Are You Smarter

Than a 12th Grader


     Usually the phrase “these kids today” is followed by a generalized dis of young people. “These kids today,” people say, either don’t know things they should, don’t do what they should or don’t understand what they should.
     But after you read about these 10 exceptional Oakland students, that phrase “these kids today” likely will be followed by high praise — and maybe a bit of self-deprecation, because these students represent a segment of a generation who fly under the radar yet do things way out of the ordinary.
     These graduating high school seniors have probably forgotten more information than many of the adults in their lives know. The progressive way their minds work can be as humbling as it is inspiring. These students may not have experience on their side, but they have unimaginable potential. Their intellect, passion, creativity, vision will make you feel good about the future.
     Certainly, it will give pause to those who generalize their generation, because “these kids today” are exceptional. 

Lauren Boranian, 18
Head-Royce School, GPA 4.54
College: Harvard
“I embrace the nerd in myself. I don’t want people to be intiminated by me or look at me as the smart kid. But I’m not ashamed to say that I’m into school.”

     She’s read the abridged version of Les Miserables in French. She’s translated Latin stories written by Libby. She uncovered a grammatical error in Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”
     Indeed, Lauren Boranian is a language buff.
     “I like words a lot,” Lauren says. “I like the artistic quality of writing, the ways words go together, the fascinating things you can do with different languages.”
She does more than correct grammar in popular songs or playfully annoy her friends by talking about them in French. Lauren’s love of language extends to writing, too.
     Currently, as part of the Global Citizenship Certificate — a program at Head-Royce that invites only 12 students to research a global issue — she’s writing about the orphanage system in Nepal.
     But perhaps the best part about Lauren is she never acts like the smartest person in the room. She corrects bad grammar only in her head. She doesn’t (publicly) freak out about schoolwork. And she can chill with anybody.
     “I like to stay level headed about things,” Lauren says. “It’s kind of one of my goals not to let that show. I’ve had people comment on how I’m more collected than a lot of people.”

Gabe Reynoso-Palley, 17
The College Preparatory School, GPA 3.98
College: Yale, Harvard

“Music is an interesting combination of the solitary experience of the artist and the communal experience of the audience. The rhythm, the harmony — it creates something that’s just so human.”

     For three weeks, Gabe Reynoso-Palley dedicated himself to writing music. The next week was for editing, and the fifth week was devoted to practicing.
     And at the end of the Summer Music West program, held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, each amateur composer had a professional musician play their work.
     “It’s such an incredible feeling,” Gabe says, “having someone of that caliber perform your work and to hear their interpretation of your music. And their version sounds much better than what I could do.”
     Gabe, who was inducted into the national Cum Laude Society as a junior, is being modest. A piano player and an aspiring classical composer, he’s somewhat of a budding star. He’s written musical scores for three College Prep plays and contributes his piano skills in other composers’ pieces.
     It makes sense that Gabe would be musically inclined. Thanks to his father, a Jewish-American, Gabe grew up on The Beatles as a groupie. Thanks to his vocally gifted sister, he’s been exposed to musicals for years. His mom, a Mexican-American, added a little Latin rock to the household.
     On the side, Gabe and a few Ivy League–bound classmates formed a rock band called Lesko. Gabe plays keyboard, only natural, considering he’s been taking piano lessons since he was 6 and is convinced he wants to pursue a career as a composer.
     His initial inspiration came after he wrote his first piece at 13, which he performed at a recital.
     “My first piano teacher taught us we should do more than just playing music and taught us how to write music on the computer,” Gabe says.

Hansohl Kim, 17
The College Preparatory School, GPA 3.85
College: MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton

“If I had a bunch of Lego blocks, I would try to use them in ways Legos should not be used.”

     Hansohl Kim is hoping to get an acceptance letter to MIT. the world-renowned MIT encourages future students to “Hack the Tubes” and do something creative with their acceptance letters.
     One student gained national attention by ballooning her tube to the edge of space. Hansohl was kind of jealous.
     “I definitely couldn’t launch mine into space now that someone’s done it,” Hansohl says.
“I think I’d build a railgun — a series of electro magnets that have their charge controlled by a computer — and launch the letter just generally up and away. It would really be complicated to make. It would be fun just to see if I can actually do it.”
     That’s just how Hansohl’s mind works, a collision of brilliance, creativity and a little bit of Johnny Knoxville.
     The same kid who taught himself how to write some 600 Chinese characters learned Japanese by watching anime cartoons with subtitles on the Internet. The same kid who watches free online lectures about calculus also created a crossbow out of a stapler and a pencil. You could find him spending his free time keeping up on news about Korea and democracy movements in the Middle East, or taking apart his computer to see whether he can make it
run faster.
     “If I could get a job right now,” Hansohl says, “the one job I’d want is to be an explorer, which doesn’t really translate to anything now. But back in the age of exploration, people would get on ships and just sail out and see what they could find. That’s how I want to explore space. It’s so massive and so much out there.”

