1. Education

Class of 2017: Meet the valedictorians and salutatorians for Pinellas public high schools

[Times files]
Published May 18, 2017

As the top graduates from Pinellas County's public high schools finished their classes and prepared for exams this spring, we asked them to reflect on the last four years — to think about what they learned, how high school changed them and recognize the people who helped them along the way. (Click here to see the vals and sals for Pinellas private high schools.) To get the discussion going, we asked them to consider the following:

MAJORING IN: Engineering? English? Anthropology?

INFLUENCED BY: Tell us about a person outside school who has influenced you.

SHOUT-OUT: Is there a teacher you want to thank?

HOW I CHANGED: Tell us how you have changed since your freshman year.

THREE WORDS: What are three words that best describe you?

BEST THING I LEARNED: It can be anything you picked up in high school — a life lesson, a concept, a quote, something a teacher told you or a classmate taught you or you found out on your own.


Angelika Nattiel Morris, 18


GPA: 4.79

PARENT: Dorothy Jean Nattiel

COLLEGE: Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.

MAJOR: Computational neuroscience

INFLUENCED BY: My mother for raising me to value hard work and determination.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Weeks and Mr. Lynch for writing my letter of recommendation. I could not have gotten to Princeton without you.

HOW I CHANGED: Since freshman year, I have gained the confidence to believe in myself.

THREE WORDS: "Young, gifted and black"

BEST THING I LEARNED: Success is earned — not given.

Olivia Rose Cuffel, 17


GPA: 4.76

PARENTS: Mary and Joe Cuffel

COLLEGE: Florida State University, Tallahassee

MAJOR: Criminology

INFLUENCED BY: My siblings, especially my brother, Quinten. They have always encouraged me to perform better in academics and to value integrity and sincerity.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Lynch for being an awesome teacher, even when I wasn't in his class, and to Mrs. Cooper for all her tutelage.

HOW I CHANGED: As a freshman I was shy, awkward and lacked confidence. Now as a soon-to-be high school graduate, I have the confidence in myself and in others that I never had imagined possible.

THREE WORDS: Wise, empathetic, genuine

BEST THING I LEARNED: Success is something that anyone can achieve, provided they are dedicated to reaching their goals and apply themselves.


Rachel Pohl, 17


GPA: 4.90

PARENTS: Cynthia and Kenneth Pohl

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biology

INFLUENCED BY: My sister. We have surely had our ups and our downs, but at the end of the day, I know that the arguments we have or the "life lessons" she attempts to teach me are valuable. She has always kept me on track and reminded me of my priorities.

SHOUT-OUT: To my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Abernathy, who has always been my favorite teacher, for reasons that go beyond his teaching skills. I gained tremendous confidence from his continual support, and we shared a teacher-student bond that will forever be special to me. I am beyond grateful that I had him as a teacher, and have kept in touch with him.

HOW I CHANGED: My relationships with friends and family have become deeper and more devoted, and my future has become much clearer.

THREE WORDS: Determined, outgoing, passionate

BEST THING I LEARNED: Opinions are simply just that — opinions. I have spent far too much time worrying about what others think of me and my beliefs, my decisions or my personality. … I hope to never let disagreements or fear of what others think of me hold me back or dictate my future.

Steven Lange, 18


GPA: 4.83

PARENTS: Pamela and Andy Lange

COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa

MAJOR: Engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My father because of his integrity, work ethic and ability to solve just about any problem.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. V because of his dedication to his work and ability to constantly keep a positive attitude. Even though he teaches a difficult subject, he truly believes that every student can be successful and does everything in his power to make that a reality.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more aware of the responsibilities and goals necessary to succeed in life. I have also become more outgoing.

THREE WORDS: Hardworking, honest, athletic

BEST THING I LEARNED: If you really devote yourself to a task, it is almost always going to be completed.


Celeste Smith, 18


GPA: 4.86

PARENTS: Kira and David Smith

COLLEGE: Georgia Tech, Atlanta

MAJOR: Engineering

INFLUENCED BY: Research shows that these successful girls have mothers who nag. Thanks mom.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. MacDonald for helping me realize my love for math, and Mrs. Callahan for teaching me literally terms through X-Files episodes.

HOW I CHANGED: I've become a lot more outgoing and willing to take risks. I've realized that often there's no point in being afraid.

THREE WORDS: "Yet she persisted"

BEST THING I LEARNED: My brother taught me that often math is more an exercise in research than in mathematics.

Edin Haveric, 17


GPA: 4.71

PARENTS: Alma Ablakovic and Amer Haveric

COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa

MAJOR: Civil engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My family, who has been there for me every step of the way and never pressured me to do things I wasn't comfortable with. Thanks Nedim, Mom and Dad.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. MacFarlane for helping me develop my love for math and school.

