GREENS FARMS ACADEMY
Ililta Pina’s voice is strong when she sings on stage and stands up as a social activist.
A junior at Greens Farms Academy, she’s trying to make a difference in her community. A desire to discuss the Michael Brown shooting drew her to her first LEAD (Learning and Educating About Diversity) meeting; she’s been a regular since. She went on to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Indianapolis during her freshman year. “That’s where I learned that diversity is about things besides race.”
When the director of diversity at GFA contacted the student body about the chance to partner with UPenn Graduate School of Education and conduct a research project, Ililta jumped at the opportunity. The youth participatory action research project is open to independent schools all over the country and allows students to study an area of their choosing within the realm of gender, class and race in the school system. “We would start every meeting venting about the insensitive things we’d heard,” she says, “so we came up with studying micro-aggressions.” Ililta and her team created a survey, conducted interviews, coded the survey and ran a chi-square test on the results. They compiled their data and traveled to Philadelphia to present it to a conference of national educators and the UPenn graduate team.
All of this, and she’s also part of the all-girl a cappella group at school and a member of the National Honors Choir. She also taught herself piano, guitar and ukulele. But don’t ask her to perform on the spot. “I actually have terrible stage fright,” she says, “but the more I perform, the easier it gets.”
Despite her shy nature, Ililta isn’t afraid to push for what’s right. She hopes to continue to raise awareness and improve her school’s community in the process.
STAPLES HIGH SCHOOL
Walk along the Saugatuck River and chances are you’ll spot a rowing practice in session. It might look effortless, but in the boat, there’s nothing but blood, sweat and blisters. Harrison Burke knows this well. Harry, as he’s called, picked up rowing just a few years ago and is now completely dedicated to the sport. “It’s year-round, practicing every day. We practice on the weekends too. And right now, we’re leading up to National Championships, so we’ll practice in the mornings.”
That was back in early June, before Saugatuck Rowing Club sent nine boats, including Harry’s varsity 8 boat, to the USRowing Youth National Championships. His boat placed tenth overall in their division. In the last year, he’s raced in the San Diego Crew Classic Grand Final and the Head of the Charles, placing fourth and tenth, respectively.
On an individual level, Harry’s 2k personal record, in minutes and seconds is 6:13.6. That’s faster than what is required for elite junior national team testing protocol and well within the times that attract the attention of top Division I and Ivy recruiters.
Competing and training at such an intense level might overwhelm the average high school junior, but Harry plays it cool. “I think having a huge time commitment like rowing actually helps,” he says. “You have to manage your time. Whenever you can get your work done, you do it. Personally, it helps me be more productive.” He admits there’s little time for a social life outside of practice, but thankfully, many of his closest friends are on the team.
“I love rowing. I want to row in college and afterward,” he says. “I’d like to coach and keep the sport in my life, though I haven’t put too much thought into it yet.”
AVON OLD FARMS SCHOOL
One day, I woke up and realized that I wanted to start something, be my own boss and build something that I could call my own,” says Zach Sweedler. And he’s done just that. The young fashion entrepreneur cofounded two successful clothing lines by the time he was seventeen and recently launched his eponymous label.
Nonetheless, this Chapman University freshman is not all business all the time. During his three years at Avon Old Farms, Zach was a member of the varsity football, track and wrestling teams and consistently appeared on the honor roll. He also volunteered for numerous organizations, including Toys for Tots, the Special Olympics and Push Ups for Patriots. Most notably, he sang in The Riddlers, Avon’s nationally renowned a cappella group. The high point of his singing career came when he traveled to Salt Lake City for the American Choral Directors Association National Senior High School Honor Choir and performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “Music has the power to move me, in ways that nothing else can.”
Zach’s true calling, though, is fashion and entrepreneurship. “I love the idea of encapsulating a lifestyle, a world, and incorporating that into clothing,” he says. Although the two clothing lines he was previously involved with had considerable success, he wanted to strike out on his own. “With Zach Ryan, I strongly believe in bringing new ideas to the table,” he says. “I want this to be me, the way I see the world. And using my name for the brand doesn’t limit me. Actually, it allows me to be free.”
Zach draws inspiration from classic American style and differentiates his work in the market with his own personal touch for a casual, subtle and sophisticated style.
“To anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur, don’t let age get in the way. If you’re confident in something you want to accomplish, just go for it,” he says. “Don’t stop searching for what you love.” Luckily for Zach, he’s already found that.
WILTON HIGH SCHOOL
It’s rare to find a young person with such a defined calling. When Victoria Koenigsberger speaks about her passions, it’s clear that she has the maturity and forward vision of someone well beyond her years.
Victoria aims to utilize her fluency in Spanish and her interest in chemistry and medicine to improve the healthcare system by increasing cultural competency and assisting Spanish-speaking communities gain better access, both in the United States and abroad. “There was never a defining moment when I figured out this is what I wanted to do. I think it was an accumulation of experiences over time,” she says.
