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Meet the 2016 top grads for Pinellas County private schools

Published May 18, 2016

By now, most of the tests have been taken and the extracurricular activities brought to a close. It is the beginning of the end of high school for the Class of 2016, time to say goodbye to the last four years and hello to the rest of their lives. As graduation season settles in, we asked the top graduates from Pinellas County's private schools to reflect on what they got out of high school, to think about who helped them through it and to tell us about themselves and their plans. To get the discussion going, we asked them to consider the following:

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

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.

Admiral Farragut Academy

Sashinya DeSilva, 17

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.53

PARENTS: Swanthri DeSilva and Lakpriya DeSilva

COLLEGE: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

INFLUENCED BY: Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner who continues to fight for women's rights and the right to education despite being shot by the Taliban for her views. She inspires me with her courage to stand up for what is right and take action against injustice.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Ewing for introducing me to creative writing. With her support, writing has become one of my greatest passions.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more outgoing since freshman year and have learned to go after my goals and dreams without being scared of what anyone thinks. I learned to be myself and not conform to anyone else's opinion.

THREE WORDS: Determined, creative, curious.

BEST THING I LEARNED: "While all bodies share the same fate, all voices do not." — Li-Young Lee

Michael Edward Cooney III, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.3

PARENTS: Mike and Susan Cooney

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

INFLUENCED BY: Justin Cobourne, my youth group pastor at Central Christian Church. He inspires me to further my faith, have fun and love others.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Mark Panuthos for motivating me to be the best I can possibly be. He has been a great role model and has expanded my love for baseball and history.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become a leader since freshman year. Farragut has molded me into the leader that I am today.

THREE WORDS: Confident, diligent, motivated.

BEST THING I LEARNED: Humility.

Calvary Christian

Emily Jane Curran, 18

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.54

PARENTS: Bruce and Karen Curran

COLLEGE: Baylor University Honors College, Waco, Texas

INFLUENCED BY: My parents, who are both incredible role models.

SHOUT-OUT: To my Spanish teacher Mrs. Clarke for being a wonderful teacher and spiritual mentor in my life over the past three years, and to my cross country coach, Coach Brookover, who has showed me what it is like to work hard while living in a selfless manner.

HOW I CHANGED: Since freshman year my work ethic has grown tremendously, and I now have a better appreciation for the people in my life who have truly invested in me over the years.

THREE WORDS: Committed, passionate, procrastinator.

BEST THING I LEARNED: To work hard regardless of the difficulty of the situation.

Adam Johnson, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.47

PARENTS: Shawn and Christalyn Johnson

COLLEGE: University of Central Florida, Orlando

INFLUENCED BY: Jared O'Roark from the Space at 2106 has really influenced the way I look at performing arts and, in effect, writing due to his superb, inspirational and often amusing direction in several musicals I was in. I'm always grateful to him for cementing that passion of the arts.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Bohlander, whose English II Honors class helped better my writing. Also, he helped guide me in the role of Film Society student representative, and encouraged me in my personal endeavors.

HOW I CHANGED: My faith has definitely grown as I've been able to lead a weekly morning worship session before school, and I've been looking for more ways to be a light to people and friends.

THREE WORDS: Whimsical, pensive, musical.

BEST THING I LEARNED: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop to look around every once in a while, you could miss it."

Canterbury School of Florida

Ellen McMullen, 18

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.83

PARENTS: Susan and Steve McMullen

COLLEGE: Rice University, Houston

INFLUENCED BY: Tammy, who was the youth leader at my church, influenced me greatly throughout high school, even though she moved away my freshman year. She is incredibly selfless and I aspire to be like her.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Murphy, not only because he was an incredible teacher but also for all of the extra time he spent indulging my thousands of "what-if" questions, even when they drove him crazy. I'd also like to thank him for helping with Ocean Bowl, and Venture Crew and for giving me life advice.

HOW I CHANGED: I learned that it is okay to have an opinion that differs from the majority's.

THREE WORDS: Introverted, nerdy, caffeinated.

BEST THING I LEARNED: I loved learning about the inevitable heat death of the universe — not to be morbid, but because it is really fun to joke with Mr. Wyness that there's no point in learning physics.

Christian Scott Renner, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.47

PARENTS: Scott Renner and Analia Renner

COLLEGE: Vanderbilt University, Nashville

INFLUENCED BY: My aunt, who has been through a lot in her life yet she has always maintained amazing faith and a great attitude. Her resolve inspires me to get through my worst days.

SHOUT-OUT: I would like to thank my biology, chemistry, AP biology and pre-calculus teacher Mr. Murphy. He always had a unique passion for learning at every opportunity, and his drive inspired me to be the student I am today.

HOW I CHANGED: If high school taught me one thing, it was how to manage my time wisely. The skill I am most proud of is being able to find a balance between pushing myself and enjoying life.

