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  1. Florida

Class act: Saluting the top students at Pinellas private schools

As they prepare for graduation, we asked these valedictorians and salutatorians to discuss the turning point before them. Here is what they said

After last week’s salute to valedictorians and salutatorians from Pinellas County public schools, it’s time to recognize the top students at the county’s private schools. With graduation approaching, we gave them the same assignment as their public-school peers: write a paragraph reflecting on this huge turning point in their lives.

The topic could be heavy or light, something about the last four years or the future, something they learned in their classes or even a quote they liked. They could also share their thoughts about the people who helped and influenced them along the way.

As you will see, many of these students chose the latter, thanking the parents, friends and teachers who saw them through high school. Meet the class of 2019:

Admiral Farragut Academy

Evan Schlifstein

Evan Schlifstein, 17

GPA: 4.6
PARENTS: Brett Schlifstein and Michele Horwitz
COLLEGE: United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.
MAJOR: Chemistry
PARTING THOUGHTS: I did not have a very glamorous high school career in many people’s eyes. Instead of going to parties, I chose to be active in sports, clubs and academics. These activities consumed all of my time and freedom, which caused me a good amount of stress. However, that hard work truly did pay off, as I made it into my first-choice university. If there’s one thing I learned from these past four years, it’s that even when you feel like the stress of high school is about to overcome you, don’t give up. You should keep striving for greatness and the promise of a successful future. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
Hunter Gordon

Hunter Marie Gordon, 17

GPA: 4.37
PARENTS: Angelia Marie Gardner and Spencer James Gardner
COLLEGE: Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.
MAJOR: Zoology
PARTING THOUGHTS: My high school career has been the proudest achievement of my life so far. I have worked diligently and with vigor to receive the title of salutatorian, and I’m profoundly grateful for the support of my family and friends. I would like to thank all my teachers and my mom for guiding me throughout these influential years, and for always pushing me to do my best. These past four years have shaped me into the young woman I am today, and I will continue to strive for success throughout my college campaign.

Calvary Christian High School

Zachary Curran

Zachary Curran, 18

GPA: 4.59
PARENTS: Bruce and Karen Curran
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Computer science
PARTING THOUGHTS: Thank you to my parents, teachers and friends for your unwavering support throughout high school. These past four years have truly been a blessing and I’m incredibly excited for what is next in college. Over my time in high school I’ve learned to view the opportunities given to me as a chance to step outside of my comfort zone and grow as a student and person.
Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson, 18

GPA: 4.58
PARENTS: Heather and Paul Williamson
COLLEGE: Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Ga.
MAJOR: Mechanical engineering
PARTING THOUGHTS: As I look onward to college and back over the past four years, I realize that all things have their season. The change of seasons is always inevitable, but we should not cower away from change. Instead, we should boldly face it with excitement and an adventurous spirit.

Canterbury School of Florida

Georgia Bali Prahastuti Brousseau
Georgia Bali Prahastuti Brousseau, 17
GPA: 4.68
PARENT: Prasetiawati Brousseau
COLLEGE: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
MAJOR: Biomedical engineering
PARTING THOUGHTS: If there is anything at all that high school taught me, it is that the entirety of life is based around choices. Sometimes other people make those choices for me, sometimes the choices are mere illusions, but usually I need to make choices for and by myself. I have never been good at making choices, though. I fret over my options and alternatively try to restrict and expand my criteria, procrastinating until the last possible moment. But over the past four years, I have gotten better at decision-making. High school has helped me learn how to think for myself and how to listen to the input and advice of others when appropriate. Choices are hard, and sometimes they even feel impossible. But with every choice I make I take another step forward.
Emmalyn Ashley Murray

Emmalyn Ashley Murray, 18

GPA: 4.62
PARENTS: John and Sibyl Murray
COLLEGE: University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif.
MAJOR: Psychology
PARTING THOUGHTS: When I was younger, I saw the future as a nebulous void of sorts. It was always distant and out of reach, ever-changing and growing, but never feeling any closer to my grasp. It managed to sneak up on me in the past year or so, though, lingering in my peripheral and influencing my every action. For someone who spent so long being terrified of change and the uncertainty that accompanies it, I welcomed this new sense of transformation with an uncharacteristic sense of excitement. The hurtling approach of graduation and the not-quite-as-nebulous future that once filled me with a sense of trepidation now elates me, not because I have it all figured out, but because I know that I and all of my peers can shape that void into something magnificent.

