March-April 2022 | Parenting

Extraordinary teens in Montgomery County

From a computer science whiz to a fishing enthusiast who sells custom lures, the winners of our 13th annual Extraordinary Teen Awards are making their marks

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Photo by Joseph Tran

Elizabeth Qiu

Senior, Winston Churchill High School

Growing up, Elizabeth Qiu was set on becoming a concert pianist and a music teacher. In her freshman year at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, she decided to expand her interests. “I explored every single club,” says Elizabeth, 17, a senior who lives in Potomac. “I wanted to get involved and have a sense of community and be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Interested in science and technology, Elizabeth became passionate about computer science, but she felt too intimidated to join the school’s STEM Club. “I walked past the classroom a few times where the students were meeting and it was just all boys and I was just terrified,” she says.

When she finally did join the club in her sophomore year, she soon got involved in coding activities, including helping to organize an annual 36-hour hackathon put together by Montgomery County Public Schools students. Her efforts last year helped grow the event to include more than 420 students.

Planning to study computer science in college, Elizabeth has become highly proficient in coding and has completed a programming course at Montgomery College. She has interned virtually for several businesses and has received numerous awards and recognitions for her computer science work, according to school counselor Marcia Johnson.

A member of Churchill Hack Club and the current STEM Club president, Elizabeth says she is dedicated to teaching other students about STEM and getting more students of underrepresented genders involved.

Scott Hanna, a Churchill physics teacher and the STEM Club’s staff sponsor, says he’s impressed by Elizabeth’s ability to lead others. “What I notice most about her is that more than any other student I can remember, she is able to engage the student body in aiding their community.”

Elizabeth also leads several other clubs, including serving as co-president of the Thrive Club, a mental health advocacy group; as president of Women in Politics; and as co-president of the SPICE Club (Students Promoting Integrity, Confidence & Enthusiasm), which coordinates music to be played between classes on Fridays. Since 2019, she’s also taught music lessons to elementary and middle school students through her business, Upbeat Music Studio.

Johnson, who notes that Elizabeth also excels academically, says, “With complete perseverance, she puts her heart and soul into experiences and activities that inspire and energize her.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Matt Eisner

Senior, Walt Whitman High School

Before Matt Eisner was diagnosed at age 11 with Type 1 diabetes, baseball was his “entire life,” he says. From age 8, he’d written a blog called Matt’s Bats, and in 2013 he became the youngest professional blogger for Major League Baseball. He dreamed of becoming a TV sports announcer.

“Then I was diagnosed with diabetes,” says Matt, 17, a Walt Whitman High School senior who lives in Bethesda. “It was then that I realized there are a lot of inequities in health care and there were a lot of issues with insulin affordability, and that was the medicine that was quite literally keeping me alive.”

His diagnosis sparked an interest in politics and health care policy. He interned with Blue Future, a progressive national political organization for young people, during 2020 and 2021. Last summer, he was an organizing fellow for Democracy Summer, a program affiliated with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a fellow for U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s congressional campaign. He also volunteers and raises money for JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).

Matt is most proud of serving as co-chair of Maryland High Schoolers for Biden during the 2020 presidential race. “It felt really great to be doing something for a campaign that I felt really passionate about,” says Matt, who currently volunteers with Montgomery County Council candidate Kristin Mink’s campaign.

Family friend and political consultant Brett Di Resta is impressed by Matt’s commitment. “I see Matt as someone who is going to spend his life trying to improve the system,” he says.

Matt is actively involved at Whitman, serving as the traffic manager/webmaster for the school newspaper and co-leader of the Whitman chapter of the national advocacy group Students Demand Action, among other activities. He still writes his blog, though no longer for MLB. The blog came about after he and his mom made a deal that he could stay up to watch Washington Nationals games if he wrote about the game the next morning. His parents created a website for his baseball opinions. Over the years, Matt has met lots of players and even covered the November 2015 Medal of Freedom award ceremony for baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, who had died that September, and 15 other recipients at the White House.

Matt plans to study political science at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri.


Photo by Joseph Tran

Stella Szostak

Senior, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

Stella Szostak learned to fly before she learned how to drive a car.

After training with the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association for nearly a year, Stella’s instructor told her on Aug. 8, 2020, that she could take her first solo flight that day in a glider. Then 16, she says she thought: Wait, are you sure?

“At first, it was very nerve-racking,” recalls Stella, now 17 and a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior. “But once I released from the tow plane, once there’s no engine pulling you, it gets absolutely silent. You’re in the air. There’s nothing separating you from the rest of the world except a piece of glass. …It was a moment when I was really proud of myself—like, wow, I’m doing this. I’m alive.”