Abigail Peterson, 18
The College Preparatory School, GPA 4.08
College Options: Stanford, Oberlin College, Brown, Pomona

“When I talk, my words don’t always come out the way I want them to. When I write, I have a chance to say what I really want to say. I can have an impact and maybe provoke change.”

     When Abigail Peterson wants to relieve stress, she knits. It’s her escape. And she’s gotten good at it, knitting scarves and the like for family, friends, people in homeless shelters and even children in Afghanistan through the organization Afghans for Afghans.
     When Abigail, who twice nailed a perfect score on the National Latin Exam, is ready to change the world, she turns to science. Her focus is usually on the environment. She’s always reading on the subject. The End of Nature. Out of Eden. Worldchanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century. She’s currently reading Elizabeth Grossman’s Chasing Molecules.
     She’s planning to major in environmental science or environmental chemistry. She’s a regular in College Prep’s Green Club and she helped land a grant from Alliance for Climate Education to build a native plant garden on campus.
     When Abigail has something to say, she writes. Poems, essays, short stories. It’s her way of getting things off her chest, writing about things around her that don’t sit well, writing about issues dear to her heart. And she’s gotten good at it. She was published in The Iowa Review. And she’s written some of the most thought-provoking research papers. The landless peasant movement to occupy farmland in Brazil. The impact of the Industrial Revolution on attitudes toward  nature in England. Irrigation, democracy and the agricultural development on California’s Central Valley.
     “Most times I have something to say,” she says, “but I don’t know exactly how to say it or who to say it to. So I write.”

Andrew Ronquillo, 17
MetWest High School GPA 3.55
College:  The Evergreen State College

“I like solving problems in my head. I go over the different elements in my head until finally something clicks. There are lots of opportunities to solve big problems in the world. That’s where I’m headed.”

     When MetWest High School didn’t have an available faculty member to attend a technical training, they sent Andrew Ronquillo.
      “I’m tall. I’ve got a little bit of a beard. I can dress professional and pass for an adult. It worked.”
     No one even noticed a student was in the midst. Andrew not only looked the part, but he had the chops. Since then, he’s been the school’s resident tech expert. But those who know Andrew understand why that task was a piece of cake.
     We’re talking about a guy who interned with the DOER Marine, twice a week rubbing elbows with renowned engineers and mathematicians. He worked in robotics submersives (remote control submarines), which are used for deep-sea tasks such as surveying the damage from oil spills and researching global warming trends under Antarctic ice.
     We’re talking about a guy whose senior project is to design, construct and test a prototype for a high-altitude wind turbine. Interning with Makani Power, an innovative wind technology business, Andrew is part
of a team examining how to harness energy from wind turbines higher in the air, where winds are stronger and there is less interference.
     Andrew’s clever idea is to use a balloon to propel a wind turbine. The balloon would allow the turbine to remain in the air even during low winds (instead of crashing to the ground) and regularly relay energy back to the earth through a cable.
     “The technology really has potential,” Andrew says.
     We’re talking about a guy who has been taking college courses throughout high school, who interned with a UC Berkeley cartography professor as a freshman, and recently posted the highest score possible on the Scholastic Reading Inventory.
     Posing as faculty? Piece of cake.

Nolan Meghrouni-Brown, 18
Head-Royce School, GPA 4.54
College Options: University of Chicago (accepted early), Columbia, MIT

“The natural world is so beautiful and complicated. I just want to know how everything works the way it does. Sub-atomic particles. Cells. Molecules. Organisms that can breathe and think. It’s just so crazy to me that I want to know about it.”

     President Barack Obama, at a science fair at the White House in February, said America’s youth need to once again become proficient in math and science. He called it crucial for America’s long-term success.
     If Nolan Meghrouni-Brown were there, he might’ve shouted “Amen!”
     “President Obama is definitely right,” Nolan says. “It’s kind of a problem that most Ph.D. candidates in math and sciences weren’t born in America. But I think interest is coming back in math and science. I sense a lot of enthusiasm among my peers. Science is becoming more visible now that people are making all these crazy scientific discoveries.”
     Nolan is no doubt one of the young people the president figures could help bring the country back to the cutting-edge of innovation. He’s a contestant in the American Mathematics Competition, a high-level national competition, and he’s working with the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute.
     Nolan is one of those kids whose brain is tickled by numbers and complex equations, whose curiosity is triggered by problems that need solving. Bring up the movie A Beautiful Mind and he’ll ramble in excitement. Bring up the discovery that won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics — that the universe is expanding at an accelerated pace —and he’ll be rendered speechless for a moment.
     “I was a) surprised and b) humbled,” Nolan says when he learned of the discovery. “The Earth itself even is so insignificant in the face of the cosmos. It’s amazing how massive and how mysterious everything is. I took a step back and said, ‘Wow.’ ”
     “Math is an intellectual puzzle for me,” Nolan says. “Just the applications of it to the real world.”

Audrey Carson, 18
Bishop O’Dowd High School, GPA 4.39
College Options:  Yale, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Brown

 “My coach jokes that I only pick the most confrontational activities. I’m either yelling at people  in a debate or tackling people in rugby. That’s funny. I don’t think I’m confrontational.  I’m calm and laid-back.”