Her contribution to the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps is certainly contributing experiences. A certified EMT, Victoria hopes to become a crew chief once she turns eighteen and can sign documents as a legal adult.
Her academic record also supports her goals: U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad finalist, vice president of the Spanish Honors Society, a member of the National Honor Society and winner of the CT COLT Award for Excellence in Foreign Language and the Dartmouth Book Award.
Perhaps most important, her father’s Guatemalan heritage has guided her. Victoria has visited Guatemala for many years. Over the last two summers, she has worked as a nursing assistant in Obras Sociales Hospital in Antigua, where she witnessed first-hand the differences in healthcare systems. “We were making gauze by hand,” she says. “There’s also the issue of superstition and cultural aspects of different tribes.”
That’s not to say the American system doesn’t have drawbacks. “A big issue now is that medicine isn’t personal anymore. Having someone to talk to is important.” Victoria happily serves as a person to talk to through her involvement with Neighbor’s Link, a nonprofit in Stamford that helps integrate immigrants. As a Youth Links Leader, she works every Saturday managing and organzing classes in computer technology, the citizenship process, and ESL, as well as coordinating volunteers. “It’s fun and rewarding,” she says. “I enjoy working really hard.”
WILTON HIGH SCHOOL
Alida Schefers’s love of learning is easy to see. “I don’t think I’ve ever turned down an opportunity that was presented to me,” she says. Her natural curiosity has led her to explore a multitude of subjects.
Like many teens, Alida was told that Latin was useful with standardized tests, so she picked it up. This, along with her preexisting love of classical studies, earned her silver medals at the National Latin Exam, bronze and gold medals at the National Classical Etymology Exam and the silver medal and olive crown at the Medusa Mythology Exam.
Inspired by her father’s upbringing in Germany, Alida also studies German. She is a member of the German Honor Society and was awarded the German Consulate Award by her school.
After being paralyzed in the fifth grade, she developed an interest in Japanese television and film culture, which led to her independent studies of the Japanese language. She is also teaching herself American Sign Language and has won the CT COLT Award for poetry recitation in both languages.
In addition, Alida is enthusiastic about science; she has studied at the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a member of her school’s Science Olympiad team.
Alida’s willingness to pursue new opportunities goes beyond the classroom. Although it was her mother who insisted that her children learn an instrument, it was Alida who jumped at the chance to join the Wilton Steel ensemble. Already an experienced drummer, she was told, “If you can count to three and behave yourself, you’re in.” She’s also a founding member of Project Change, a research-based program designed to make her school environment more respectful and effective for students.
Although she doesn’t yet know what she wants to pursue in college, her innate curiosity and eagerness to learn will serve her well.
Exemplary leader. Talented musician. Academically gifted student. Will Nellis’s record is almost too good to believe, until you meet him. In person, his enthusiasm, maturity and drive shine through, making it clear that he has a bright future.
During his time at King School in Stamford, this Wiltonite was actively involved, serving as the Student Council President for his senior year. “As president, you’re not only head of the student government, but you’re also the face of the school, which is both very daunting and very fun. I’m so proud and honored that I was chosen because it was an amazing experience,” he says. He was also selected to be one of eight school prefects, a role that required communicating between students and faculty on how to improve the school environment.
In addition to his involvement with the student government, Will served as the head editor of the literary magazine, redesigning it from top-to-bottom and encouraging students to share their written and visual work. He was also the senior captain of the math team and has been performing in theater productions since the fifth grade. “Leadership, academics, theater and music have definitely been the four main components of my high school experience.”
Will’s love of music began in the first grade, when he was exposed to The Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” and immediately took to Google, listening to as many artists and genres as possible. “It’s amazing how music is infinite, in terms of how much is out there and how much you can do with it.” He has since developed his own style, drawing inspiration from many different genres, including hip-hop and electronic music, and producing beats that are uniquely his own.
Looking back at his high school career, Will says, “I’m very happy with what I’ve done, and I wouldn’t change anything.” This fall, he starts his freshman year at UPenn. He’s not yet sure what he’ll be studying, but he says, “I have a thirst to figure out how things work. I want to learn.”
WILTON HIGH SCHOOL
Some people lead. Others follow. And then there’s Jackson Walker, who has such initiative and maturity that you forget he’s still a teenager, whose greatest wish is to get a car.
Leadership has defined the past few years of Jackson’s life. He served as class president for the first three years of high school, and is currently the student body president. He serves as the president of band, and has attended the HOBY Leadership Conference. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, and the recipient of several COLT Awards, as well as the University of Chicago Book Award.
As if that wasn’t enough, he recently completed his Eagle Scout project, which was especially close to his heart. “I used to garden with my grandmother, but when she became wheelchair bound, we weren’t able to anymore.” Inspired by his time with his grandmother, he decided to create flower beds for the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The flower beds are raised so that limited-mobility sisters can still take part in the process of gardening.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s grandmother passed before she was able to see the completed project, but he says it’s in memoriam of her.
