March-April 2018 | Parenting

Top Teens

Meet the winners of Bethesda Magazine's 2018 Extraordinary Teen Awards

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Vikram Akwei

Senior, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

Vikram Akwei quickly finished the substitute teacher’s English assignment one day in eighth grade at Bethesda’s Westland Middle School. Then he noticed a student who had recently moved from Venezuela struggling to complete the worksheet. He dragged his chair up to the girl’s desk to help.

That moment planted the seed that would grow into the High School Success Program, which Vikram created as a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School sophomore. The program pairs recently immigrated students from low-income families with peer mentors who tutor them in English and math for three weeks each summer. It has served roughly 25 students throughout the county.

Vikram, now 18, of Chevy Chase, says his multicultural upbringing helps him empathize with the students served by the program. His father is Ghanaian, and his mother is Malaysian and Indian. Vikram, who was born in the United States, lived in India for three years, moving back to the U.S. in third grade, and he says the transition between cultures was challenging.

“It was difficult at times, but eventually I realized that my biracial nature wasn’t hindering me, but was something to be used to connect with people from different communities,” Vikram says.

Vikram is also a track and field athlete, and he has earned acclaim from his peers for roles in B-CC theater productions such as Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde and Donkey in Shrek. He is president of B-CC’s Student Government Association and carries a 4.0 GPA.

Hunter Hogewood, Vikram’s AP U.S. history teacher, says he’s impressed by the teen’s broad range of talent. “There are so many things this kid could do, but he’s chosen to focus on education, and helping kids in our area who could use a boost,” Hogewood says.

Vikram has been accepted into Yale and hopes to study the intersection of international relations and economics, with a possible minor in physics.


Zain Yaqub

Senior, Walt Whitman High School

Zain Yaqub possesses the markings of an entrepreneur, say those who know him well, that ability to spot a need in the market and the tenacity and drive to do something about it. In the past three years, he’s launched two businesses, one that connects aspiring teenage entrepreneurs with business executives, and another that helps local firms improve their social media presence. “My dream is to create jobs for others,” says Zain, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda who hopes to study business in college. “I want to be independent and set my own hours.”

Zain’s first venture—the Bethesda Entrepreneurship Academy—was born out of his frustration with the lack of offerings in school for budding entrepreneurs. During his sophomore and junior years, he hosted a monthly program at his Bethesda home, where paying students gathered to hear speakers from the business community, including Timothy Chi of WeddingWire and Dennis Ratner of Hair Cuttery. But he switched venues last September and began offering free sessions for teenage boys who have experienced trauma and are part of the National Center for Children and Families’ Greentree Adolescent Program in Bethesda. “A lot of those kids are less fortunate than me, and this may be a way to get them to a better place,” Zain says.

Shahab Kaviani, a technology entrepreneur and longtime mentor of Zain’s, says his mentee is resourceful. “In his limited free time, he’s found a way to benefit society, play to the strengths of his program, and stay true to his mission,” Kaviani says. But Zain didn’t give up on his goal to run a for-profit business. About a year ago, he and a friend launched Smart Media Management, which helps businesses—currently four steady clients, Zain says—with online advertising and social media posts. “I spend a lot of weekend time on this,” says Zain, who was a lineman on Whitman’s varsity football team for the past two years. “I don’t play video games anymore, that’s for sure.”


Sarah Elbeshbishi

Senior, Watkins Mill High School

As soon as Sarah Elbeshbishi got the tip, she started making calls and sending emails. The story: Referees had barred a basketball player from Gaithersburg’s Watkins Mill High School from taking the court in a regional final because she was wearing her hijab, something she’d done all season. Sarah interviewed students, athletic officials and others, and wrote an article last March that was praised by sources on both sides of the issue. A few days later, The Washington Post ran a story that cited Sarah’s report. The story went national—CNN and others covered it—and it eventually led to a change in the rule, which is regulated at the state level. High school athletes no longer need a state-approved waiver to play while wearing religious headgear.