     You probably won’t find many high school seniors as polished on current events as Audrey Carson, who is top of her class. She regularly reads magazines, including Newsweek, Time, The Economist and Slate. She’s a big fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, and she watches CNN and Fox “to get the other side.” Her smartphone gives her instant updates from The New York Times. Occasionally, she’ll indulge in a book, her latest being George Friedman’s Next 100 Years.
     That’s the life of a debater — must be well-versed and quick thinking. As captain of Bishop O’Dowd’s debate team, which is ranked No. 1 nationally in parliamentary debate, Carson usually has 15 to 20 minutes to prepare a case on a topic, and she never gets to choose her side.
     In a national competition at Stanford, she debated about U.S.-China relations, arguing that trade embargoes would help cut the deficit. In another recent debate, she hashed out about U.S. immigration reform.
     Once she was blind-sided by an unusual debate topic: Who’d win between Batman or Spiderman. She was given Spiderman. She won.
     “The main component of our argument was that Batman’s powers are completely dependent upon his wealth, and Spiderman’s powers are inherent. Maybe Wayne Enterprises would have suffered in the down economy. Most companies are in difficult times and many CEOs get let go. If Bruce Wayne isn’t CEO of his company, he wouldn’t have access to the Bat Mobile and all the technology he has access to because of his wealth.”

Julian Clark, 18
Oakland Technical High School, GPA 3.57
College Options: Cal, UCLA,
San Francisco State

“It’s empowering to know that you have a voice and people want to hear it.”

     The pressure of having a gift and it being sorely needed in the community. The pressure of having to set the example, because so many look up to him. The pressure of maximizing his potential and not settling for less.
But the budding community activist, who has a gift for motivational and informational speaking, says he really became effective when he started walking the talk.
     “Most of the time I speak, it’s on problems with black males and solutions,” Julian says. “But definitely, you’ve got to prove it to be that change.”
     Julian got serious about being a positive example, even dropped some of his immature practices. But Julian says he didn’t have to look to a broken community for motivation. He didn’t necessarily need to see the fruits of his labor as a mentor at the East Oakland Youth Development Center.
Julian says his primary motivation came from home.
     “I’ve got three little brothers,” Julian says. “T.J. is 11. Kendall is 9. Isaiah is 6. I definitely want to be a role model for them.”

Domine Ezechukwu, 18
Oakland School for the Arts, GPA 3.8
College Options: Howard University, Hampton University, Dillard University

“I’m kind of a rare teenager. Not many teenagers like to be abreast of what’s going on in their world.”

     Failing was not an option. So when your grades were slipping, you got a warning in the form of a white slip telling you to get your grades up, taped to your locker for everyone to see.
     That’s how serious it is at the House Page School. It was a rude awakening for Domine Ezechukwu, then a junior.
     “I’m not going to lie. I cried,” says Domine (pronounced Dom-in-ay). “For me and my family, grades have always had to be top-notch. A ‘C’ was not acceptable.”
     Domine eventually got her grades together. But it was understandable she found it a tough adjustment. One of only 59 pages, Domine took classes — all AP and honors courses — at 6:30 a.m. in the attic of the Library of Congress. Students had to finish school early, because they had to get to work interning for Congress.
     The rare opportunity, grueling as it was, sent her back to the Oakland School for the Arts viewing the world with new eyes. That she viewed the world at all is a bit of a phenomenon these days for her generation.
     Nearly six months across the country, on her own, engulfed in the world of politics, taught her the importance of awareness. She still watches C-SPAN and the PBS News Hour. She reads The New York Times and Bloomberg news regularly. And when she’s working as a youth leader at the East Oakland Youth Development Center, she’s imploring the youth around her to pay attention.
     “We don’t know what’s going on in the place we live,” Domine says. “People don’t understand how politics affect their lives and their future. I need to be in touch with what’s going on in America.”

Jessica Beatriz Torres, 17
Lionel Wilson College Preparatory, GPA 3.92
College Options: Cal Poly, San Francisco State

“My mom motivates me to do my best.”

     She was 11 years old when her older brother, Ramiro, got a virus in his leg and almost died. What Jessica Torres remembered most was the nurse.
     “Whenever they saw my mom crying, they encouraged her,” Jessica says. “They played around with my little brother so he could feel better.”
     That experience is largely why Jessica is headed for pre-med and is an aspiring pediatrician. The science of medicine intrigues her intellectually. The passion for helping people, especially young people, fulfills her soul. Becoming a pediatrician seems to be the perfect fit for the Gates Millennium Scholar.
     But Jessica is convinced she can accomplish her goals, thanks to a college tour she took with EOYDC to the nation’s capitol. She met Rosie Rios, treasurer of the U. S., one of the highest-ranking Latino appointees in government. Jessica got to witness a woman of Hispanic heritage coming from a big family without many resources achieve something amazing.
     Jessica is no longer intimated by her odds. She finds AP calculus easy and refuses to settle for substandard effort.
     “I can be so hard on myself,” Jessica says. “I just like to be on top of things and handle my business.” 


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