Head of the Class

Back-to-school advice from some of PDX’s best

As the new school year gets going, it seemed like a good time to pick the brains of some of 2015’s top local high school students. We wanted to know where they’re headed, how they got there and what life lessons they’ve learned along the way. Here are their stories – and their tips – for the next generation of Portland-area students.

Alison Brennan, St. Mary’s Academy

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Alison Brennan delivering her commencement address at the St. Mary’s graduation.

“I have always enjoyed learning,” says Alison Brennan. “In high school, I always sought out more challenging classes, and my teachers and peers inspired me to work hard and get the most out of the courses.” She also adds that her parents have always provided her with unfailing support. “The confidence they have had in me really inspired me to become the person I am today.”

A member of the varsity golf team all four years, including as part of the team that earned the state title last season, she was able to use the experience to build leadership skills.

Brennan says that she learned a lot about herself throughout the college admissions process. “It really makes you think about who you are as a person and who you would like to be,” she says, adding that she also learned tangible skills, such as how to manage her time and stay organized.

Since childhood, Brennan has always wanted to be a doctor. “I have come to realize through my volunteer work and life experience that helping and healing people is how I want to spend the rest of my life,” she says. She will attend Georgetown University and plans to pursue classical studies and biology.

Looking back on her high school experiences, Brennan says she wishes she had known that everything really does work out how it should. “As long as you work hard and posses a level of intrinsic motivation, you will end up where you are supposed to be,” she says.

Ezequiel Antonio-Tomas, Roosevelt High School

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Ezequiel Antonio-Tomas with his proud family on graduation day.

Ezequiel Antonio-Tomas says he’s inspired by his parents and their struggle as they moved from Guatemala to the United States. “Back in Guatemala, neither of my parents got beyond the sixth grade in their education because my grandparents couldn’t continue to pay their tuition, and they were needed around their houses,” he says.

“Instead of books and learning, my parents had to learn to cook, take care of their siblings and carry firewood. With the sacrifice they took to cross the border, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn for free from kindergarten through high school.”

Antonio-Tomas, a Portland native, remembers moving from house to house to live with various relatives, finally settling in a two-bedroom apartment in North Portland.

His father was the first in the family to cross the border. Despite suffering health problems, Antonio-Tomas says his father, who assembles stretchers, stools and cribs for a Vancouver, Wash.-based manufacturing company, worked hard to support the family. “He talked to me about the importance of going to college for a career, instead of holding a hard-labor job,” he says.

Juggling a job and his studies, Antonio-Tomas also found time to participate in MEChA, a Latino cultural club where he could learn about fundraising, volunteering, event planning and leadership. He didn’t join until his junior year, which he regrets: “If I had joined a club earlier in high school, then I probably would have been more outgoing and less worried in high school.”

The college admissions process put Antonio-Tomas’s time management skills to the test. “I would spend time working on maintaining my grades for four of my classes, three of which were college level classes, and feel I was neglecting the college and scholarship application process. But, when I put time into that, I would eventually fall a bit behind on my schoolwork. Sometimes I felt stressed, but in the end I managed to learn a lot about balance.”

Over the years Antonio-Tomas considered careers as a lawyer, chef or architect, but all that changed his junior year when a local entrepreneur did a career presentation at Roosevelt.

“He was a clothing designer who put something he loved on a T-shirt, a visual representation for everyone to see. That’s when I decided that I wanted to do the same but with shoes,” he  says.

“I feel like I have a lot to offer in terms of art because my mind is filled with creativity and to me, shoes are a means of expressing one’s self.”

Accepted at a number of universities, Antonio-Tomas decided on Portland State University, attracted by the chance to study both business and graphic design.

Kate Christoferson, La Salle Catholic College Preparatory

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Photo credit Carole Meyer

“I have been blessed with two older sisters who have modeled the importance of hard work and dedication. Seeing my sisters complete high school and watching them work hard to get results motivated me to do the same,” says Kate Christoferson.

Throughout high school, Christoferson “played” as hard as she worked, competing on the varsity soccer, ski-racing and track teams. “I loved playing sports and being a part of a team because it allowed me to meet new people and build more relationships,” she says.