THREE WORDS: Kind, driven, empathetic.

BEST THING I LEARNED: The most valuable lesson I learned in high school was that things happen for a reason. We can either let our issues get the best of us or learn from them and move on.

Clearwater Academy International

David Zwers, 18

Co-valedictorian

GPA: 4.4

PARENTS: Jim Zwers and Kathy Zwers

COLLEGE: Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

SHOUT-OUT: To the whole staff for making this school such an amazing place.

HOW I CHANGED: Overall, I would say that I am less serious, which results in me having much more fun in all endeavors of life.

BEST THING I LEARNED: That life is really what you make of it. You can make any day a great one or decide to do something life-changing and extraordinary.

Zachary Odom, 19

Co-valedictorian

GPA: 4.3

PARENT: Kelly Odom

COLLEGE: Florida Polytechnic University, Lakeland

INFLUENCED BY: My grandmother, Elizabeth Stutzman, who always has my back and helps me whenever I need it.

SHOUT-OUT: To my science teacher, Kelly Odom, who is not only my mother but the strongest and most inspirational person I know.

HOW I CHANGED: Since freshman year I have become stronger, not only in a physical sense but in an intellectual and leadership way. The opportunities provided by my school have really prepared me for my future.

THREE WORDS: Funny, loud, smart.

BEST THING I LEARNED: That I can literally learn anything if I put in the right steps to do so.

Clearwater Central Catholic

Editor's note: The valedictorians and salutatorians in CCC's traditional and International Baccalaureate programs will be published next Friday. The school's process for naming those students occurs after the deadline for this section.

Indian Rocks Christian

Jasmin Flores Yu, 17

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.58

PARENTS: Michael and Agnes Yu

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

INFLUENCED BY: Mrs. White, my piano teacher since first grade. She has invested so many patient hours in teaching me, and I am so grateful for God putting such a kind and devoted mentor in my life.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Farver, my choral director, for being an amazing God-fearing woman who has helped me to become a better person, both musically and spiritually. She truly cares for each one of her students, and I am so thankful to her for being such a great role model in my life.

HOW I CHANGED: I was quite the introvert as a freshman. But thanks to the encouragement of my family and friends, I decided to step out and explore the opportunities to get involved in high school. I can now say that I am part of the Varsity Tennis Team, the Marching Band, the National Honor Society Executive Board and a member of the Chapel Worship Team.

THREE WORDS: Joyful, diligent, musical.

BEST THING I LEARNED: That pursuing big aspirations will always require a lot of sacrifice. It has been a difficult journey for me, but I have learned that a disciplined mentality, along with a sprinkle of optimism, are the key ingredients to success.

Jessica Fitzpatrick, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.3

PARENTS: William and Annie Fitzpatrick

COLLEGE: University of Florida in Gainesville

INFLUENCED BY: My mother, who has been the driving force of my education. She has always pushed me to succeed, and I share this award firstly with her.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. Banse for taking a chance on me three years ago, and all my AP teachers for contributing to the caffeine-fueled all-nighters. It was all worth it in the end.

HOW I CHANGED: In freshman year I was a quiet, klutzy nerd. Today I'm still a quiet, klutzy nerd — just with a cooler fashion sense and better skin.

THREE WORDS: Chill, charming, cynical.

BEST THING I LEARNED: To learn as much as you possibly can from your teachers; they actually do know a few things. Be friends with people that make you feel as young and free as you are. Don't interrupt class; you aren't nearly as funny as you think you are. And for goodness sake, it's high school. Stop taking yourself so seriously.

Keswick Christian

Nicholas John Trotter, 18

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.7

PARENTS: J. Mark Trotter and Michelle E. Trotter

COLLEGE: Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

INFLUENCED BY: Practically cliche, but completely true, the most influential people in my life are my family. Through all these years they urged me to do my best, to always plan ahead (especially for college!), encouraged me in every activity, and steered me, sometimes by the horns, into paths I might not have otherwise taken. Thank you.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. Hintz, my junior high science and AP biology teacher. AP biology was a small, but mighty class. From genetics to forensics and even cultivating the domus communis herba, she made learning big ideas exciting and anything other than boring.

HOW I CHANGED: Since freshman year I have greatly expanded my breadth of knowledge — history, mathematics, science, Latin — yet, more personally, I have peeked around piles of books to make new friends and found that it too, can be rewarding.

THREE WORDS: Focused, analytical, bibliophile.

BEST THING I LEARNED: Journey before Destination. We all have goals — college, family, career — and in our effort to arrive at these "destinations," we often lose sight of how exactly we "get there." And so I choose to live each day of my journey carefully, knowing that my thoughts, words and actions shape it. God has a greater destination set for me and in the meantime, he longs for me to journey well.