It would have been a career highlight for most professional journalists. But Sarah was a high school junior writing for Watkins Mill’s student newspaper, The Current. “It was so sad that it happened, but it felt really nice to give this student an opportunity to speak for herself,” Sarah says. “The fact that the rule got changed made me realize that journalism can be a platform for change.”

Now the editor-in-chief of The Current, Sarah, 18, makes sure there’s new online content every school day, and in 2016-2017 she helped the publication win School Newspapers Online’s Site Excellence award. She’s senior class president and secretary of the school’s National Honor Society. She plays varsity soccer and softball and gets straight A’s in the International Baccalaureate program. The teen, who credits her Egyptian immigrant parents for her work ethic, says her “hyperactive” energy level, coffee and an ability to function on very little sleep help her stay on top of her workload.

Sarah, who lives in Montgomery Village, plans to study journalism at the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado at Boulder or Northwestern University.


Douglas Hayes

Senior, Bullis School

Bullis School college counselor Lynn Kittel was sitting in her office one day last summer when Douglas Hayes stopped by to say hello. Kittel asked what brought him in, as school wasn’t scheduled to start for another two weeks. “He said, ‘I just came to sit on campus and read. I wanted to get my body and brain used to being on campus again before school officially started,’ ” Kittel says. “What 17-year-old says that?”

Intellectual curiosity and a search for life’s meaning have been constants in Douglas’ life since early childhood. “My parents and older brother say I talked all the time, nonstop, just wanting to know everything about everything,” says Douglas, who lives in Rockville.

At the age of 10, Douglas created the gnat repellent spray Gnat Away!, and he incorporated Hayes Innovations LLP with the help of his parents in 2012. He has since sold 125,000 bottles of the spray, equaling more than $125,000 in revenue, and the product is a 2018 Edison Awards nominee for consumer product innovation. A portion of the proceeds from Gnat Away! goes to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “It wasn’t about the money,” Douglas says. “It was about seeing an idea come to fruition.”

Douglas reads voraciously, with favorite titles including Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, a book about the importance of living in the moment, which he read for fun after a football workout. After being chosen to head the leadership committee of Bullis’ chapter of the National Honor Society, he read books about how to be an effective leader. He also co-founded a philosophy club for students to discuss literature and topics such as ethics, grit and resilience.

Douglas, who has a 3.8 GPA, isn’t only interested in intellectual pursuits. The 170-pound teen earned the nickname “Slim Doug” for excelling as an offensive lineman on the football team despite being lighter than other players at that position.

He will attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania this fall, and is interested in behavioral economics.


Laura Espinoza

Senior, Montgomery Blair High School

Whether she’s gathering data for accomplished scientists, devising a winning strategy for the robotics team at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School or churning out columns for the student newspaper, Laura Espinoza’s analytical thinking skills shine.

As an intern at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in Bethesda last summer, Laura sorted through hundreds of studies on the accuracy of a nuclear imaging technique that diagnoses coronary artery disease. She then used statistical modeling to look for consistencies in the studies. “She pulled it off. It was quite amazing,” says her former boss, Dr. Andrew Arai, a senior NHLBI investigator and chief of the advanced cardiovascular imaging laboratory. “I wouldn’t expect a cardiac fellow to get that much done in a summer.”

Methodically applying a solution to a problem is what Laura sees as her strength, and it’s a skill she’s tapped as president of Blair’s robotics team.

The 17-year-old senior, a Rockville resident, has a 4.0 GPA in her school’s science, mathematics and computer science magnet program. She wrote for the school newspaper as a junior and now serves as its ombudsman. She’s played on the varsity field hockey team since her sophomore year. And she is a member of the Montgomery County Commission on Children and Youth, a volunteer group of students, parents and professionals that offers advice to local officials. Laura likes being active in her community and thinking about ways to make it a more equitable place. “I’m fired up about social issues because I experienced backlash as a girl and a Latina growing up,” she says.

Laura will attend Harvard University and plans to major in economics.