HOW I CHANGED: I used to be really uptight about school work and my schedule in general, until I realized that these are things that aren't worth constantly worrying about. So I became much more laid back but efficient with my time.

THREE WORDS: Happy, sleepy, inspired

BEST THING I LEARNED: Take it easy. People these days are so serious about everything, thinking it's the end of the world if they don't get into their first-choice university or if they don't get an A in their chemistry class. The truth is, life has something in store for all of us; "And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." — Paulo Coelho


Molly Niska, 17


GPA: 4.79

PARENTS: Wendy and Joe Niska

COLLEGE: Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Mich.

MAJOR: Chemical engineering/biochemistry and molecular genetics.

INFLUENCED BY: Warner and Martha Koester, who always kept me grounded and encouraged me to do the right thing no matter what everyone else was doing — and whose strong faith influenced mine.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Diskey, my AICE Biology teacher for the last two years, whose enthusiastic teaching style made me want to come to class everyday and sparked my interest in genetic engineering.

HOW I CHANGED: I have grown stronger in who I am as a person and staying strong in what I believe in.

THREE WORDS: Intelligent, kindhearted, honest

BEST THING I LEARNED: Stay positive, work hard and make it happen. The only thing holding you back is yourself.

Jeremy Sanchez, 18


GPA: 4.79

PARENTS: Michelle and Efrem Sanchez

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Undecided

INFLUENCED BY: My father, who has taught me the importance of sincerity and how far it goes in building relationships with others.

SHOUT-OUT: To Billy Butcher. I would not understand the sanctity of free will without taking his debate course and having conversations with him.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become far less anxious about tackling assignments and handling failure. My handwriting has also become marginally better.

THREE WORDS: Silly, intellectual, focused

BEST THING I LEARNED: What is most important about people is their character, and what is most important about actions is their intent.

Veronica De Bernardo, 18


GPA: 4.77

PARENTS: Maria Martinez and Bruno De Bernardo

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biomedical engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My younger sister, who reminds me to not take everything too seriously and have fun.

SHOUT-OUT: To my calculus teacher, Mr. Cassidy, for encouraging me to do my best.

HOW I CHANGED: Freshman year I was quiet and afraid to join clubs, but now I am more confident.

BEST THING I LEARNED: It is totally possible to make any situation positive.

Ramius Stiehler, 17


GPA: 4.78

PARENT: Raquel Stiehler

COLLEGE: York St. John University, York, England

MAJOR: International business management

INFLUENCED BY: My mother, who has been there to support and advise me through all life's obstacles.

SHOUT-OUT: To Carter Waterkeyn and Christopher O'Daniel for helping me prepare for college, and for becoming the best mentors and friends a student could ever ask for.

HOW I CHANGED: I grew significantly socially by meeting hundreds of people and making dozens of friends.

THREE WORDS: Hardworking, funny, determined

BEST THING I LEARNED: One should judge their life not on how much money they make, but on the bonds they built among their friends.


Carly Jensen, 18


GPA: 4.82

PARENTS: Barbara and John Jensen

COLLEGE: Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, Calif.

MAJOR: Biology

INFLUENCED BY: My mom, who taught me how to be strong and independent, and how hard work will get you anywhere.

SHOUT-OUT: To Isidro Lorenzo, who not only was the best teacher I've ever had, but he genuinely cares about his students. He taught me life lessons I will never forget.

HOW I CHANGED: Since freshman year, I have learned the true meaning of perseverance. There were many times I wanted to give up or take a break, but I never did because I knew the final outcome would be worth all of the hardships I faced.

THREE WORDS: Persistent, hardworking, ambitious

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Success is not final. Failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts." — Winston Churchill.

Madison McCraney, 18


GPA: 4.77

PARENTS: Marcy and David McCraney

COLLEGE: Florida State University, Tallahassee

MAJOR: Pre-biological science

INFLUENCED BY: My college adviser, Mrs.Gray, who has guided me toward making smart educational decisions. She has helped me so much throughout my senior year through her support and knowledge of various schools.

SHOUT-OUT: To Señora Barrett for helping me increase my coherence of the Spanish language and for running the Spanish Honors Society. Her teaching has led me to develop a passion for learning this language.

HOW I CHANGED: After freshman year I was able to feel more comfortable around my peers. Color guard really helped me open up and be able to be more confident.

BEST THING I LEARNED: Although I talk about how much I wish high school was over, I know I'm going to miss even the little things. The clubs and school involvement will bring me nostalgia because they played a big role in developing who I have become.


Jenna Caputo, 18


GPA: 4.86

PARENTS: Karen and Richard Caputo

COLLEGE: Florida State University, Tallahassee

MAJOR: Biology

INFLUENCED BY: My brother, who was the valedictorian two years ago. He taught me to work my hardest through his high expectations of me.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Lundgren for teaching a variety of real-life skills in her class. I now know how to file taxes.