Looking back over her high school years, Christoferson says she wishes she had known that neither grades nor sports are everything. “While I feel great to be the valedictorian and know that my hard work paid off, there is something special about making memories with friends,” she says, adding that it wasn’t until junior year that she managed to strike the right balance between friends, school and sports.

The college admissions process also underscored the importance of balance as well. “I ended up applying to too many schools and wish I had kept my choices more narrowed to schools I knew I wanted to attend,” she says. “Luckily, it worked out for me and I got into the right school for me.”

Over the years, Christoferson says she has always wanted to do something that requires making things. As she grew older, she developed a love for math and science, an interest she fed during a mechanical engineering internship at Yakima Products and Design.

She will be attending the University of California, Los Angeles, to study bioengineering and intends to go on to medical school after that. “I want to help people and I hope that my job will make me happy and contribute to the lives of others,” she says.

Colette Au, Oregon Episcopal School

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Courtesy of Colette Au

Colette Au says a little sibling rivalry helped push her to do her best. “During my first two years, I was easily motivated to keep up my grades as a matter of pride. My older sister did well academically in high school, so I wanted to match or surpass her success,” she says, adding that she prioritized academics, but factored in time for extracurriculars and friends.

Au’s main extracurricular activities included varsity tennis and musical pursuits, including leading her high school’s mixed a cappella group. Becoming part of the group was a learning experience for her: She had initially auditioned as a sophomore when she says she was still shy about singing in public.

“After a lot of positive peer pressure and encouragement, my self-confidence and vocal ability improved, and I slowly eased myself into singing solos while performing in front of an audience,” Au says. “I am now obligated to pay the positive peer pressure forward, because although the first performance might be a shaky, nervous mess, every subsequent open mic night and concert is another source of confidence.” She also is an accomplished pianist, after years of classical piano training.

Au’s inspirations include her teachers, especially those in the history and English departments; her teammates and friends who challenged and supported her in her studies, onstage and on the court.

Though she didn’t have any specific occupational goals growing up, she does remember a madcap list that included dentist, dermatologist, café or bakery owner, pastry chef, music festival caterer, singer-songwriter and … panda?

That creative list stems from two main passions: “Even though I have a lot of food allergies which can trigger skin sensitivities, I have always loved desserts and food and would enjoy the culinary business, and music is another obvious potential field.”

And the panda? “Sometimes I still wish I could live the panda lifestyle of ultimate laziness and poor nutrition.”

Most likely, that won’t be part of her future: Au will attend the University of Southern California, with a proposed accounting major, and hopes to minor in music.

Darwin Mendyke, Aloha High School

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Courtesy of Darwin Mendyke

A self-motivated student, Darwin Mendyke was inspired to work hard because of the steady encouragement and value that his parents placed on his education, combined with his own personal desire to do the best he could. “I wanted to take the most advanced classes that I could and achieve the highest possible weighted GPA,” he says.

But studies were far from the only thing on his plate. Mendyke participated in varsity skiing, varsity tennis, and speech and debate. In fact, one of his biggest regrets is that he held off on participating in team sports until his junior year.

“Until then, I had a negative viewpoint of high school sports teams in general, but after my junior year, I realized everything that I had missed out on: the adrenaline-rushing moments, the great people and the sense of camaraderie. I wish I had known that joining a sports team is an amazing experience.”

And that is part of what inspired Mendyke to work so hard. He knew two of Aloha High’s previous valedictorians who not only excelled academically, but were involved outside of school, had many good friends, and went on to impressive universities. They gave him a model for having it all.

Like many kids, Mendyke experienced what he calls “an extensive dinosaur phase,” where he was extremely passionate about the species, leading him to want to be a paleontologist. Still fascinated by history, he decided after a computer science internship that programming was a far more lucrative occupation and was “just as interesting, if not more so.”

“In college I hope to explore various fields within computer science and find out what it is that I really enjoy, whether artificial intelligence, software, database, hardware design or something else,” he says.

Mendyke will attend the University of Southern California and major in computer science and engineering with a minor in art.

Cathie Ericson
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Cathie Ericson

Find more of her work at CathieEricsonWriter.com
Portland-area mom Cathie Ericson writes for a variety of print and online publications about business and family topics.
Cathie Ericson
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