Kyle Zhu

Senior, Richard Montgomery High School

During the summer before seventh grade, Kyle Zhu tutored students in algebra at an alternative high school in Virginia that serves teens with behavioral issues. He was trying to get an early start on his school’s community service requirements, but to his surprise, the experience inspired him to work harder on behalf of at-risk youths. “A lot of them lacked the love and care that I took for granted in my own life,” says Kyle, 18, a Silver Spring resident.

As a freshman at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Kyle and a friend launched BranchOut Tutors, a peer-to-peer mentoring and tutoring program that serves underprivileged youths in Montgomery County. Today, the nonprofit has about 30 student volunteers from various high schools in the county who work with first- through 12th-graders at seven sites, including Stepping Stones Shelter in Rockville. In the past two years, the group has received financial support from the Rockville Rotary Club and its foundation. The group also has started robotics workshops and summer camps at some sites.

Eager to make a similar impact overseas, Kyle taught English for a month at a high school in China that serves high-risk students. He was invited to speak in Trinidad and Tobago about his volunteer work at the Montgomery County teen court, at which student jurors hear the cases of first-time juvenile offenders. And last summer, while in Finland for a leadership conference, he organized a group of teens to volunteer at a refugee camp there.

As a senior, Kyle serves as finance director for the countywide Student Government Association program and a news editor at the school newspaper. He’s played on the varsity tennis team since his freshman year, and as a sophomore he co-founded a club called Innovate that encourages entrepreneurship. “He just radiates positive energy,” says Doug
McDonald, an economics teacher and the club’s sponsor.

Kyle, who has a 4.0 GPA in Richard Montgomery’s International Baccalaureate magnet program, hopes to pursue a career in education and social justice.


Theresa Brogan

Senior, The Academy of the Holy Cross

On a spring day in 2017, Theresa Brogan was double booked. She had planned to act in a teaser for Sister Act, The Academy of the Holy Cross’ musical, at the same time she was scheduled to cheer in a school pep rally. She saw only one solution: She bounced back and forth between the two events, holding pom-poms while wearing her nun costume as if the two were a natural fit.

It was a typical show of confidence and energy for the Silver Spring teen, now an 18-year-old senior who’s involved in “every nook and cranny” of her Kensington school, from drama to athletics to film, says teacher Emily Montgomery.

“From the time she was a baby, she just figured she’d do whatever everyone else was doing,” the teen’s mother, Mary Brogan, says. Theresa, who was born with Down syndrome, is the youngest of six children. “She didn’t see any blocks in the road.”

Theresa was one of the two students admitted to Holy Cross’ Moreau Options Program for students with intellectual disabilities when it began in 2014. There are now 13 Moreau Options students who take general education classes along with small classes in reading, writing and math.

Today, Theresa is an honors student who tutors other students. She is an accomplished performing artist who was invited to attend an academic symposium at Catholic University and present a short film she created. Theresa has also taken dance classes and loves the costumes she gets to wear for performances. Her volunteer work includes serving meals to the homeless and visiting the elderly. She’s also a cheerleader, golfer, and track and field athlete.

“Theresa showed the school how an inclusion program could be done,” says Montgomery, the director of the Moreau Options Program. “At 18, she already has a legacy, which is pretty amazing.”

Theresa hopes to attend The College of New Jersey and major in theater.


Andy Harris

Senior, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

Machinery, specifically the kind that makes anything with wheels move, captivated Andy Harris at a young age. In third grade, he built a motorized (albeit slow) two-wheel scooter out of Legos. As a fifth-grader, he came up with a concept for an automatic transmission, again using Legos. In high school, however, Andy’s enthusiasm for technology waned. His grades slipped. He began falling asleep in class and in midconversation. Eventually he was diagnosed with narcolepsy.

To deal with the sleep disorder, Andy took a medical leave two months into his sophomore year. Medication eventually regulated his sleep patterns and eliminated his symptoms, but he did not return to school that year. “I was in a rut,” says the 19-year-old Bethesda resident. “I pulled myself out of it because I really wanted to be productive.” During his time off, he founded and coached a robotics team for middle school students at Holy Trinity School in D.C. He also launched a technology consulting firm, AH Tech, on the advice of his dentist, who had enlisted Andy to fix some office network problems. “I solved the issue in 10 minutes,” says Andy, who went on to automate the office. Through his company, he’s earned more than $5,000, a portion of which he used to buy a 3-D printer.