HOW I CHANGED: I've learned that you can accomplish almost anything through hard work and dedication. You don't always need innate talent to achieve your goals.

THREE WORDS: Empathetic, resilient, steadfast

BEST THING I LEARNED: There's always going to be someone trying to bring you down. Hold your head high and be the best that you can be.

Matthew Wyers, 18


GPA: 4.85

PARENTS: Brenda and Michael Wyers

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biomedical engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My brother, Jonathan Wyers. We compete academically and athletically whether my brother believes it or not. My subconscious competitive drive to do better than my sibling has helped push me.

SHOUT-OUT: To Tonya Kistner for everything that she has done for me through the years. She has gone above and beyond since my freshman year to not only teach me, but provide me with advice and the tools needed to help me succeed.

HOW I CHANGED: I have changed physically more than anything since my freshman year. I've gone from a small, chubby kid to someone who is a little more toned. It's amazing what track/cross country and a little determination can do to someone mentally and physically.

THREE WORDS: Motivated, disciplined, persevering

BEST THING I LEARNED: Sometimes things don't always pan out the way you would have hoped. It's what someone chooses to do, given the circumstances, that defines their character.


Alec Jeffrey Engl, 18


GPA: 4.95

PARENTS: Margaret and Jeffrey Engl

COLLEGE: U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.

MAJOR: Engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My TaeKwonDo instructor, Master Khoa Tran, who has instilled me with the ethic that has been integral in my success inside and out of high school. He taught me to be generous with others and disciplined with myself. His wisdom and precision in the martial arts is matched only by his sense of humor and amazing rapport with young people.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Ladd, my fifth-grade teacher at Plumb Elementary School, who was the first to teach me that intelligence must coexist with hard work. Without her cracking the whip, I wouldn't have reached the same level of success and fulfillment in my life.

HOW I CHANGED: Looking back, my freshman year was undeniably the least social and the most nervous of my high school career. It was an incredibly humbling experience that taught me (eventually) how to be myself.

THREE WORDS: Tall, dark, kiddingmyself

BEST THING I LEARNED: The importance of balance. Balancing school and other activities has been both the most challenging and the most rewarding thing in my high school career, and each new exposure (whether it be from TaeKwonDo or a mission trip) has allowed me to improve in each other area of my life.

Nikolas Thompson, 18


GPA: 4.93

PARENTS: Lori and David Thompson

COLLEGE: Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minn

MAJOR: Biology

INFLUENCED BY: My dad, who has taught me to maintain strong morals and to take matters into my own hands when it comes to my life.

SHOUT-OUT: To all my teachers for guiding me throughout my high school career. But I would like to especially thank Mr. Kay for being such an inspiring teacher. Listening to him tell us the story of the world was a great way to wake up at 7 a.m.

HOW I CHANGED: I have seen myself become a more conscious individual, more aware of the world around me.

THREE WORDS: Spontaneous, inquisitive, untamed

BEST THING I LEARNED: You cannot control those around you; you can only control yourself. This was sometimes hard to realize, but it is the harsh truth.


Aidan Schaffert, 18


GPA: 4.864

PARENTS: Lori and Tim Schaffert

COLLEGE: Tufts University, Medford, Mass.

MAJOR: Philosophy

INFLUENCED BY: American poet Galway Kinnell. He is why I write.

SHOUT-OUT: To Yoko Nogami. I can say with confidence I've never met anyone as generous with their time and as indefatigable in their service.

HOW I CHANGED: Since freshman year, I feel I've placed myself on a trajectory toward fidelity to the person and adult that I hope to be.

THREE WORDS: Discursive, invested, goofball

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Get messy, make mistakes!" — Ms. Frizzle

Arianna De Jesus, 17


GPA: 4.855

PARENT: Lutgarda De Jesus

COLLEGE: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.

MAJOR: Computer science/art and design

INFLUENCED BY: My mom because she has been able raise me and my sister alone after my dad passed. She is the definition of "a strong, powerful and independent woman." She has also taught me the importance of hard work and a big heart.

SHOUT-OUT: To my art teacher, Ms. Nogami, for her constant support and advice throughout my high school career, even when I was over-dramatic. I'd also like to thank her for helping me grow as an artist and a person.

HOW I CHANGED: I've become more confident and outspoken. I'm not afraid to let people know what I think, and I will stand up for what I believe in.

THREE WORDS: Blessed, stressed, well-dressed

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Haters are motivators"


Austin Mason, 18


GPA: 4.49

PARENT: Sandar Mason

COLLEGE: Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Tallahassee

MAJOR: Criminology/Spanish

INFLUENCED BY: My grandfather, who has influenced me to not compare myself to others because as an individual I know what's best for myself.

SHOUT-OUT: To Senora Santiago, who has influenced my minor in college and showed me the importance of a spectrum vision of education instead of being narrow-minded.