Soaring club members and Stella’s dad, who is a pilot, congratulated her afterward, taking pictures and dumping a cooler of ice water on her—a tradition when you “land a solo,” she says. Stella is working toward her private pilot glider license and wants to become a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard, helping with search and rescue missions. (She got her driver’s license in November 2020.)

Stella, who lives in Chevy Chase, is also an accomplished gymnast. She trains about 16 hours a week between Silver Stars Gymnastics and the varsity team at B-CC. As a freshman, she was the 2019 Montgomery County Public Schools all-around champion.

“She’s very talented, very explosive, very dynamic and a fast learner,” says Juwan Young, who coaches Stella on the Silver Stars trampoline and tumbling team. “Whatever you throw at her, she tries 100% to do it exactly the way you asked.”

In the community, Stella volunteered to deliver groceries to elderly neighbors earlier in the pandemic and started the Afghan Support Club at B-CC to collect items for refugees and to connect students with opportunities to tutor Afghan students.

“The stuff I do for fun, like gliding and gymnastics, will never have the same meaning or impact as helping others, whether that’s in my local or global community,” Stella says. “That’s why I want to go into the Coast Guard. I want to do something with my life that has meaning outside of myself.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Sarah Joseph

Senior, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart

As a freshman, Sarah Joseph was in awe of the older students who ran the Social Action program at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda. Now a senior, Sarah has risen through the ranks to become co-leader of the Social Action Student Advisory Board, which runs the schoolwide program.

“It’s really amazing to help educate our whole community on social issues and how to motivate them to carry on in service in their lives,” says Sarah, 17, who lives in Olney.

As co-leader, Sarah spent two weeks planning the program last summer and now spends up to 15 hours a week in preparation before each of 12 days of social action, according to college counselor Melissa Harkins. The co-leaders coordinate hourlong presentations that kick off each social action day. They also work with faculty to identify local sites where students can perform community service, and plan activities for those who remain on campus—a more difficult task during the pandemic.

“She is planning those days for our entire high school. That includes all of the students and all of the faculty,” Harkins says. “Having to coordinate this year has been even trickier.”

Harkins says she has watched Sarah blossom as she’s led the board. “I’ve definitely seen her confidence grow. I’ve seen her public speaking ability improve by leaps and bounds,” she says. “It’s just been such a wonderful opportunity for her to prepare for what’s to come in college and beyond.”

Sarah also uses her leadership skills as stage manager for the school’s theater program. This year she took on the job of learning how to use the technology in the school’s new theater to manage productions and daily assemblies. “She is in the sound booth every morning,” Harkins says.

A top student who loves science and is interested in health care reform, Sarah created INCH (Inspiring Needed Change in Healthcare), a discussion group of about 30 students that meets weekly to talk about the issue.

“Whatever I do in the future, I want to be involved in social justice. I want to be involved in theater,” says Sarah, who hasn’t decided what she’ll study in college.


Photo by Joseph Tran

Siham Busera

Senior, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

Siham Busera moved from Ethiopia to the United States with her parents when she was 5 years old. “They came here and sacrificed a lot for me, so I want to be able to show them that I can use the resources they’ve been able to give me,” says the 17-year-old senior from Silver Spring, who is in the International Baccalaureate program at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Siham will attend Yale University on a full-ride scholarship in the fall. She was one of nearly 1,700 students selected from a national pool of more than 16,500 applicants to receive a College Match Scholarship from QuestBridge, a California-based nonprofit. Last summer, Siham did an online clinical research internship with Yale and she plans to enter the medical field. As a Black Muslim American, she says she wants to shape the way research is conducted and to build trust among communities of color to better serve all patients.

“She has a maturity and grace that’s not so common in a young person,” says John Favazzo, a school counselor at B-CC. “She is one who never turns away from work or a challenge.” As a student volunteer in the counseling office, Siham has produced an academic support resources flyer that is used widely in the school. Favazzo says Siham, who speaks Amharic and Spanish in addition to English, has been hugely supportive of new students from other countries by giving them tours of the school.

As president of the Ethiopian Eritrean Student Association at B-CC, Siham helps students obtain information about college and leads discussions about cultural differences. Through the club and by participating in the community and on the school’s crew team, Siham says she hopes to positively influence the perceptions others have about Muslims and to broaden opportunities for others like her. “Crew is not the most diverse sport. I’ve only seen one other person in a hijab,” she says. “When people see me, I hope they think: Oh, I can do that, too.”