Jared Fisher Bird, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.59

PARENTS: Rob and Angie Bird

COLLEGE: Cedarville University, Cedarville, Ohio

INFLUENCED BY: John Heintz, a friend from my church who has been one of the greatest encouragements to me. Simply having someone like John who loves me enough to want to participate in my life has been one of the greatest blessings in my life.

SHOUT-OUT: To superintendent Nick Stratis. His class helped me build a firm foundation for my faith, and he has been a tremendous role model for the students at Keswick.

HOW I CHANGED: I have learned to work hard to excel in what I do, and I have learned that it doesn't matter unless it is for the glory of God.

THREE WORDS: Humorous, joyful, diligent.

BEST THING I LEARNED: To not be ashamed of the gospel or of Jesus Christ. It is what defines me, and it is something that I can't sideline.

Lakeside Christian

Michael Ryan Connor, 18

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.0

PARENTS: Mike and Roxanne Connor

COLLEGE: University of Tampa

INFLUENCED BY: My closest friend, Matt Rubish. He is my honorary brother and I treasure our friendship greatly.

SHOUT-OUT: To my wonderful history teacher, Mr. Kevin Potts, for an amazing education, friendship, and for all the memories. He has had such a positive impact not only on my high school career, but my life.

HOW I CHANGED: I have grown significantly since my freshman year, both educationally and emotionally. I have become more social in my endeavors and have grown spiritually.

THREE WORDS: Friendly, thankful, comical.

BEST THING I LEARNED: The beauty of spirituality and the gift of passion. My teachers have expressed some of the most authentic care and passion I have ever seen, and their kindness is so evident.

Allison Claire Greenleaf, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 3.9

PARENTS: Scott Greenleaf and Patti Greenleaf

COLLEGE: Southeastern University, Lakeland

INFLUENCED BY: I want to give God glory for my success above all. Then my mother, who has always set high standards for me and given me the support needed to accomplish them. I was homeschooled by my mom one day a week until fifth grade, and this individual attention contributed to my desire to learn and achieve my maximum scholastically.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Coffman, my 11th grade English and AP American Literature Honors teacher. She not only helped me improve my technical reading and writing skills, but taught me to love poetry and inspired me to pursue writing on the side of my career in the future.

HOW I CHANGED: I have become more confident, social and even more motivated to reach my goals in life.

THREE WORDS: Determined, creative, intense.

BEST THING I LEARNED: To be authentic and not change for acceptance. "Be yourself, everyone else is already taken." — Oscar Wilde

Northside Christian

Mara Gabrielle Lameyer, 17

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.69

PARENTS: Matthew and Marianne Lameyer

COLLEGE: Florida Southern College, Lakeland

INFLUENCED BY: Justin and Windy Cobourne, who with their leadership and mentorship at Central Christian Youth Group ever since I was a shy sixth-grader, have helped me to grow in faith and confidence.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Artille, who is a phenomenal science teacher and patiently answered my millionsons of questions. If it wasn't for her I might never have discovered that I want to major in biology or have been encouraged enough to pursue it.

HOW I CHANGED: As a freshman I was insecure and unsure of my opinions, beliefs and self. While I am by no means perfectly put together now, I have learned that no one else criticizes or scrutinizes you as much as you do yourself, and being genuine and secure in who you are is a much better way to go than any amount of trying to change yourself to fit others' expectations.

THREE WORDS: Determined, joyful, encouraging.

BEST THING I LEARNED: It sounds so simple and obvious, but the moment it finally clicked that school wasn't just about the grades and tasks checked off a list but about learning and cultivating the knowledge I will need for my future changed so much about how I viewed school and pushed me to keep working hard much more than grades or awards ever did.

Benjamin Paul Knox, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.65

PARENTS: Paul and Dee Knox

COLLEGE: University of Florida, Gainesville

INFLUENCED BY: My parents. They have kept me on the right path and I am in the position I am in now because of who they have taught me to be.

SHOUT-OUT: To all of my teachers collectively. They have all shown me the benefit of knowledge and instilled in me a very hardworking attitude throughout my entire high school career.

HOW I CHANGED: I wish I knew then what I know now. Since I was a freshman I have grown more independent as a person and I have learned to hold myself accountable for any work or other school aspects, and learned to not blame others when I come up short.

THREE WORDS: Hardworking, fun, positive.

BEST THING I LEARNED: A quote from my track coach: "If you don't like it, get better." That plays out in life so well. … Work your very hardest to accomplish what you desire. It's on you and no one else.

Oldsmar Christian

Joshua Aaron Gress, 18

Valedictorian

GPA: 3.91

PARENTS: James and Amy Gress

COLLEGE: St. Petersburg College, Tarpon Springs

INFLUENCED BY: Jeff McDonald, who taught me everything I know about guitar and has always inspired me to do my best in everything I do. I am thankful to have such a great role model in my life.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Macario for making my senior year special and for guiding me throughout my high school years, not only in school but also in life.

