Uneasy about the state of education and the potential of the next generation? Then check out these high school seniors and their accomplishments.
Upper Arlington senior Mitch White provides potable water to Honduran villagers. "It's hard to see the awful conditions they were living in," he says. Photo by Jeffry Konczal.
They’re self-absorbed, easily distracted and tech-obsessed. Yeah, we’re talking about high school kids. We’ve seen them with their heads down and eyes fixed—texting ad nauseum or gaming on Xbox 360 or posting endless Facebook overshares.
These are our future leaders and thinkers who will grapple with the mega problems in our increasingly complex world?
But wait before you despair. There are students in Central Ohio doing amazing things. And the eight seniors you’re about to meet are nothing short of super achievers. Some have taken a love for a subject and blown it sideways: history, Mandarin Chinese, advanced scientific research. Others have shouldered humanitarian causes and more.
Mentors—an AP calculus teacher, a swim coach—watch from the wings. Parents, too. Not Tiger Mothers and Fathers demanding perfection, but supportive types who recognize their child’s potential and prize education and day-to-day consistency.
The laser-focused students put in some incredibly long hours. But a work/life balance, thankfully, is not foreign to them. Asked what they do for fun, each answered, in typical teenage mode, along the lines of: “Hang with my friends.”
Helping a remote Honduran village
Mitch White, 18, was in eighth grade when he made his first 1,700-mile trip to Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Central America. He saw makeshift houses of scrap wood and corrugated tin, squatting low and tentative on the lush mountainside. He met children, some malnourished and suffering from dysentery, others pocked with impetigo.
He was there to help. As part of a weeklong mission trip arranged by his church and the Heart to Honduras organization, White assisted medical personnel, including his mom, Jennifer, a pediatrician, in providing on-the-spot medical care. In the afternoons, the group constructed widow’s homes, 12-by-12 minimalist structures; they’re small, but sturdy—a vast improvement in housing for a lucky few.
“I became passionate for these people once I saw the need,” White says. “It’s hard to see the awful conditions they were living in.”
He’s since returned with the group four times. Last year, they were sent to the remote mountain village of Caliche, population 300. It was, and still is, an alarming mini-snapshot of the global water crisis. “There’s a muddy spring-fed hole in the ground, or pozo, which half of Caliche uses for washing clothes, bathing and drinking. The water’s milky white, disgusting,” White says. “Others use rain water collected in a pila, a large stone basin.”
This January, he again flew into San Pedro Sula airport and then bounced over pitted roads in an open cattle truck, with low branches slapping, to get back to Caliche. For the week, he’d sleep on the floor of the small school and eat simple meals. But this time White would introduce clean water—which also became his capstone project at Upper Arlington High School.
White researched water purifiers and chose the Tulip siphon-and-filter system for its high flow rate. The filter can provide a household with clean water for a year, potentially much longer. By fundraising, he purchased 27 filters at $15 each, which he sold to Caliche villagers for two dollars, a hefty sum for subsistence farmers. “Studies show if you give them away, they’re less likely to use them,” he explains.
He set up shop next to the medical personnel, with a demo model and instructions in Spanish. “First day, I had no takers,” White admits. But word spread and he quickly sold out. Eleven more are on back order.
White, who will attend the University of Alabama in the fall, double-majoring in communications and marketing, says it’s a start. In a village where enormous power lines loom overhead, but no electricity comes to them, where young girls wear Hannah Montana T-shirts, but have never heard of Miley Cyrus, a third or more of the population has clean water, at least for now.
“I’m happy, but not satisfied,” says White. “There’s so much more to do.”
Doubling up as dancers and swimmers
Under the stark fluorescent lights of the New Albany Ballet Company studio, six lithe teens in pale pink tights and classic black leotards practice one more fouetté turn, a final rond de jambe. At nearly 9 pm, their eyes are crinkly with the hour and the need for sleep.
Two stay after class. They’re rehearsing the Nutcracker duet they’ll be performing in an international competition in New York. Music begins. A noticeable freshness sweeps over them. Faces radiate energy, smiles gleam, necks elongate, pointe shoes glide smoothly, effortlessly, their fierce stage presence commands. “The changements, make them lighter,” suggests Amy Tremante, their instructor.
They always stand together at the barre, these two. Ballet dancers with the potential to turn professional, identical GPAs—highest in their class at New Albany High School—and state champion swimmers, Fanni and Franciska Mandy are sisters. And identical twins.
These 17-year-olds live in mirror images: separately placing the same order at Starbucks (tall hot chocolate), selecting identical outfits without conferring and citing AP calculus and Karen Morlan as their favorite subject and teacher. In conversation, they execute an astounding pas de deux, one finishing a thought or overlapping concepts with the other.