Kirsten Pasquale, a social studies teacher and the faculty sponsor of the Ethiopian Eritrean club, says Siham has blossomed from a reserved sophomore in her AP government class to become outspoken on issues that are important to her: “She is driven. She is highly motivated. She is kind and compassionate, and is always looking out for how she can be helpful within her community.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Cheyenne DeGross

Senior, The Academy of the Holy Cross

A consistent power hitter who has a strong arm for catching duties or playing third base, Cheyenne DeGross is a standout on the softball field. She’s been on travel teams for years, won several awards and has committed to play at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, this fall.

Still, Jenifer Roe, Cheyenne’s coach at The Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, says the softball team’s co-captain is down to earth and is all about mentoring others—even those who have never played. “She always does things with a sense of humility. It’s a rare quality for someone in a leadership position,” Roe says.

Cheyenne, a 17-year-old senior from Silver Spring, is also co-captain of the basketball team. Her coach, Walter Gray, admires her positive attitude and work ethic. “If there’s a player that may have made a mistake or is not playing as well as they should be, she’s always trying to encourage them,” says Gray, adding that Cheyenne often puts in extra time after practice and gets others to join her in a pickup game or to lift weights.

At Holy Cross, Cheyenne has served as president of Tartans Minds Matter, a mental health awareness club, the past two years. At meetings, students talk about confronting mental health stigmas and microaggressions. Diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in middle school, Cheyenne says she has learned to advocate for herself and wants others to understand students who need accommodations for different learning needs. She is also part of the school’s health and wellness team, giving presentations to the student body about mental health and hosting fun activities to combat stress.

Cheyenne was editor of the school’s online newspaper as a junior and this year began producing a podcast at Holy Cross once a month, including an episode on the college application process. She plans to study communications in college and dreams of being a journalist at National Geographic.


Photo by Joseph Tran

Liana Vargas

Senior, Wheaton High School

During her years at Wheaton High School, Liana Vargas has become the embodiment of school spirit, whether she is performing as a member of the poms team, organizing a meeting of the film club she co-founded, or tutoring students through the National Honor Society.

“She is Miss Wheaton,” says history teacher Lauren Zolkiewicz, who sponsored Liana’s membership in the school’s chapter of the honor society. “She walks into a room and it lights up automatically.”

Zolkiewicz met Liana during her freshman year, when she took AP U.S. history, a demanding course that Zolkiewicz says is normally taken by juniors and seniors. As staff co-sponsor of the honor society, Zolkiewicz says she has been impressed by Liana’s willingness to help others with tutoring while also taking a rigorous course load.

Liana, 18, says the AP course helped spark her love of history, which she plans to study this fall at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon on a full-tuition scholarship from the Posse Foundation. According to Montgomery County Public Schools, scholarships are awarded to public school students with “extraordinary academic and leadership potential that may have been overlooked by traditional college selection processes.” In 2021, Liana was one of 25 county public school students to receive the Marian Greenblatt Education Fund Social Studies Award.

Liana, who lives in Wheaton, plans to become a lawyer. She learned about the legal profession and advocacy through a virtual summer internship before her junior year with Leadership Initiatives, a D.C.-based nonprofit. She then participated in a program sponsored by the group that focused on human trafficking in Nigeria and helped raise funds to educate others about the issue.

In middle school, Liana discovered a passion for dancing that has grown during her four years on the poms team. When she was a junior, she and a friend founded the film club at Wheaton to watch and discuss movies.

Liana, who will be a first-generation college student, says her mother has always stressed the value of education, reminding Liana that she had to leave school in fourth grade to help support her family. Liana is also motivated to succeed by memories of her father, who died when she was 11.

“I love to think that if I could pull up a chair and sit next to him and recount everything that I’ve done, that he would tell me that he’s proud of me,” Liana says.


Photo by Joseph Tran

Katia Atiyah

Senior, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

An artist, athlete, entrepreneur and activist, Katia Atiyah delights in a challenge, from swim practice outdoors in winter—“It takes dedication,” she says—to her win, at age 12, on Chopped Junior, where she sauteed against the clock with a smile (she served up garlic rosemary lamb chops with roasted sunchokes, a morel mushroom-chip crumble and corn salsa).

But she’s most passionate when it comes to uplifting her culture—and other cultures, too. “There’s a very big sense of…erasure for Arab Americans and Middle Eastern Americans,” says Katia, 17, who is Lebanese American and lives in Bethesda. When selecting her ethnicity on the ACT, for example, “it’s having to check the ‘white’ box and then obviously having experiences that don’t align with that,” she says. “I have curly hair, my nose is bigger…I want to be who I am, and I’m very proud of that.”