HOW I CHANGED: I learned how to adapt from my mistakes and find my passion in life.

THREE WORDS: Smooth, observant, attentive

BEST THING I LEARNED: Don't make assumptions, trust your instincts and take every opportunity in front of your eyes.

Julie Tavares Nagy, 18


GPA: 4.36

PARENTS: Ana and Jeremy Massey

COLLEGE: University of Central Florida, Orlando

MAJOR: Civil/environmental engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My family, who raised me to never settle and to work hard for the things I want. Being the first person in my family to go to college has pushed me to do my best for them.


Nikhil Sharma, 17


GPA: 4.88

PARENTS: Rekha and Sachin Sharma

COLLEGE: University of California, Berkeley.

MAJOR: Computer science

INFLUENCED BY: I would like to deeply thank my father. When looking at high schools at the end of eighth grade, CAT seemed an eternity away from my house and both my mother and I were very apprehensive about me going there. My father was the one who convinced both of us to take a chance with this amazing program where none of my middle school friends were going, and it really paid off.

SHOUT-OUT: My first interaction with Mr. Zulli involved a lot of yelling. Now, it's only mild amounts of yelling. I'd like to profoundly thank him for choosing me as a network assistant and teaching me not only what real project-based learning looks like, but essential real-life skills as well. We thank you and wish you an amazing retirement.

HOW I CHANGED: In addition to a significant decrease in sleep, I've stopped waiting for opportunities to come to me. Having been around the same people from elementary to middle school, I used to wait until they started something and then join in. Going to a separate high school forced to me to become proactive and find those opportunities.

THREE WORDS: Academic, affable, ambitious

BEST THING I LEARNED: Not completing a task correctly on the first try isn't synonymous with failure, and asking for help isn't a sign of weakness. Both are a natural and necessary part of the learning cycle and will make you a more compassionate individual in the end.

Ethan Myott, 18


GPA: 4.82

PARENTS: Rachelle and Richard Myott

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesvillle

MAJOR: Mechanical and aerospace engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My whole family has provided incredible support and generosity, but my grandfather has been the one to point the way during my biggest struggles.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Ness, the robotics teacher. I have always looked up to him as a great teacher. His class has helped me go far and his attitude towards life was always a reality check and a pick-me-up during hard times.

HOW I CHANGED: When I started in high school I was awkward, shy, anxious and horribly afraid of public speaking. Today I've put things into perspective and made it past the identity crisis of adolescence.

THREE WORDS: Reflective, creative, inquiring

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Trust, but verify." To me this quote rings not for Reagan's pessimistic view of human nature, but in the context of a cautious curiosity in life's search for purpose, truth and deeper meaning.


Konner Elizabeth Ross, 17


GPA: 4.67

PARENTS: Carolyn and Mark Ross

COLLEGE: Rollins College, Winter Park

MAJOR: History

INFLUENCED BY: My mom, who is the greatest, strongest woman I know. She always pushes me to do my absolute best and keeps me on track.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Pettingill because she taught me what it is really like to love history (and she took me to France).

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more independent and have taken on much more responsibility. I also have become more of a person that puts herself out there and makes sure to try to know everyone.

THREE WORDS: Intelligent, compassionate, vintage

BEST THING I LEARNED: What it feels like to be part of a community. Marching band has been a very big part of my high school career, and I have felt so much more loved and special by being a part of the marching band community.

Suraj Baldeo, 17


GPA: 4.57

PARENTS: Rajshree and Surajnauth Baldeo

MAJOR: Computer engineering

COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa

INFLUENCED BY: My mom and dad, who showed me that with hard work I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.

SHOUT-OUT: To all the teachers at Largo High School who taught me. They helped me succeed in the classroom and gain knowledge that will help me in my future.

HOW I CHANGED: During my freshman year I was very timid and nervous about high school, but as the years went by I became more and more confident in my work and myself with the help of my teachers, guidance consular, parents and friends.

THREE WORDS: Caring, friendly, thoughtful.

BEST THING I LEARNED: The four years go by fast. You should enjoy it and have fun while it lasts.


Prasnav Naik, 18


GPA: 4.94

PARENTS: Zaranaben and Hetalkumar Naik

COLLEGE: Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga.

MAJOR: Biomedical engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My parents. Every day I wake up knowing that I have their unconditional support and I need nothing else to pursue my passions. They have taught me to walk into a problem with an open mind. And then with hard work, in the end, the solution will be found.

SHOUT-OUT: To all the teachers that I have grown close to in the four short years I have spent at Largo. Each has impacted me in some unique way, and for that I would like to thank all my teachers.

HOW I CHANGED: In freshman year, I believed the most important thing was to have a stellar academic profile. Now I think back and I can't recall one SAT practice test question. But I remember each of the fantastic people I met, and now I have changed. I am much more than my GPA.