They agree, easily, on the two highlights of their high school days: sharing the New Albany Ballet Company’s starring role in The Nutcracker—the Sugar Plum Fairy—their junior year and winning the state championship in the 200-yard girls’ freestyle relay as sophomores.
That sophomore year had a brutal few months. Their Nutcracker roles as Mirlitons collided head-on with swim team demands. “We had a longer dance, requiring a lot of stamina and rehearsals.” Fanni explains.
Franciska outlines their day. “We’d wake up at 5:45 am, be at swim practice by 6.” Then school, followed by swim team practice and a meet, ballet and hours of homework until 1 am. “We didn’t sleep much,” Fanni says.
The 5-foot-4, 100-pound athletes had to adopt a Michael Phelps high-calorie approach. “We ate anything we could find,” says Fanni, laughing. “A big breakfast, so much at lunch, a sandwich before swim team practice, pasta before ballet and dinner at 11:30 pm.” But what a payoff: superb Nutcracker performances and a heart-stopping, come-from-behind victory in the freestyle relay for the state title.
At the moment, ballet is a career possibility after summer intensives in Budapest (parents Agnes and Gyorgy are Hungarian) and at the esteemed Orlando Ballet School in Florida. The twins have committed to Cornell University for the fall, but are still waitlisted at their top choice, Rice University. Both schools have top-notch programs in dance and biomedical engineering. Or pre-med, an option inspired by a day of shadowing their dad, a neonatologist, at the Ohio State University Medical Center.
They’re intent on the same college, same majors. “We want to share experiences—we’re so lucky to be twins,” Franciska says. Asked what keeps them motivated, they turn and grin, as if choreographed, and point to each other.
Documenting the boys of World War II
Elizabeth Vaziri has done exceedingly well during her days at Columbus Academy: Amherst Cup for embodying the ideals of the school, National Merit finalist and winner of the Daughters of the American Revolution National Historic Preservation Award. She’s co-captain of the field hockey team and Ivy League material, having been accepted early decision to the University of Pennsylvania.
But what the 18-year-old most likely will be remembered for at Academy is a one-hour documentary she created about the boys from the school who fought so valiantly in World War II. She did it not for class credit, but simply because she was inspired to preserve a dramatic slice of history.
The two-year project began when she discovered a war memorial plaque that hadn’t been updated since the school’s move from Nelson Road in 1968. She volunteered to refurbish it. After studying it, she wondered: Who among them is still alive? And, particularly, what did those World War II veterans experience on the battlefield, in a fighter plane or behind enemy lines?
Research and phone inquiries ensued. “Families entrusted me with boxes and suitcases of letters, faded pictures, diaries, shells from the South Pacific,” Vaziri says. “It was spectacular—I felt so close to them. They were just kids my age, all so good-looking, had played football or basketball at Academy.” There was gripping, often tragic material: Jack Farrar’s last letter home, the Western Union telegram declaring him missing.
Vaziri narrowed her scope to 10 veterans and filmed interviews with four, all in their early 90s. Hellcat Ace Dan Carmichael describes a harrowing flight after an air battle over Iwo Jima. Bill Emig recounts Okinawa. Bob Brisley talks about Utah Beach. And Bob Strausbaugh remembers the Battle of the Bulge. “It was amazing that so many from a small school like Academy could be right in the middle of world-changing events,” she says.
Vaziri used a Flip video camera to film. She got professional help to edit and insert newsreel footage. “Sound mixing was the hardest,” Vaziri says of the narration by her grandfather and swing music that she included.
Academy Boys: World War II premièred last year on Veterans Day in the school’s auditorium. Among the honored guests was Strausbaugh. “It was very emotional for both of us,” Vaziri remembers. “He hugged me and started crying. ‘You’re like a granddaughter to me,’ he said. ‘Please have a good life.’ ”
Along with a new memorial plaque, the documentary will be the cornerstone of Academy’s centennial celebration next year. “The credit goes to the veterans, for their sacrifice,” Vaziri says quietly. “It’s important for our generation to see that, to be more appreciative of our military today.”
Researching nicotine addiction
It’s no wonder Ameya Deshmukh, 17, is drawn to science. It runs in the family. His dad, Ashish, holds a PhD in environmental chemistry. Vaidehi, his mom, was pursuing her PhD in microbiology at Ohio State when she invited Ameya to join her in the lab five years ago.
“A little seventh-grader doesn’t know what to do, what he’s really interested in,” says the Upper Arlington High School student with a laugh. “But my parents pushed me to see if I would enjoy it.”
Good thing they did. Last year, his research on nicotine addiction won Deshmukh a first-place finish and $2,500 at the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the Olympics of pre-college science competitions. He later presented his research to scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington, D.C. And this February, he was honored by TechColumbus with a $2,500 High School Innovation Award.