At his core, Jackson is fascinated by how the world operates. Turning to thoughts of chemistry, he says, “It’s cool to know how everything works on such a small level.” This summer, he was one of a very select few accepted to participate in Yale’s Discovery to Cure Internship Program, which allows students interested in medicine and science to conduct research in the university’s biomedical labs.
Ultimately, Jackson would like to attend college (he has his eyes on Harvard,) go on to med school and get a Ph.D. “I would like to work at a pharmaceutical company and play a part in creating treatments for people,” he says. “I want to be the one to figure out what we can do to make them better.”
WESTON HIGH SCHOOL
Most athletes would consider a torn ACL a disaster, but Bevin Benson’s injury opened her eyes to new opportunities for her. No longer able to pursue sports, she took an interest in both volunteerism and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, specifically computer science. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
With so much free time, she began teaching at the Caroline House in Bridgeport, instructing school-age children of immigrants in reading. There she realized that she had a talent for teaching. She built upon this talent when, inspired by her grandmother’s need for technological help, she arranged to hold senior citizen tech workshops at her local senior center.
Last summer, her father heard of the Girls Who Code program and suggested that she look into it. Bevin applied to the program, was accepted, and spent seven weeks at Goldman Sachs learning how to code. “It was an eye-opening experience for me because I realized how few girls are involved in [the STEM fields],” she says. “That fall I went back to school and saw that there were only two girls in my physics class and only seven in the entire physics program. Something was wrong, and I knew I wanted to change that.”
She petitioned to start a Girls Who Code Club at Weston High School to teach girls computer science, but was told that without a boys equivalent, it would be a Title IX violation. Eventually, an agreement was made that both girls and boys could join the club. “We have seventeen students involved—thirteen girls and four boys.”
When she’s not busy with the club, she participates in student government and plays the flute. She is also a member of the Tri-M Honor Society and the National Honor Society and wins numerous awards for her volunteerism and academics.
Although she hasn’t decided what she wants to do in the future, she’s certain of one thing; “There’s nothing that’s stopping girls from pursuing computer science, they just need the opportunity.”
STAPLES HIGH SCHOOL
Do something because you love it, not because it’s popular.” These are words that Jay Mudholkar lives by, and he’s a better person for it. His genuine enthusiasm for everything he does is palpable, whether he’s on the tennis court, tutoring peers in math, or playing the piccolo.
Jay first picked up the instrument because of his experience playing the flute, and he liked that it was a nontraditional choice. But he quickly came to love the instrument, and qualified for All-States several years ago. He plays with the Staples Symphonic Band and Orchestra, as well as Wreckers in Tune, a club ensemble that performs at senior citizen homes in the area.
Once known as “the piccolo guy,” Jay said it was a shock when he tried out for and made the Staples tennis team. As much as he enjoys sports and music, math is Jay’s true passion. Staples recognized this, and sent him as their delegate to the International Science Youth Forum in Singapore.
Jays says, “It’s not just about loving the subject, it’s about spreading that love in the community and teaching others.” He currently works as a tutor at Top Hat Tutors in Westport. “One of the reasons I’m attracted to tutoring and teaching is that I’m able to get people passionate about [math]. It’s not just about getting the A on the test, but getting them motivated and truly engaged in the subject.”
Additionally, Jay enjoys robotics, competes as co-captain of the math team, and is proficient in Marathi and Mandarin Chinese.
“When I started high school, I blindly joined clubs that would help me ‘get into college.’ Eventually I asked myself ‘What am I doing? I don’t like any of this stuff!’ It’s not about doing something because you think it will look good on a résumé. More often than not, if you genuinely love something, that’s what’s going to shine through.”
WILTON HIGH SCHOOL
Vedika Karandikar is, in the best way possible, an overachiever. She’s involved in so many activities and clubs that it’s a wonder how a single teenager can manage it all.
Since she was a little girl, Vedika has trained in Kathak, a classical Indian dance form. “When I dance, I can let myself loose and be who I need to be for the dance. It’s almost like meditation.” Additionally, she competes on her school’s varsity swim team. She also plays the French horn and performs regularly at senior citizen homes with the Evergreen Performers. “It makes me musically fulfilled to perform for the senior citizens. I’m able to share my passion of music with others.”
An active member of the debate team, math team and Science Olympiad team, she is also a member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish Honor Society. In addition, she is the current president of the International Club, which raises awareness of different cultures.
But what makes Vedika truly stand out is her volunteer work, both in Milford Hospital, and in India. Last year, she traveled to the Dr. Hedgewar Hospital in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. After learning that the institution lacked a student volunteer program, she decided to start one herself. She went to several local high schools, told them of the joy she gets from volunteering, and asked them to join her new program. Twenty students signed up, and she trained them in the duties of admitting and discharging patients, transporting patients by wheelchair and delivering meal trays. “It felt like I was connecting with my culture, while also being able to share something that is needed or lacking in that community. I was very happy to be able to share that.”
Vedika hopes to make use of her compassionate demeanor and love of science by becoming a doctor some day. But, for now, she sums up her ambitions by saying, “I just hope to do the best that I can do.”