THREE WORDS: Idealistic, adaptable, curious

BEST THING I LEARNED: In the words from a textbook, you can only find ideas already once thought of by another person at another time. Truly innovative ideas will be discovered through the plethora of unique experiences that impact what you do with those words.

Dayita Girish Wable, 18


GPA: 4.91

PARENTS: Nayana and Girish Wable

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biology/biochemistry

INFLUENCED BY: Anita Brown, the former volunteer coordinator at St. Petersburg General Hospital, who has a giant heart and cares for everyone she meets.

SHOUT-OUT: To Brian Frasier, who taught me to be tough and how to turn challenges into a learning experience.

HOW I CHANGED: I have taken a great interest in global and national relations, and decided to one day join Doctors Without Borders.

THREE WORDS: Charismatic, outgoing, dedicated

BEST THING I LEARNED: Above all else, be kinder than necessary.


Ryan Jairam, 18


GPA: 4.81

PARENTS: Annette Persaud-Jairam and Amar Jairam

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My track coach, Brent Haley. More than a coach, he is a mentor and has helped me become a better person.

SHOUT-OUT: To my guidance counselor, Mr. Keys, for showing me how to always keep chasing my goals.

HOW I CHANGED: I've definitely become more confident in myself and a more optimistic person. Also, my taste in music has gotten a lot better.

THREE WORDS: Always looking forward

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Great things come to those who go for it." — Coach Haley

Benjamin Berlin, 17


GPA: 4.77

PARENTS: Steve and Allison Berlin

MAJOR: Computer science

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

INFLUENCED BY: My parents, who have motivated me to work hard and be a good student.

SHOUT-OUT: To all my teachers. They have been good to me as they have all taught me a lot and helped to prepare me for life ahead. It would be unfair to give a shout out to just one.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more mature and am better at balancing different tasks now.

THREE WORDS: Dedicated, reserved, practical

BEST THING I LEARNED: Hard work pays off.


Alyssa Kyle, 17


GPA: 4.86

PARENT: Lynda Kyle

COLLEGE: University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif.

MAJOR: Biological sciences

INFLUENCED BY: My grandma, the late Sylvia Kyle, who inspired me to always be the best possible version of myself. The love, patience and kindness she expressed towards others continues to push me to be more like her every day.

SHOUT-OUT: To Dr. Herzhauser, for making the best quiche and being the most intelligent teacher I have had. Thank you for introducing me to "Big R" research and shaping me into the writer I am today.

HOW I CHANGED: I have found my true best friends. Shout-out to Ashlee, Olive, Lyss, Sara and GDNR.

THREE WORDS: Ineffable, persistent, organized

BEST THING I LEARNED: Success is earned through hard work, intense dedication and perseverance. Anything is possible if you set a goal, put your mind to it and do whatever is needed to get there. Results are a reflection of effort.

Emma Tumarkin, 17


GPA: 4.83

PARENTS: Beth and Daniel Tumarkin

COLLEGE: Undecided

MAJOR: Public health/statistics

INFLUENCED BY: I would like to thank my soccer coaches, who have taught me perseverance and have supported me on the good and bad days — on, and especially off the field.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Ferguson and Mr. Yarbrough. They have such a passion for what they teach and have always been there for me — from helping me understand rotational physics, to listening to my rants at debate competitions.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more driven and have developed more insight into myself and the world.

THREE WORDS: Tenacious, optimistic, insightful

BEST THING I LEARNED: " You are the one thing in life you can control. You are inimitable. You are an original." — Lin Manual Miranda, from the musical Hamilton


Anna E. Davis, 18


GPA: 4.86

PARENTS: Jeanne F. and James R. Davis, Jr.

COLLEGE: University of Miami, Coral Gables

MAJOR: Neuroscience

INFLUENCED BY: My parents. They are strong, positive role models who encouraged and allowed me to explore amazing opportunities.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Kelly Webb, my anatomy, physiology and biomed teacher, for always guiding me to take advantage of new opportunities and for her dedication to being the first teacher to lead the PLTW Biomedical Science program at PHU.

HOW I CHANGED: With each new opportunity, I was able to reach new heights of involvement and develop stronger people and leadership skills. I learned the importance of making strong connections, and that if you earn respect from the right people, the possibilities are boundless.

THREE WORDS: Insightful, compassionate, optimistic

BEST THING I LEARNED: You are a reflection of the people you spend most of your time with, so always surround yourself with those who inspire and challenge you to be your absolute best.

Ethan William Kugler, 18


GPA: 4.79

PARENTS: Gina and Brad Kugler

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biomedical engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My mom because she always encouraged me to do more than I originally thought I could.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Briggs, Mrs. Webb and Mr. Southard. The reasons are too many to list, but they equally had the most influence on me and my future.