Since his auspicious introduction to lab research in seventh grade, Deshmukh continuously has worked with OSU professors. He’s tested algae to see if it could absorb carbon dioxide from coal plants and helped re-engineer cassava, a food staple in tropical countries, to eliminate its naturally occurring traces of cyanide.
Tenth grade, things really got serious. Laura Brennan, the high school’s facilitator for scientific research, paired him with OSU professor Dennis McKay for a three-year commitment. Deshmukh happily agreed. “I wanted neuroscience and this, neuropharmacology, was the closest thing. Staying with one lab, I’ve gotten a deep understanding of the subject,” he says.
He and McKay examined nicotine addiction, searching for a more effective drug that essentially would stop the production of dopamine, the body’s feel-good chemical that produces a smoker’s high. “Ameya investigated and evaluated some important lead molecules in drug discovery,” McKay writes in an e-mail.
While the drug’s potency still needs to be resolved, Deshmukh has turned his attention to the body’s receptor molecules, and how they would accept the drug. This continuation project has advanced him to Ohio’s state science competition, to be held in May.
This fall, Deshmukh will head to OSU, after gaining acceptance into its honors program. “I’ll focus on the biological sciences and chemistry,” he says. “And minor in Chinese, even though I’ve never studied it.” He has McKay’s vote of confidence: “Ameya is exceptional [and] will make outstanding contributions to whatever area of science he decides to pursue.”
Last summer, Deshmukh took a break from all that science. He and his friend Abraham Lucey journeyed solo to northern India, where Deshmukh lived until he was 4. He conversed in Marathi and Hindi as they visited his relatives and toured the Taj Mahal. Then, on to Hong Kong and China. In the Guangdong province, they spent a week in the village of Changliu, building houses with Habitat for Humanity. “Incredibly hard work, but what an experience,” Deshmukh says.
Taking action on the streets
Not long ago, Rachel Murphy curled up in a cardboard box and spent the night in downtown Worthington. Rain switched places with dampness; both held an uncomfortable chill, with arms and legs growing stiff from small stretches of broken sleep.
At 17, Murphy has developed an expansive degree of empathy: for homelessness, for those who subsist on limited incomes or loose change solicitations, for the indignities of city shelters and food pantries. It’s been honed in large part by her longtime involvement with Habitat for Humanity and the youth group
at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Clintonville. Terri Siebert, Gethsemane’s director of learning and family ministries, explains, “Rachel always asks the thought-provoking questions in our group. She constantly brings the discussion back to thinking of others.”
Many from the youth group camped with her that night as part of Habitat’s Shack City project, raising money to combat homelessness. “You value your own home and bed more,” says Murphy. “But that’s just one night. When you work with Habitat, as I did in southeast Ohio or Swan Quarter, North Carolina, or Benton Harbor, Michigan, you see what poverty is firsthand.”
Murphy’s compassion spills over into her days at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. The class valedictorian and president of the National Honor Society commits wholeheartedly to making a difference, whether tutoring a peer, protesting Senate Bill 5 at the Statehouse or serving dinners to the needy as part of the National Honor Society’s community outreach.
For Murphy, empathy and gratitude go hand-in-hand. “It’s been incredible,” she says of her high school years at Fort Hayes, where Columbus City Schools students are picked by lottery to attend. “There are so many more AP classes—I’m taking four right now. And the teachers are passionate about their subjects. Like Courtney Johnson, my English teacher and adviser for the school newspaper—she’s more like a big sister or an aunt. She really cares.”
In addition to playing violin with the Columbus All-City Orchestra and serving on the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra student advisory board, she sings. Quite well, actually. As one of the Fort Hayes Metropolitan Singers, she’s performed for two governors, Ted Strickland and John Kasich. And President Obama, when he attended the Columbus Police Academy graduation in March 2009. “We got to meet him afterwards,” she exclaims. “He was very kind—he shook our hands and remarked on how sharp we looked.”
As editor of her school newspaper, she recently wrote an opinion piece, “Taking Action,” on troubling global issues—genocide in Sudan, human trafficking, world hunger—and urged her fellow students to become aware and get involved. As she considers a major in journalism, she may choose a distant school to further expand her own worldview.
“I love Ohio, but I want to see other parts of the country,” Murphy says, “see what else is out there.”
Loving languages and film
After three years of Spanish and nearly two of Mandarin Chinese at Gahanna Lincoln High School, 18-year-old Alexandria Patmon realizes she goes against the norm. “I’m picking up Chinese a lot easier than I did Spanish,” she says, amused. “And I’m very comfortable speaking it.”
That’s surprising since Mandarin Chinese is extremely difficult—each syllable has four tonal possibilities and each tone means something quite different. And to write it, there are literally thousands of characters to memorize.
