive statement from a high school senior that could have come from a third year Philosophy major.” For Shankle, the conclusion was simple. “What is morally right,” he said.
In the 10th grade, Shankle completed a project on Financial Literacy that landed him at a community reception with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. He was able to meet the Mayor and two years later saw her at another community event. “The Mayor remembered me and asked if I’d like to meet the Vice President of the United States,” Shankle said. “The Vice President told me it’s not important who you vote for but that you vote, and, that you are a voter of conscience.”
The inability to participate in a traditional graduation ceremony because of the Coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for Shankle to exercise pragmatism. “If at the beginning of our senior year we’d made the best out of every single day, we wouldn’t have much to worry about,” Shankle said. “This is a lesson we can take throughout our whole lives.”
Released Friday, April 24, 2020
Creekside HS Star Senior - Sensoury McKay
Sensoury McKay is Creekside High School’s Star Senior. The multi-talented senior is a praise dancer, section leader of the Creekside band, and one of the first students in Fulton County Schools (FCS) to sign a letter of intent to be a teacher at the 2019 FCS Signing Day.
“When I signed the letter of intent to be a teacher, it showed what I could accomplish as an individual,” McKay said. “I enrolled in teaching as a career pathway at the College and Career Academy and for two years I went into schools and did internships. We saw what teachers go through. It’s very serious.”
Adopted at the age of 10, McKay is the youngest of six children. “Being adopted means I inherited a second home where I feel loved,” McKay said. “My Creekside family has also been there with me through thick and thin. They’ve never given up on me.”
Honors Literature and Composition instructor Dr. Karen Armstrong, feels McKay has what it takes to become a teacher. “Sensoury is inquisitive,” Armstrong said. “She doesn’t mind asking questions to make sure she’s on top of her work. She’s dependable and I know she will be an excellent teacher.”
In addition to studying to become a teacher, McKay is a participant in SkillsUSA, a leadership/competition program where students learn life skills. Leading a section in the band has allowed her to hone her leadership skills and the ability to praise dance has given her an opportunity to be creative. “I do praise dance as a way to express myself,” McKay said.
McKay has her sights set on being the first in her family to attend and graduate from college. “I go out and get it,” she said. “Whatever you want in life you’ve got to go out and get it!”
Creekside Principal Frankie Pollock has no doubts McKay will succeed. “It brings me joy that her career choice is education,” Pollock said. “Maybe one day she can serve as an Assistant Principal or Principal under my leadership.”
The Coronavirous pandemic has meant that McKay and her fellow seniors will not be part of a traditional graduation ceremony. “It’s an unfortunate situation,” McKay said. “I look more on the positive side that I accomplished a lot during my time at Creekside. The letters from Dr. Looney and Mr. Pollock were inspirational. They saw we were hurting and have given us options.”
While she’s been accepted to 22 schools, McKay plans to attend Bethune Cookman in Florida. “I want to work my way up the ladder and be a superintendent one day,” she said.
Released Friday, April 24, 2020
Northview HS Star Senior - Samuel Babadale
Northview High School’s Samuel Babadele likes staying busy whether in sports, student activities, or hanging with his mentor. A young man who smiles constantly, Samuel’s positivity is contagious.
Having experienced disadvantages earlier in life, Samuel was identified in middle school as a promising student and became a REACH scholar. The REACH Georgia Foundation, working collaboratively with local school districts, provides a mentoring and financial scholarship program to needs-based students to shepherd them through high school and keep them on track to college. Recipients must maintain good grades, meet regularly with a mentor and school counselor, and exhibit good attendance and behavior. Samuel said knowledge of the scholarship encouraged him to excel; and he has taken a rigorous course load including many AP and honors classes. Additionally, he has participated in four sports and numerous school activities. He also credits Northview’s academic culture which helped develop his high standards.
Cara Reilly, his counselor, has gotten to know him well and said, “It’s been great to see him grow as a student, a young man and as an athlete. He’s a natural leader.”
Assistant Football Coach Gary McCoy has watched Samuel play football, basketball, lacrosse and track since seventh grade. Excelling in each sport, he also served as team captain. “Coaching Samuel Babadele -- it’s been nothing but gratitude,” said Coach McCoy. “He’s had to overcome a lot as a student athlete; as far as his ceiling – you can’t really measure that.”
For the past three years, Head Football Coach James Thomson has been Samuel’s REACH mentor, becoming a close confidante. “Coach Thomson has been like a father figure,” Samuel revealed. “I can talk to him about anything; he’s taught me many valuable life lessons.”
Sam has participated in #ForNorthview, a service organization, as well as several other school clubs. Outside of school, he coaches a youth basketball team at his church and volunteers at Rainbow Village, a homeless transition organization. Managing these interests while maintaining academics is the result of learning to schedule his time.
A math lover, Samuel hopes to be involved in engineering one day and design his own machines to “see something you’ve built come to life.” His proudest moment was receiving his first college acceptance letter. Seeing his mom, his greatest inspiration, crying in response, he recalled “all the things she’s hustled and struggled for to get me to this point. She told me to never hold myself down because of the little things.”
Samuel, like other seniors across the country, has had to adapt to remote learning due to the COVID-19 crisis which disrupted many activities customary to senior year. However, he has persevered. “I’ve tried to make the most out of the cards I’ve been dealt,” he said, and acknowledged how much his teachers have done to make online learning beneficial.
His immediate future includes a year at Kennesaw State University before transferring to Georgia Tech, where he will major in business administration and minor in engineering.
Released Friday, April 24, 2020
Riverwood International CS Star Senior - America Betancourt Guevara
America Betancourt Guevara is Riverwood International Charter High School’s Star Senior. Betancourt Guevara knows how to push herself to succeed and overcome challenges on numerous fronts. Having moved to the U.S. from Venezuela in second grade, she had to learn a new language, culture and find her place. At Riverwood, she hit her stride and made friends, while embracing the school’s diversity which helped her learn about different backgrounds and perspectives. However, she still faced obstacles. While attending high school, she worked jobs requiring long, late hours. For several years, she began her day before 6 a.m. for her daily trip to school. Yet she persevered and is one of Riverwood’s International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Candidates.
Riverwood social studies teacher Daniel Gribble, who teaches her favorite subject, sees her as a bridge builder. America “walks into every classroom with a foot in multiple worlds,” Gribble says. “She sees potential in a lot of her assignments in terms of her future.”
Melissa Forster, America’s counselor, mentioned how she goes out of her way to identify her own opportunities and help other students find theirs. Through her involvement in service-related extracurricular activities, America has demonstrated that very quality. As Vice President of community service in HOPE, a club that promotes education, she set up projects for students to give back both at Riverwood and in Sandy Springs. She also founded a subcommittee within the Student Government Association called RICS United Alliance to promote diversity and inclusion and bridge the gap between student leaders and staff. This leadership has led to more exciting job opportunities and is guiding her college path.
Last summer, she was an intern for the Atlanta Bar Association, engaging in work for immigration lawyers. As a result, she plans to major in international relations and eventually attend law school.
Like all seniors now, her final semester has been interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, but her grit developed from life experiences has provided broader context. “I have learned that one must take things into perspective,” she shared, “because, as horrible of an epidemic COVID-19 is, as a country the United States is in a comfortable quarantine with technology and access to food and water which seems minimal compared to less developed countries.”
This fall, America heads to the College of Wooster in Ohio with the Posse Scholarship, a four-year, full tuition leadership award. Her dream is to one day “make an impact on my community and show my family that everything they’ve taught me, I have truly transferred to my work here in the United States.”
Released Friday, April 24, 2020