HOW I CHANGED: I used to stress out in freshman year but have since learned how to manage my time wisely so that I get it all done, in less time and without the stress.

THREE WORDS: Dedicated, sociable, finesse-y (my new word)

BEST THING I LEARNED: Working hard will get you far, but working smart can get you farther.

Hannah Jones Raymond, 18


GPA: 4.79

PARENTS: Kelly and Michael Raymond

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Microbiology

INFLUENCED BY: My godfather Tony Griffith. He is an extremely successful man, not just in his career but in his personal life. He has such a strong relationship with his family and maintains his faith as the most important part of his life. He has been a role model for me over the past four years because he has such strong morals and values and is able to stick with them in even the toughest situations.

SHOUT-OUT: To my anatomy and physiology and biomedical teacher, Kelly Webb. She is so organized, driven and maintains strong relationships with her students. She has advocated for me to be chosen for many different clubs and positions, including NHS President and Senior Representative on the Principal's Student Advisory Committee. Thank you, Mrs. Webb, for always encouraging me and reminding me what success lies ahead as long as I remain determined and work my hardest.

HOW I CHANGED: I look at school now more as a stepping stone to my future versus an obstacle in the way of my social life. I think I'm much more independent now than I was four years ago, and I credit that change both to myself and to my parents for giving me both the freedom to make mistakes and the guidance to learn from them.

THREE WORDS: Confident, determined, creative

BEST THING I LEARNED: To never give up on myself. This is a concept I've really taken to in the past few months, and it's a topic I've discussed in quite a few presentations to the incoming freshmen. … I think Winston Churchill says it best in his famous quote: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts."


Jay Mithani, 17


GPA: 4.91

PARENTS: Priti and Vimesh Mithani

COLLEGE: Undecided

MAJOR: Undecided

INFLUENCED BY: My family. They're always there to support me, even when I try but don't succeed.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. MacFarlane. Not only does he teach mathematics, but he lives and breathes it. The effect he has on students goes beyond the walls of the classroom; it instills lifelong passion.

HOW I CHANGED: I've become more knowledgeable and mature, but most importantly I've gained insight on my own strengths and weaknesses.

THREE WORDS: Curious, driven, competitive

BEST THING I LEARNED: Don't let today just be "one day," let it be "day one" of something new.

Amy Paskiewicz, 17


GPA: 4.90

PARENTS: Stephanie and Edward Paskiewicz

COLLEGE: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.

MAJOR: Public health

INFLUENCED BY: My mom. She has always been an example of who I want to be with her bravery and perseverance.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. McGonegal and Mr. Tharin for being genuine and engaging teachers. They have always supported me and have encouraged me to grow into the person I am today.

HOW I CHANGED: I've become more outgoing and confident.

THREE WORDS: Dedicated, compassionate, sensible

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you." — Maori proverb


Alejandro Ramirez, 17


GPA: 4.92

PARENTS: Maria Huerta and Ernesto Ramirez

COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa

MAJOR: Mechanical engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My sister, who has always been a huge inspiration to me and was always someone who was able to give me guidance and advice when I needed it. She continues to follow her dreams and that is something that encourages me to follow mine.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Freed for always being able to give me advice and pointers for the future. I would also like to thank Mr. Cross for always supporting me and believing in what I could do.

HOW I CHANGED: I have learned a lot more about responsibility and how to manage my time. I also learned that in order to reach my full potential I must give it my all and try my best.

THREE WORDS: Diligent, honest, caring

BEST THING I LEARNED: The concept that in order to really succeed in life, you don't need money. You just need to find happiness in what you do, which is something I learned from all my teachers who find a passion for what they do.

Christina Piccione, 18


GPA: 4.78

PARENTS: Natalie and Christopher Piccione

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biology

BEST THING I LEARNED: Change is okay. I have learned this throughout my studies, friendships and events in my life. Not everything goes as planned. Everyone will make mistakes, but it is not the mistakes that define you. It is how you get back up from them.


Peyton Kaser, 18


GPA: 4.84

PARENTS: Dacia and David Kaser

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Finance

INFLUENCED BY: Mr. Whiteman, my youth pastor when I was in middle school, who has meant a lot to me. He provided me with extremely important life lessons and a little bit of humor along the way. He taught me important things to strengthen my faith and live life to my fullest potential.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Grothouse, my middle school physical education teacher. He motivated me to start living my life with a purpose and not simply going through the motions.

HOW I CHANGED: I have changed the way I view life, from picking apart the flaws in life to appreciating the beauty of life. I recognize the world for what it is, but find joy even in the darkest moments with the help of faith and family.

THREE WORDS: Witty, sarcastic, bright

BEST THING I LEARNED: Self-acceptance is key to living life successfully and happily, and I had to move past my flaws and focus on the positives to do so.