Now a senior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Andy continues to run his business. He’s an honors student, captain of the varsity wrestling and varsity lacrosse teams, and founder of the school’s robotics team. For roughly three hours a week, Andy helps students with computer-aided design and 3-D modeling in the school’s design lab. “He’s industrious,” says Ginger Cobb, head of the upper school. “Andy does not let anything sidetrack him.”

This year, Andy aims to patent at least one of his 3-D prototypes, a high-pressure diesel engine that doesn’t require a turbocharger. He hopes to study mechanical engineering and physics in college and develop a concept that revolutionizes the auto industry.


Genesis Jefferson

Senior, Barrie School

In the fall of her junior year at Barrie School in Silver Spring, Genesis Jefferson had some questions about International Children’s Day. For the school’s annual event, students are encouraged to dress in the clothing of another culture, perhaps their own family’s country of origin.

Genesis asked teachers and administrators: Isn’t this cultural appropriation? How can an African-American teen, such as herself, dress to represent her family’s roots when those roots are a mystery? Aren’t there better ways to teach about diversity?

The questions led to good conversations but no change. So for the event, Genesis and two friends dressed as slaves, with Genesis donning period clothing and wrapping ropes around her wrists.

The protest led administrators to reexamine International Children’s Day with help from Genesis, who attended meetings and provided feedback to planners. The event still includes dressing up, but now features discussions and lectures pertaining to modern-day diversity, with topics such as the cultural implications of hair.

David Weiner, Genesis’ AP psychology teacher, says her work on International Children’s Day is among many ways the 18-year-old Olney resident is “a force for change” at Barrie.

Genesis says social justice is a motivator, whether she’s speaking her mind at school, writing slam poetry or producing a film. She began making movies of her friends as an elementary school student, and learned filming and editing basics while creating videos for the Montgomery County Sentinel’s website during an internship after her freshman year. As a sophomore, Genesis created “Barrie TV,” an elective class she continues to run in which she and other students produce videos on everything from fashion trends to the Black Lives Matter movement. The videos are shown at school assemblies.

Genesis also plays basketball and soccer, and has served in the school’s Student Government Association.

She is applying to colleges in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and hopes to study film and create documentaries that highlight diverse perspectives. “I want to make films that speak about social justice,” she says, “but I also want to make films that are different as far as who they represent and the stories they tell.”


Carissa Wu

Senior, Winston Churchill High School

Carissa Wu of Potomac broke into the pageant circuit just as she was entering high school. A committed dancer and pianist, she was used to performing onstage. Still, she felt that pageants would open up a new path of self-expression.

With her mother’s help, Carissa enlisted a pageant coach, and the titles started rolling in. Most recently, Carissa won the 2016 Miss USA Ambassador Teen competition in Tampa, Florida, which led to travel and volunteer opportunities. “I gained a new sense of confidence and I found my voice,” says Carissa, 17, a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. “My whole life I was trying to be the normal American girl, not the nerdy Chinese girl. But I came to realize that my Chinese heritage is what has shaped me and my passions.”

Carissa has performed Chinese folklore dance since age 3, appearing with her troupe at the Kennedy Center during her freshman year. She’s also studying ballet and contemporary dance. As a pianist, she’s fond of traditional Chinese music, and played at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2016 after winning a national competition.

She has a 4.0 GPA and is a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. She also instills her love of math and science in others. Her freshman year, Carissa and three friends founded Ladies in Training, an ongoing nonprofit after-school program for girls at Potomac’s Beverly Farms Elementary School that offers activities that encourage math, science and leadership-building skills.

Tiffany Kaufman, Carissa’s school counselor, says she marvels at how the teenager excels in both science and the arts, juggles a jam-packed schedule, and does so with poise and grace. “She has a calm demeanor, but she really goes after what she wants,” Kaufman says.
An aspiring chemical engineer, Carissa will attend Harvard University in the fall.