Clearwater Academy International

Fionna Stanard

Fionna Stanard, 17

GPA: 4.2
PARENTS: Sarah Colón and Jason Stanard
COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa
MAJOR: Theater
PARTING THOUGHTS: I am so excited to be graduating a year early and to have had such an amazing experience at Clearwater Academy. I want to thank my parents for pushing me to always do better and I cannot wait to see what my life will be like in the coming years.
Stephanie Miles

Stephanie Miles, 18

GPA: 4.1
PARENTS: John Miles and Sheri Maestry
COLLEGE: University of South Florida
MAJOR: Business
PARTING THOUGHTS: I used to be scared to grow up but now I’m excited to be moving on. My high school and particularly my cheer coach, Julie Malizola, taught me how to be more responsible for my own life and take charge of what I want to do and what makes me happy. Thanks to everyone who helped me on my journey. Here’s to the future.

Clearwater Central Catholic High*

Greta Ciampini

Greta Ciampini, 18

PARENTS: Heather and David Ciampini
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Sports management
PARTING THOUGHTS: I believe the people you surround yourself with have a significant impact on the person you become. Surround yourself with those who will push you to be your best self. I want to thank everyone who has been on this journey with me and encouraged me to reach my full potential.
Julia L. Root

Julia L. Root, 18

PARENTS: Rita and Thomas Root
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Neurobiology
PARTING THOUGHTS: You know you’re moving on to a new chapter in life when you’re feeling scared. It can be a hard thing to leave behind who you’ve built, been, and settled into. Personally, for me, I am filled with gratitude as I look back at all those who helped me to become who I am. Without these detours in our journey, there would be no experience. There would be no us, not as we know ourselves. Although pitfalls can be hard and dark, they also bring out the light. They highlight who we are and who we can be. Make yourself into who you want to be and smile at the stars, because you can shine just as brightly.

International Baccalaureate Program at Clearwater Central Catholic High*

Angela Marie Cuff

Angela Marie Cuff, 18

PARENTS: Luz and Robert Cuff
COLLEGE: Northeastern University, Boston, Mass.
MAJOR: Bioengineering
PARTING THOUGHTS: “Courage. Even when the panic’s at the back of your throat, courage. Let’s go.” — Lin Manuel Miranda.
Thank you to my parents, teachers, coaches and friends for their endless support.
Eric Gallagher

Eric Gallagher, 18

PARENTS: James and Peggy Gallagher
COLLEGE: University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.
MAJOR: Mechanical engineering
PARTING THOUGHTS: As I look back at my four years of high school, I believe that the most important thing I have learned is not an English or math concept, but instead the attribute of self-initiative. …I will always cherish the small steps I have taken in high school to pursue subjects/projects that I was passionate about, such as teaching myself materials science in my chemistry class, taking classes at a local college or starting a small tutoring program through my school. I hope that these small steps will become the seed for future entrepreneurship as I pursue an engineering education. Lastly, I would like to thank my family, friends and teachers that have supported me throughout high school. And I would like to give a special thanks to Mrs. Sabatos and Mrs. Ford — they are two teachers who were pivotal in encouraging me to “do my own thing” and in cementing my passions in math and science.
(* Clearwater Central Catholic High School does not release students’ GPAs.)

Indian Rocks Christian School

Tiffani Byun

Tiffani Byun, 17

GPA: 4.48
PARENTS: Sung T. Byun and Assami Byun
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Undecided
PARTING THOUGHTS: I have lived in the same house and have attended the same school for the past 17 years. Because of this, I have grown up with several of my childhood best friends and have known every teacher I have had personally. There wasn’t much change in my life until my older brother and sister left for college. The house grew quieter, and soon I realized it was my turn to leave as well. As I approach graduation day, I am both anxious and excited for the change to come: a new school, different friends and a smaller room to share with another individual. I will miss the relationships that I have built over these past few years, but am looking forward to facing the new challenges ahead of me.
Kaitlyn Yu