Haley Wilt, 18


GPA: 4.83

PARENTS: Shelly and Rodney Wilt

COLLEGE: Washington College, Chestertown, Md.

MAJOR: Behavioral neuroscience/math.

INFLUENCED BY: My mom, who has done everything to help me get where I am today.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Schnake, Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Wo, Mr. Winsey and my first-grade teacher Mr. Edwards. They have made such a huge impact in my life and have made me love going to class every day.

HOW I CHANGED: Freshman year I was really timid and didn't have much confidence. But then I tried out for cheerleading and started becoming more involved in school and I have become a more confident person.

THREE WORDS: Energetic, cheery, studious

BEST THING I LEARNED: You have to do what makes you happy and you can't let people tell you that you cannot do something.


Tyler Stephen Karges, 18


GPA: 4.81

PARENTS: Ivey and Steve Karges

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Biology

INFLUENCED BY: My youth pastor, Scott McQueen, who has always encouraged me as a mentor in my faith and life.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Tarrou for putting up with my procrastination for the past three years.

HOW I CHANGED: I've learned to roll with the punches in every aspect of life. I'm much more easygoing and have a better understanding of how to handle the future.

THREE WORDS: Loyal, helpful, honest

BEST THING I LEARNED: Scouts, clubs and honor societies have taught me the importance of serving others. Giving back is the best reward there is.

Carson Matirne, 18


GPA: 4.78

PARENTS: Barbara and Scott Matirne

COLLEGE: Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.

MAJOR: Biological Engineering

INFLUENCED BY: My grandfather, Dale Blanchard. He has always encouraged me to learn more about the arts, history and current events.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Jennifer Trewin, who has helped me develop a love of art.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more confident, gained more intelligence and developed stronger leadership skills.

THREE WORDS: Determined, optimist, compassionate

BEST THING I LEARNED: "There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind." — C.S. Lewis


Romina Lilollari, 17


GPA: 4.87

PARENTS: Anila and Fredi Lilollari

COLLEGE: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

MAJOR: Government/economics

INFLUENCED BY: Joanne Lentino, who is currently a School Board member for Pinellas County. She has been my most influential mentor during my senior year. She has provided me with an overwhelming amount of support and guidance.

SHOUT-OUT: To my IB academic mentor, Mrs. Vann, for pushing me through my senior year and constantly reassuring me that everything would be okay through all of my ups and downs.

HOW I CHANGED: Through my journey in the IB program I have developed into more of an understanding and global-minded learner.

THREE WORDS: Enthusiastic, political, involved

BEST THING I LEARNED: To be passionate about everything you do. If you're not having fun, then you should not be doing it.

Jay Nandkishor Shah, 17


GPA: 4.87

PARENTS: Sonal and Nandkishor Shah

COLLEGE: New York University, New York, N.Y.

MAJOR: Biology

INFLUENCED BY: My parents both influenced me by reminding me to always persevere and dedicate myself fully, even when it seems pointless, impossible or asinine.

SHOUT-OUT: To my 10th-grade chemistry teacher, Mr. Thompson. He always approaches the subject with a smile and a lighthearted personality. I've known him for all four years of high school and he's always willing and eager to lend a hand or advice.

HOW I CHANGED: I've become less obsessed with the results of my actions, but more focused on applying myself fully towards my goals. Regardless of the outcome, I'm content as long as I tried my absolute best and learned anything in the process.

THREE WORDS: Hard-working, lighthearted, ambitious

BEST THING I LEARNED: That dedication, focus and hard work is the only way to achieve something worthwhile. Relying solely on natural talent is nothing more than a half measure.

Tricia Monte, 18


GPA: 4.85

PARENTS: Cathy and Cid Monte

COLLEGE: Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.

MAJOR: Chemistry

INFLUENCED BY: My parents, who have modeled the beauty of love, passion, lightheartedness and dedication. They remind me to look at everything as a lesson and that nothing is out of reach so long as I put my mind to it.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Domanski and Senora Torres for guiding me through the IB program and encouraging me to broaden my horizons.

HOW I CHANGED: High school has helped me come out of my shell, and I am extremely grateful for the wonderful friendships and memories I have made because of that.

THREE WORDS: Optimistic, driven, compassionate

BEST THING I LEARNED: You can't control what happens, but you can control how you handle it. An open mind and a positive attitude make a difference.


Taysha Natali Lopez Nieves, 17


GPA: 4.84

PARENTS: Cindy Puchi and Alex Lopez

COLLEGE: University of South Florida, Tampa

MAJOR: Nursing

INFLUENCED BY: The OB Nurses at Florida Hospital North Pinellas, who influenced my future career and education through my internship at the hospital. They have helped me gain a great deal of knowledge and prepare for my future.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Priddy for being a fantastic teacher and creating a fun and comfortable classroom environment.

