SOUTH COUNTY — It’s hard to believe another year has rolled around to graduation time. Interviewing the valedictorians and salutatorians at East Bay, Lennard and Riverview high schools is always fun because these students have interesting stories to tell and important plans for their futures.
As always, it wasn’t hard to see why these particular students stood out from their peers.
Starting May 15 with interviews at East Bay, home of the Indians and the oldest of the three South County high schools, Principal Maria Gsell was preparing for her first East Bay graduation, this being her first year at the school.
With 437 students graduating, she said it’s been a busy year.
Class valedictorian Kendall MacDonald of Apollo Beach, daughter of Troy and Paula MacDonald, has a weighted grade-point-average of 7.02. Captain of both the golf and soccer teams, she also served as president of student government; is a member of the National Honor Society; and has participated on the Steering Committee of each class during all four years at the school. When I met with her she was organizing a 5K run to benefit the young woman who was assaulted outside the Bloomingdale Branch Library three years ago.
Now 17, Kendall plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall because she says it has the nation’s Number 1 nursing program.
At this point in life, Kendall says she hopes to become a nurse specializing in anesthesia, but because the school has a good graduate program that allows her to check out other specialties, she will get to experience other nursing specialties while there and make her choice later.
East Bay salutatorian Juan Claudio Monsalve of Riverview, son of Leonardo and Margarita Monsalve, has a weighted grade-point-average of 6.33.
Having only been in the United States six years, he is originally from the Republic of Colombia and spent several years in the ESOL (English as a Second Language) program as he knew no English when he arrived.
Now 18, Juan not only speaks fluent English and Spanish, but is learning French.
He plans to go to French Polynesia in Tahiti to immerse himself in the French culture, to learn fluent French (and do some surfing on the side!) before starting pre-pharmacy at the University of Tampa in the spring of 2013.
He wants to learn French because he says there are not enough French-speaking people in the Jehovah’s Witness congregations, of which he is a member.
“I transferred to the French congregation in Tampa (his parents go to a Spanish-speaking congregation locally) deliberately,” he told me. He plans to become a pharmacist but says he wants to spend more time in volunteer ministry than anything else.
While at East Bay, he started a chapter of the National Science Honor Society; he plays the violin in the East Bay Orchestra; and is captain of the Swim Team.
The school’s College and Career Specialist, Kazie Weaver, says this year’s graduating class does not seem as cautious about the economy as last year’s.
Things seem to be looking up.
Last year, most graduates opted for community colleges and career training that would take them right into the job market. This year though, Weaver said she didn’t see that nearly as much.
“While each class has its own personality, and economic issues are always important, this year’s students seemed more willing to take on achieving their highest goals. The economic issues didn’t seem to factor in nearly as much as they did last year,” she said.
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Meanwhile, at Lennard, Assistant Principal for Administration John Guarisco has 287 graduates.
His valedictorian and salutatorian were also extremely dedicated.
Valedictorian Xiaodong Lu, 18, has a weighted GPA of 8.28.
She spent her first 11 years in China, while her mother came earlier to the States and got her visa and paperwork ready.
Her first five years stateside were near Tacoma, Washington, but her mother and stepfather, Lisa and George Stokes of Ruskin, moved to Florida for the warmer weather.
Not only did Xiaodong have to learn English quickly- as she spoke only Mandarin Chinese- to catch-up and then surpass her classmates, she also had to deal with a mild hearing loss.
“I can hear most things,” she explained, “but I can’t hear the difference between like a ‘B’ and a ‘D’ and the ticking of a clock. Those kinds of things.”
Because of this, she was once told she could never play music.
While at Lennard, she plays cello in the orchestra and has also taught herself to play flute and piano. She also took one year of lessons on the Chinese harp.
She is president of Lennard’s chapter of the National Honor Society; volunteers at the South Shore Regional Library; is vice president of the library’s Teen Advisory Board that sets up program routines and suggests things to do; is a National Merit Finalist — which means she is in the top one-percent of the nation’s scores on the PSAT; is a member of Lennard’s Collegiate Academy; and already has earned 80 college credits at Hillsborough Community College through a program of joint learning between HCC and Lennard.
Xiaodong says the main difference she sees in Chinese and American education is that in China, students are given all facts to memorize, while in America they are taught conceptual thinking.
Her future plans are to study electrical engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa and go into researching alternative energy.
“The Germans already have a laptop that runs off body heat,” she told me. “There are so many ways we could use heat that is currently being wasted.”
Lennard’s salutatorian Julian Coutoure, 18, has a weighted GPA of 6.2. An artist and musician since the 4th Grade, he plays violin in the school’s orchestra, and is self-taught at the piano.
“I just started playing when I was about five,” he told me. He picked most of it up by ear, and then learned to read music while at Cypress Creek Elementary School.
He has worked on Ruskin’s Big Draw, and organized many cultural and artistic events.
Julian plans to hold down a double-major while at Duke University; both engineering and music.
He lives with his grandmother, Carol Coutoure in Ruskin and plans a career in science and research, mostly in computer engineering, he said.
Julian is currently the captain of the tennis team and Chess Club champion.
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Riverview’s Principal Bob Heilmann told me he had 505 graduates this year.
The valedictorian there is Ashley Bowen, daughter of Major James Bowen. Ashley lives with her grandparents General Thomas Bowen and his wife Margaret in Apollo Beach because her father was recently deployed overseas.
At 17, Ashley’s weighted GPA is 7.17. She holds an executive position in the school’s branch of the National Honor Society; has spent four years in the Science Honor Society and was its vice president in her sophomore year; is an executive member of the Psychology Honor Society; secretary of the Math Club; a member of the Nu Alpha Theta sorority; was a member of the class Steering Committee in both her freshman and sophomore years; and has been in the Spanish Honor Society since 11th Grade.
Ashley worked at C.A.R.E. (Critter Adoption and Rescue Effort) in Ruskin for her volunteer hours; participates every year in the Relay for Life; and tutors other students in math.
She plans to go to the University of South Florida and major in biology and then hopes to go into pre-med to become a dermatologist.
“I was accepted by some Ivy League schools but decided not to get into a lot of debt for my undergraduate degree,” she said. She plans to reapply to Harvard after attending USF.
Riverview’s salutatorian Emily Kettenburg, 18, is the daughter of Lori and Gary Kettenburg, and does secretarial and clerical work for the company they run out of their home, Kettenburg Construction.
A member of the National Honor Society; the vice president of the school’s chapter of Nu Alpha Theta; she is a member of the Science, Psychology and Spanish honor societies and worked on the Steering Committee for her first two years of high school and Student Government in the 11th Grade.
Emily tutors students in math and volunteers for the Relay for Life each year.
She plans to go to the University of Florida as a zoology major, to go into marine biology and already has attained her certificate as a trained Scuba Diver.
She especially wants to study sharks and go into some kind of work that will involve both her diving and marine biology skills.
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Meanwhile, the South County Career Center located just south of Ruskin anticipates 65 graduates, said Program Advisor Vickie Thomas.
Students at the career center earn performance-based diplomas and/or workplace standards skills certificates in careers ranging from construction technology and culinary arts to nursing assistants, emergency medical responders and many areas of business.
Graduations are as follows:
with East Bay, Lennard and Riverview all being held at
Florida State Fairgrounds
4800 U.S. 301, Tampa
Lennard — Friday June 1,
Riverview — Monday June 4,
East Bay – Tuesday June 5,
South County Career Center graduation will be held Friday, June 1 at 3 p.m. at the school, 2810 John Sherman Way, just off U.S. 41 south of Ruskin.