HOW I CHANGED: I am more confident in my guitar playing and faith.

THREE WORDS: Determined, witty, analytical.

BEST THING I LEARNED: That if you work hard you can achieve your goals.

Kristin M. Gaston, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 3.82

PARENTS: Valerie Silva and Horacio Silva

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Macario for being the genuine, kindhearted woman that she is and truly caring about my success as well as the success of all of her other students.

THREE WORDS: Ambitious, humble, caring.

BEST THING I LEARNED: Throughout my life I've learned that your life truly reflects your own efforts and what you choose to make of it. I've also learned that life is too short to partake in anything that doesn't bring you joy or happiness, and that we should live our lives to the absolute fullest.

St. Petersburg Catholic

Thaila Schug, 17

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.49

PARENTS: James and Anna Schug; Danielle and Matt Robinett

COLLEGE: University of Central Florida, Orlando

INFLUENCED BY: My grandmother. Every time I questioned getting involved with something, she would tell me without hesitation to go. It is because of her that I have some of my best high school memories now.

SHOUT-OUT: To Ms. King for seeing my aspirations and potential as a freshman and encouraging me to follow that through all four years of high school.

HOW I CHANGED: I am a more well-rounded individual. As a freshmen I stuck to the activities and routine that I knew well, but as a senior I know I have ventured out to try new things.

BEST THING I LEARNED: That no matter what age you are, life will always give you things that you are unprepared for. The best thing to do is enjoy life in the moment and deal with those things as they come.

Brooke Delaney Papa, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.47

PARENTS: Barry and Donna Papa

COLLEGE: University of Central Florida, Orlando

INFLUENCED BY: My sailing coach, Todd, pushed me to finish fourth in a race as a newbie and gave me his Canadian, "eh?"

SHOUT-OUT: To Mrs. Brasseur for being my second mom and helping me keep my sanity after APUSH tests when it felt like the world would stop turning.

HOW I CHANGED: I've lost some of my Texan accent and found new organizations I love working with like Best Buddies.

THREE WORDS: Motivated, passionate, energetic.

BEST THING I LEARNED: I've come to find that you cannot say yes to every request. "Not my circus, not my monkey" isn't a bad motto either.

Shorecrest Preparatory

Jared Mitchell Hirschfield, 17

Valedictorian

GPA: 4.95

PARENTS: Jeffrey and Julie Hirschfield.

COLLEGE: Northeastern University, Boston

INFLUENCED BY: My mother, who has always been my main source of inspiration and support outside of school. Hard work requires a sane mind and, no matter what time of day or night, she is always willing to give guidance or talk something through.

SHOUT-OUT: To Mr. David Field, my pre-calculus and AP calculus teacher. Although he has since retired, he will always be remembered for instilling in me the drive and grit that characterize my work ethic today.

HOW I CHANGED: I came to Shorecrest from an extremely small middle school, where my eighth-grade class was comprised of a whopping six students. Once timid and intimidated by actual hallways and 20-student classes, I have definitely grown into my own skin since my freshman year.

THREE WORDS: Inquisitive, persistent, diligent.

BEST THING I LEARNED: Over the summer, I read Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise. DeLillo, by satirically portraying characters consumed by the fear of death, suggests that as humans we live our entire lives distracting ourselves from our inevitable end. While I do not draw inspiration from the message of the novel itself, White Noise has inspired me to steer clear of the monotony of a passive lifestyle and strive to make my life a life worth remembering.

Josh Katz, 18

Salutatorian

GPA: 4.72

PARENTS: Gary and Robin Katz

COLLEGE: University of Virginia, Charlottesville

INFLUENCED BY: My entire hockey team. Between the customary locker room chirps and the 2 a.m. conversations from the frozen shoreline of Lake Huron, you boys have given me a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that I can only dream of replicating.

SHOUT-OUT: To my chemistry teacher, Mr. Schneider, whom I've had the pleasure of getting to know both in the classroom and through a recent service trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. He always displayed a genuine interest in everything I did, and his wealth of knowledge coupled with his sense of humor helped to further my love for science.

HOW I CHANGED: Having been with the same classmates since sixth grade, it was always pretty tempting to stay within the same circle of friends. I now better understand how vital it is that I force myself to branch out and interact with those who I otherwise might not, and I'm proud to have formed a lasting relationship with the entire graduating class. On another note, my hair has gotten much longer lately.

THREE WORDS: Charismatic, tenacious, aware.

BEST THING I LEARNED: Do something because you love it, not because you want to boost your resume. Once you find a passion that you can continue to cultivate, it will become more meaningful than any hodgepodge of activities.

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