Kaitlyn Yu, 18

GPA: 4.48
PARENTS: Michael and Agnes Yu
COLLEGE: University of Central Florida, Orlando
MAJOR: Nursing
PARTING THOUGHTS: As I look back onto my life thus far, I really see how God has been with me through everything. I have been blessed with selfless parents, an inspiring older sister, loving extended family around the world, true friends, and an amazing school I could call my second home since Pre-K3. Thank you to all of you who have touched my life and heart, from birth to the present; without you all, I would not be the person I am today. I would especially like to thank my mother, who, despite the stress-induced headache I often (and sometimes still) cause her, has nurtured, supported, guided and saved me so many times in all my endeavors. We joke that she is my manager, but in reality, she is beyond any title anyone could ever give her . . . other than the title of greatest mom ever.
Taylor Ann Schaper

Taylor Ann Schaper, 18

GPA: 4.46
PARENTS: Crystal Schaper-Burgess and Craig Schaper; Russell Burgess and Carrie Schaper
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Psychology in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience (pre-med)
PARTING THOUGHTS: The phrase “God is sovereign” is the very thought that has kept me striving for possibility over the past few years of my life. I am absolutely ecstatic for the future and all the adventures that will accompany it. God knew it would take four parents to raise a ridiculously ambitious child such as myself, and I cannot thank you all enough for your constant support and love you continue to lavish me with. Though your identity is not in what you accomplish, strive for the astonishing. If you fail, learn and try again until you succeed; it is grit, not intelligence, that produces the spectacular.

Keswick Christian School

Devin Valdes

Devin Valdes, 18

GPA: 4.48
PARENTS: Andrea and Gonzalo Valdes
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Biomedical sciences (pre-med)
PARTING THOUGHTS: As my high school career comes to a close, I want to thank everyone for all of the constant support and encouragement I have received. I would not be the man I am today if it was not for my family and the sacrifices they have made for me. I also want to thank my incredible teachers that have greatly impacted my life and future plans up until this point.
AnneliseJ eanette Glode

Annelise Jeanette Glode, 18

GPA: 4.39
PARENTS: Rosanna O. Barker and Ernie Glode
COLLEGE: Florida Polytechnic University, Lakeland
MAJOR: Computer science
PARTING THOUGHTS: I’d like to thank my math and science teachers, Mrs. Costa and Ms. Hintz, respectively. They opened up to me the vast expanses of knowledge that encompass those two subjects. They have shown me the overabundance of things, concepts and ideas that are happening around us at all times. There is so much to learn and understand about this planet we call home and in their few years in my life they have given me a glimpse at the opportunity at our fingertips. Due to their influence on my life, I have decided to pursue a computer science degree at a STEM-focused college. It is a gateway for a future in this technologically-centered age in which I will join the workforce. The future is bright and I intend to be a part of it.

Lakeside Christian School

Melodyrose Noelle Austin-Catanzaro

Melodyrose Noelle Austin-Catanzaro, 18

GPA: 3.8
PARENTS: Letische and Selim Aktel
COLLEGE: St. Petersburg College
MAJOR: Psychology
PARTING THOUGHTS: I greatly anticipate my future as it holds many new discoveries: who I am, where I want to go and the difference I want to make in this world. The future holds incredible opportunities and change for me. It is a time for new people, new places and new discoveries. It is a time to have new goals and to accomplish them. The Lord is consistently keeping me on my toes as my life transforms into something better than I could have ever imagined.
Madison Marcella Lazio

Madison Marcella Lazio, 17

GPA: 3.3
PARENT: Melissa Lazio
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Medical science
PARTING THOUGHTS: “… Nevertheless, she persisted.” This mantra could not represent my feelings toward graduation more. Throughout high school I have faced numerous struggles, but by God’s grace I have persevered and have ultimately found myself persisting through the hardships to graduate as salutatorian. As a young woman, I know that entering into the next phase of my life will present just as many, if not more, challenges and I am determined to survive, overcome and thrive. College will offer many exciting opportunities and I’m looking forward to changing not only my own life but also the world.

Northside Christian School

Jack Robert Knox

Jack Robert Knox, 18

GPA: 4.62
PARENTS: Paul and Dee Knox
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Business administration, minoring in sports management
PARTING THOUGHTS: As I approach graduation day, I have begun to reflect on my time in high school and the memories that I now share with many people. Going to the same school my whole life has allowed me to develop close relationships to some people in my class and in another way has helped me to be excited for the change that is coming to my life very soon. I would like to make a shout-out to my two track coaches, Jeff Goodwin and Barry Greenleaf, for pouring into my life on and off the track and helping to develop me into the person I am today.
Tarah Pownall

Tarah Marie Pownall, 18

GPA: 4.6
PARENTS: Miyuki and Ronald Pownall
COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville
MAJOR: Biology
PARTING THOUGHTS: Because I’ve spent every day of my life since preschool at the same school, the thought of graduating seems surreal to me. Northside Christian is all I’ve ever known. It is where I grew up, where I met my friends and where I developed myself. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from high school is to value the time at hand and to seize every moment. As I venture out into the world and go on to study at the University of Florida, I am excited to see what the future holds. While I will still hold onto my roots, the world outside of high school holds endless opportunities. I am pursuing a career in the medical field in hopes to impact this world. I want to make a difference and help others, even if it is one life at a time.