“I’m intrigued by all of it,” Patmon says, “especially the Chinese culture, because it’s the basis for understanding their language.” Her class, taught by Mike Kralovic, uses Skype to chat with a sister school in Kunming, in the Yunnan province. “We speak slowly because of the equipment, but, yes, we really do understand each other,” she says.
Patmon doesn’t stop with Chinese, however. She’s teaching herself Korean. “At least it’s got an alphabet,” she says gamely. “It’s called the Hangul.”
“The economy’s on the rise in that part of the world,” she says. “And I’ll probably focus on those two languages and international studies in college.” Meanwhile, Patmon, who is considering Ohio Dominican, will travel to China this summer with a group from her school and stop in Kunming. “It’ll be a crash course in Chinese life as we figure out public transportation and bargain on the street corners for goods,” she says. “But I can’t wait.”
Patmon also is teaching herself to play two types of Chinese flute. As a flautist in both the concert and marching bands at her high school, she’s got a head start. “The dadi is big, much like our alto flute. It’s not so difficult,” she explains. “But the xiao is more like our clarinet and is a lot harder. You rest it on your chin to play.”
“She’s a self-starter, very motivated, intellectually curious,” says Mark Miller, an English and film studies teacher at Gahanna Lincoln who served as Patmon’s mentor for her senior project. “She’s not in my classes, but she came to me wanting to do a film. I gave her the book Understanding Movies and she took it from there, writing the script, casting, shooting and editing. . . .”
“I wanted to take a subject I didn’t know anything about and study it, see how far I could go,” Patmon says.
Using a Nikon D5000 to shoot and iMovie to edit on her computer, Patmon created the 10-minute film, Sincerely Yoo, exploring the relationship between two people of different ethnic backgrounds.
“She’s got quite an eye for composition and framing a shot, a strong aesthetic sense,” Miller remarks. “She’s created an arty-looking film.”
Teaching Marines and Rangers
He stands 5-foot-4 and weighs 125 pounds on a good day. But Alex Shapiro—with dark, wavy hair and a megawatt smile—is a powerhouse. A fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do and a black belt in judo, Shapiro, 18, can take down opponents twice his size in a matter of seconds.
Burly Marines from Lima Company come to him for supplemental hand-to-hand combat training. Army Rangers, home between deployments, enroll in classes to get the extra edge. Shapiro, an assistant instructor at the Team Players Taekwondo Center in Hilliard, also teaches a class there in close-quarters combat.
“Unless they get training with programs like MCMAP [Marine Corps Martial Arts Program], the military’s focus is on maintaining control of their edged weapon, their field knife, for instance, or room clearing with Special Ops,” he says. Close-quarters combat (CQC) training, he adds, “involves self-defense tactics, blocking and striking techniques, weapons of opportunity. Anything—a screwdriver, a compact shovel—can serve as your edged weapon. Some will take six or seven CQC classes before being deployed—it makes a difference.”
The Hilliard Davidson High School student also conducts seminars for Team Players on safety awareness and self-defense. “Hit ’em where it counts,” he instructed 50 female Ohio State University students at a recent campus seminar. “But not in the groin—they’re usually wearing protector cups. You need to strike at pressure points. With everyday items, like a Sharpie. Or a key chain weapon, a Kubotan.”
It sounds a bit James Bond-ish, but it fits the profile of someone like Shapiro who aspires to the CIA or FBI. He’ll attend OSU in the fall, majoring in international relations, with a specialization in security and intelligence.
“He’s such a good role model,” says Mark Federle, a first lieutenant in the Ohio National Guard Army Reserves, who, along with his four sons, has studied tae kwon do with Shapiro.
Shapiro got an early start wearing the dobak, that ubiquitous white uniform, and practicing his shout, or kihap. He toddled into his first class at 2 and demonstrated uncanny ability. By 5, he was competing.
A three-time medalist at the USTU Junior Olympic National Championships, Shapiro took the gold in 1999. But he almost got disqualified for being such a featherweight. “I was so small—the officials were worried,” Shapiro remembers, laughing. They shouldn’t have been. “I won it in the last few seconds.”
On a recent Thursday evening, 15 tae kwon do students in Shapiro’s junior masters class drop to the floor and deliver 10 perfect-form push-ups. He and three assistants walk among them, barking commands and encouragement.
“Breathe man, you’ll pass out,” Shapiro says to one struggling student as the class executes high jumps in place. Ten squat-thrust-and-jumps. Ten more push-ups.
The struggling student falters again. Shapiro drops beside him and delivers 10 push-up-and-holds, flawlessly. Then he smiles, stands and resumes command at the front of the class.
Rhonda Koulermos is a freelance writer.