HOW I CHANGED: I have definitely become more independent and mature. I better understand the importance of balancing school and work with spending time with friends and families.

THREE WORDS: Motivated, dedicated, unconventional

BEST THING I LEARNED: "I go to seek a great perhaps" is a quote by John Green. It was originally said by Francois Rabelais. To me it means that you should take all the risks you can when they are available to you. The most important thing I learned in high school is that high school isn't the most important thing.

Alexis Trauner, 18


GPA: 4.83

PARENT: Debbie Trauner

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Animal sciences — equine concentration

INFLUENCED BY: My mom, who has always been my biggest inspiration. She has helped me learn self-love and motivated me to always put my best effort forward.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Priddy, who turned a subject I was terrified of into one that I am now taking for the second year in a row (physics!).

HOW I CHANGED: I've learned to be more independent and outgoing in terms of trying new things and pushing my boundaries. I also have developed the ability to realize toxic people and situations early on, and walk away from them.

THREE WORDS: Dedicated, ambitious, kind

BEST THING I LEARNED: Whenever you feel like quitting, remember why you started.


Ganna Voytseshko, 18


GPA: 4.922

PARENTS: Tetiana and Iurii Voitseshko

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

MAJOR: Computer science

INFLUENCED BY: My parents, who have encouraged and supported me all my life. They have allowed me to pursue my interests and dedicate my time to learning. They have encouraged me to take on more challenging classes and prove myself academically.

SHOUT-OUT: To all of the teachers at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School for introducing me to the rigorous and academically challenging college-level coursework. In addition, I would like to thank them for supporting me and helping me throughout my years at Collegiate.

HOW I CHANGED: I've grown up, and I have realized that the world is what you make of it. No matter the situation, it is important to keep going and work harder to make a better future.

THREE WORDS: Knowledgeable, responsible, caring

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Happiness depends upon ourselves." — Aristotle

Stephen-Lee DeLong, 17


GPA: 4.917

PARENTS: Karrielynn and John DeLong

COLLEGE: Webber International University, Babson Park, Fla.

MAJOR: Sports business management

INFLUENCED BY: My coach, JC Crouch, who has pushed me to perform to the best of my abilities.

SHOUT-OUT: To Dr. Call, for always going out of his way for us and making sure we have everything we need to succeed.

HOW I CHANGED: After completing the Collegiate program, I feel so much more prepared for a four-year institution than I did as a freshman.

THREE WORDS: Hard-working, honest, determined

BEST THING I LEARNED: During economics class, Mr. Hesting said, "Find something you love and find a way to make money doing it." Ever since he gave that advice, it has been my primary focus.

Times staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this year's coverage of valedictorians and salutatorians in Pinellas County.


  1. Shawn Tye, left, applies fiberglass to a boat console as Dustin Pirko looks at Marchman Technical Education Center. Hernando’s business development manager says that in creating a technical school an effort would be made not to duplicate Marchman.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  2. Sen. Travis Hutson presents his Job Growth Grant Fund legislation to the Senate Education Committee on Nov. 12, 2019. The Florida Channel
    The original version would have targeted charter schools only.
  3. A flag supporting President Donald Trump flutters near the University of Florida's Century Tower before an Oct. 10 appearance on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. A controversy over the political nature of the event has led to calls for the impeachment of Student Body President Michael C. Murphy, who helped set it up. Courtesy of Chris Day
    A push to oust Student Body President Michael Murphy comes after an email surfaces, suggesting he worked with the Trump campaign to bring a political speech to campus.
  4. Odessa Elementary School in Pasco County has grown to 1,126 students in fall 2020. Pasco County school district
    At 1,126 students, Odessa is larger than 10 of the district’s 16 middle schools, too.
  5. Construction workers have prepared the skeleton for what will become the music and art wing of Cypress Creek Middle School in Pasco County. Some Wesley Chapel parents are fighting the rezoning plan that would reassign their children to the school.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  6. The Pasco County School Board meets in August 2019. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK
    Having won a concession relating to rising juniors, some Wesley Chapel families seek more changes to a proposed reassignment plan.
  7. A school bus travels the early morning streets. One Marion County elementary school will change its start time because some parents say they can't get their kids to school before the first bell.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  8. Tony Hart wanted to volunteer at his children's school but was stopped by a criminal background screening. Before that, he said he was making a positive impact at Adams Middle School in Tampa. MARLENE SOKOL  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The school district never considered Tony Hart a volunteer. But he was heavily involved, earning praise from the principal.
  9. Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School on Oct. 7, 2019, part of a swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. MEGAN REEVES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  10. Students from Curlew Creek Elementary in Palm Harbor attend the school's Veterans Day program in 2016. The Pinellas County school system remains open for the holiday. DOUGLAS CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Some campuses in the Tampa Bay area have no classes on the national holiday to honor U.S. military veterans, while others stay open.