As president of the Students of Color Association (SOCA) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Katia organized the school’s impending acknowledgment of its existence on land where the Piscataway tribe lived and a presentation on the Algonquin roots of lacrosse. She also enlisted female students and staff of color at the school to discuss their experiences in a video that helped St. Andrew’s become a designated “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League.

Katia, who started a business selling jewelry and donating proceeds to the Lebanese Red Cross, dreams of opening a Middle Eastern restaurant that employs women of color and refugees. That vision is informed by her internship last summer with a food company in Jordan that hires women in dire straits.

A varsity athlete in soccer, swimming and track, where she’s captain of the girls team, Katia motivates herself with goals, whether it’s reaching a certain GPA or speed in sports. She empowers her peers in the process, from encouraging a freshman to assume a role in SOCA to cheering on younger teammates at swim practice.

“It’s hard not to know her,” says Ginger Cobb, head of the Upper School at St. Andrews. “She’s understated, but she gives her all and permeates all parts of school life from service to sports to leadership.”
Katia plans to study business in college.


Photo by Joseph Tran

Simoni Mishra

Senior, Montgomery Blair High School

As an only child, Simoni Mishra routinely found herself chatting up anyone around to keep from feeling bored. The joy in talking to people stuck. She says it’s why she’s spent thousands of hours volunteering, from greeting blood donors at the Red Cross during the pandemic to visiting residents at a Rockville retirement home. For her service, she has earned the Congressional Award Gold Medal, the President’s Volunteer Service Award and an Ambassador Award from the United Nations Association of the USA.

A senior in Montgomery Blair’s Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program, Simoni, 17, is passionate about service, the environment, the arts and STEM, including research into neurodegenerative diseases. She plans to pursue biomedical engineering.

“I don’t understand it personally,” Erik Lodal, her earth science teacher at Blair, says about Simoni’s ability to balance so many activities. “She just is like A-plus in everything she chooses to do, [and] she does it with a really positive attitude.”

A Rockville resident, Simoni enlisted a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University to help her devise a research prototype to screen for Parkinson’s disease in facial photographs. Her grandmother died of Parkinson’s, and Simoni has become familiar with the disease through her work at the Rockville retirement home. In 2020, she became certified in teaching Dance for PD, a research-based dance course for people with Parkinson’s.

Simoni plays piano and clarinet, has sung in the Strathmore Children’s Chorus and performs Odissi, a classical Indian dance, which she says gives her a community connection—especially “when you live in a place where you don’t look like everyone else, and I love that.”

Simoni has teamed with classmates on several research projects. Last year she helped develop an algorithm for drug development through quantum computing that earned honorable mention at ExploraVision, a science competition open to U.S. and Canadian high school students. When the pandemic arrived, closing labs, she and two friends earned first place in a U.S. Army STEM competition for their design of a wind turbine to prevent bat mortalities (up to hundreds of thousands of bats die in wind turbines each year, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior). “There was no lab. There was no mentor…literally just three high school kids on the internet,” she says. “We were 16, and look what we came up with. And if that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Ishaan Jain

Junior, Richard Montgomery High School

Ever since middle school, Ishaan Jain has excelled on the science fair circuit. In eighth grade, he and his friend Anjan Sesetty developed a wildfire prediction module that won first place in engineering at the Montgomery Area County Science Fair and a top 300 ranking at Broadcom MASTERS, a national middle school competition. In ninth grade, the pair invented a sleep apnea interruption system using sound recognition and a vibrating pillow to tilt the neck and open the airway of a sleeping patient—earning them another top prize in engineering at the local fair, which selected them as representatives to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. Last year, Ishaan and three friends applied for a patent for a skin patch that blocks opioid overdosing by releasing naloxone to counter an excess of fentanyl (the patent is slated to be finalized soon; they’ve also submitted the project to be judged in a competition).

Ishaan, 16, who lives in Potomac, wants to be a doctor. He says he’s been inspired by observing his mother, Avni, a family physician, in her clinic as well as the transformative global impact of medical technology. His father, Mukul, is chief operating officer of a diabetes device company.

Ishaan, who is in the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Richard Montgomery, plays varsity tennis, competes on the debate team and avidly studies piano, arranging music and playing in competitions.