Oldsmar Christian School

Zachary Gossett

Zachary Gossett, 17

GPA: 4.0
PARENTS: Jim and Sue Gossett
COLLEGE: Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers
MAJOR: Mathematics
PARTING THOUGHTS: Approaching graduation, I realize that time flies too quickly. As I am about to leave I am realizing how much I am going to miss this place and how uncertain and unprepared I am for the future that lies ahead of me. In that uncertainty, I am comforted by the fact that God will help me and guide me through all uncertain times in my life. The future is unpredictable and that is why God placed me here at this school, to prepare myself for this unpredictable future. I go into the great unknown with God at my side; there is nothing to fear.
Kelsey Elizabeth Smith

Kelsey Elizabeth Smith, 17

GPA: 4.0
PARENTS: Angel and Kevin Smith
COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa
MAJOR: Music
PARTING THOUGHTS: I am so honored to be salutatorian — I feel that my hard work has paid off. Thank you to all my friends and family who helped me get here and a big thanks to my school for making my years there fun and for treating me like family. God has truly blessed me and I am so excited to see where He takes me next.

St. Petersburg Catholic High

Sean Shannon

Sean Shannon, 18

GPA: 4.43
PARENTS: Erika and Andy Shannon
COLLEGE: University of Central Florida, Orlando
MAJOR: Health sciences
PARTING THOUGHTS: I would like to thank my parents, sister and extended family for their unconditional love and support. To my friends and school community, I would also like to thank you for teaching me the importance of faith and friendship. I wouldn’t be where I am without you.
Jingqi Cao (Angelina)

Jingqi Cao (Angelina), 19

GPA: 4.42
PARENTS: Yi Cao and Lirong Zhang; Stephen and Donna Philp
COLLEGE: University of California, Santa Barbara
MAJOR: Psychology
PARTING THOUGHTS: As an international student, I have experienced a completely new lifestyle, achieved academic distinction and, most importantly, made lifelong friends. I appreciate all the people in my life that helped, supported and guided me to become the best version of myself today.

Shorecrest Preparatory School

Christopher George Canizares

Christopher George Canizares, 18

GPA: 4.72
PARENTS: Dr. George Canizares and Dr. Cecilia Bueno-Canizares
COLLEGE: University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.
MAJOR: Science-business (pre-med)
PARTING THOUGHTS: Having spent my entire life in one place, it’s a little scary leaving everything I know behind to start the next stage of my life, especially since the environment I’ve grown up in has been so incredibly wonderful. I will miss all of it. Most of me is excited to continue on the rest of my journey and strive to better myself; however, I can’t help but look back on my foundation to which I should attribute my success. I would like to thank all the great friends I’ve made over the years through Shorecrest, Boy Scouts and soccer in addition to the adults that have guided me and pushed me to be my best self. Last but not least, I would like to thank my loving parents and brothers, who, despite their very busy lives, have always been by my side to support me. … I could not be more prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
Karlei Kongsiri

Karlei Kongsiri, 18

GPA: 4.71
PARENTS: Dennis and Renee Kongsiri
COLLEGE: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.
MAJOR: Chemical and biomolecular engineering
PARTING THOUGHTS: Growing up, adults would always tell me how I could accomplish anything that I set my mind on. As a response, my 12-year-old self would simply roll my eyes. However, upon reflecting on my last four years in high school, I’ve realized that they weren’t completely wrong. Maybe I won’t become the first 5-foot-0 pro basketball player or solve the issue of climate change before I’m 20, but I have accomplished things I had never thought possible. At the start of high school, I had never once stepped inside of a sailboat. Now I’m committed to sail at the University of Pennsylvania. With some hard work and perseverance I was able to accomplish what I had previously believed to be impossible. Looking forward, I’m excited to see what other things I can achieve intellectually … maybe even solving climate change.