Jennifer Nguyen, who has been teaching Ishaan piano since he was about 8, praises his leadership and diligence. The first to volunteer for her charity projects, Ishaan also routinely texts Nguyen with a reminder of what he aims to tackle in the next day’s lesson, she says. At recitals, his rigor shows. “Ishaan is always the most outstanding…so it’s hard for someone not to notice.”

A few months into the pandemic, Ishaan and his friends started offering free debate and computer classes to middle schoolers on Zoom, and then added classes on the scientific method and coding. They registered the program, called ThinkDelta, as a nonprofit to raise money for school supplies in India. (Four of the group’s five teachers are Indian American and have personally witnessed resource-strapped government schools in India.) This step enables the group to focus on its initial mission, Ishaan says, to “improve educational opportunities for all students.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Calla O’Neil

Senior, Whittle School & Studios

Witnessing the turmoil caused by the pandemic and racial injustice incidents, Calla O’Neil of Chevy Chase figured she had two options: She could stand by or she could take action.

So in 2020, she and her family banded together with nine other families interested in racial justice to found Graybridge, a nonprofit that aims to create a pathway to racial unity for schools and businesses through a 30-day interactive app experience. Calla, 18, a senior at Whittle School & Studios, a private school in Washington, D.C., that highlights experiential learning, co-chairs the Graybridge National Youth Board. The group of young people focuses on how to foster racial unity and what the experience should be like for users of the app.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned really is the emphasis on human connection,” says Calla, who integrated her experiences with Graybridge into a yearlong study of race and racial injustice in schools. “It’s really about creating that human connection through sharing lived experiences and sharing stories. You can begin to come together and create solutions that work for everyone’s needs and desires, and that’s been a very powerful lesson for me.”

Nursing students at George Washington University who used the app last fall are part of a research study gauging its effectiveness, according to Karen Drenkard, associate dean of the School of Nursing and a professor of clinical practice and community engagement. At Georgetown University, professor Robert Bies is piloting the app in one of his business classes this spring with the goal of persuading the school to require all freshmen to use it next fall. He says Calla personifies the phrase “innovation with social impact.”

Calla’s school accomplishments include serving as co-president of the student body during her junior year. She also is the president and founder of the first U.S. chapter of Buddies Without Borders, a global student community addressing world issues such as women’s rights and climate change, says Kathleen Glynn-Sparrow, her college counselor at Whittle. “Calla is not waiting for a college education before implementing change; she is doing it now,” Glynn-Sparrow says.

Calla, whose father is a blood cancer survivor, also helped lead a team of 21 students across the D.C. area to raise nearly $546,000, including $160,000 she raised herself, during The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual seven-week student fundraising competition in 2020.

Calla is planning to study public policy and international relations in college.


Photo by Joseph Tran

Ian Rubin

Senior, Walter Johnson High School

If there’s one thing that defines 18-year-old Ian Rubin, it’s his commitment to his many interests, including art and fishing. “I get invested in something, I put all of my energy into it,” says Ian, a Walter Johnson High School senior who lives in Rockville.

Ian has been hooked on fishing since around age 4, and he’s fished for everything from largemouth bass to sharks over the years. He also breeds fish that he sells to local pet stores. When it comes to art, Ian always has a project in progress, ranging from woodworking to ceramics, according to his mother, Illana Rubin. He’s taken numerous fine art classes, and last year began painting pet portraits, which he gives as gifts.

Stuck at home when the pandemic closed schools, Ian says he saw an opportunity to combine his main passions. He bought an airbrush and started painting fishing lures. In June 2020, he created his business, LipRipperZBaits, and now sells his lures, including custom designs, online and at two tackle shops in Annapolis.

The lures caught the attention of Lenny Rudow, editor of Rudow’s FishTalk magazine, who interviewed Ian and ordered custom-designed models with the Annapolis-based publication’s logo. After getting to know Rudow, which included fishing with him, Ian asked if he could become an intern with the magazine during the current school year. Rudow, who usually takes college students only, agreed and says Ian has done well with writing and other tasks. “He’s impressed me at every turn,” Rudow says. “How many kids go and start their own business?”

Ian uses his business to promote rockfish conservation in the Chesapeake Bay. He says he shares information on how to handle the fish properly and has switched from buying lures with three-pronged hooks to others with just one because they cause less damage to the fish.

Ian is involved with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and will work this summer as a counselor at Camp Airy for Boys in Thurmont, Maryland, which he has attended the previous seven years. “I just like to surround myself with people and different opportunities to grow and learn,” Ian says.

He’s planning to cut back on his fishing lure business while attending college, where he expects to major in business.