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Ten Teens to Watch

They have stellar GPAs, countless academic honors, giving hearts and raw talent in the arts and athletics, but each of these high school seniors possesses special qualities that put them at the top of their class.

photographs by William Taufic

Jahedul "Rony" Islam
Academy of Information Technology & Engineering

Jahedul, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, is such an outstanding student at AITE, where his friends call him “Rony”, it’s tempting to say the sky is the limit for this aspiring aeronautics engineer. Especially adept at math and science, Rony is most intrigued by their practical applications. “You start out learning one plus one equals two, but it doesn’t have much meaning until it becomes physics,” he says. “Physics is the point where math starts to make sense.” No surprise his favorite subjects include AP physics and aerospace engineering. A computer whiz who sometimes helps his dad with glitches at the office, Rony’s is a positive example of a technology-fueled childhood. “I feel like I was born at the exact right time to explore the things I’m so fascinated by.” One of this sixteen-year-old’s many interests is robotics, and this year he shared that passion mentoring his sister Farzama’s KT Murphy Elementary School LEGO Robotics team. The team finished with an impressive eleventh place in a multi-state competition. “I loved it because it urged the kids to think creatively about solving problems, which is my thing.” Since he’s a first generation American, Rony feels duty-bound to pursue excellence. He was a 2012 finalist in the National History Competition and has also received accolades for his scholarship in Spanish. Back in third grade, Rony’s mom told him if he studied hard, “you might be in a magazine some day.” “And look,” he told us at his photo shoot. “Here I am!”

Brian Pollack
Westhill High School

Brian is the quintessential scholar-athlete, a standout baseball player known to Vikings fans for his consistency at bat and a quiet (never boastful) confidence that serves this left-fielder well when he’s facing down pitchers. “So much of batting is mental,” he says. “You have to have a good approach, but I think believing you can hit is really the key.” As one of the top-ranked students in his senior class (math and science are his favorite subjects), Brian also knocks it out of the park with an impressive roster of community service. He’s the president of Westhill’s National Honor Society, active in the Interact community service club, and was recently named Debate Team captain. Debate is Brian’s favorite mental form of competition, and he seems to approach it with the same steady tactics he uses in the batter’s box. “I enjoy the challenge of having to think on my feet and push myself to argue ideas in a way that may be completely contrary to my own views.” Last year Brian’s philanthropic spirit took him on a volunteer trip to New Orleans. Working on behalf of the National Student Leadership Conference, he helped replant trees in hurricane-ravaged state parks and got involved in home reconstruction and painting projects. “One thing that’s surprising about New Orleans is how much still needs to be done. I expected the people I met to be so down after all they’ve been through, but they were some of the most outgoing and optimistic people I’ve ever met. It was refreshing and inspiring.” This kid’s a home run.

Caroline Hubbard
King Low Heywood Thomas

With her charming demeanor and warm grin, it’s a revelation when Caroline insists she’s naturally shy. Shy, that is, until she sings or dances or otherwise finds herself center stage. “I’m a born performer,” she says. “When you’re in character you have no limits. You can have attitude and get completely out of your comfort zone.” Caroline, who started dancing competitively in elementary school, showcased her many talents when she won the coveted role of Ti Moune in the King production of Once on this Island in her sophomore year. Now a senior, she’s also been featured in school performances of The Hobbit, The Seagull and Blythe Spirit. But Caroline’s more than a creative triple threat; she especially enjoys writing and takes a leading role in a Playbill’s worth of extracurricular activities. “I like to have lots of diverse experiences and I try to get involved in everything I can.” She plays varsity volleyball for her school’s New England championship team. She also cofounded Milestones, her school’s club for minority students. As a Milestones service project, she mentored a minority second grader. Caroline’s next act includes some big goals. She envisions combining her varied interests in business, science (and a bit of the spotlight) for a “dream job” as a broadcast medical journalist. Sounds like a prescription for success.

Marisa Carpanzano
Trinity Catholic High School

Something’s always cooking in Marisa’s spirited life. When she isn’t whipping up some of her decadent homemade cheese ravioli, this senior keeps busy devoting herself to the things she values most: home, hearth and church. Raised in a close-knit Italian-American family, Marisa’s commitment to her Roman Catholic faith has given voice to many of her talents. The soprano’s long affiliation with the Fairfield County Children’s Choir grew out of a childhood love of singing that began in the choir at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist. Marisa is now part of the FCCC’s elite Chamber Singers and has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. The commitment to the choir, which rehearses in Fairfield, is intense “but I’m very focused,” she explains. “I do my assignments over the weekend so I don’t get too overwhelmed during the week.” Marisa lives her faith with a similar sense of devotion. The honor student is involved in TCH’s pro-life group, organizing fundraisers for Norwalk-based Malta House, a residence for single, expectant mothers. This honors student also excels in the sciences; nursing is one career she’s seriously considering. “I’m happiest when I’m helping people. I’m kind of a nurturer.” And what isn’t more nurturing than a delicious, home-cooked Italian meal? Marisa learned to cook by carefully studying the techniques of her grandmother, Ida, who lives with the family. After tantalizing us with her efforts to perfect her manicotti, Marisa volunteers: “My dream job would combine my love of cooking with my passion for caring and philanthropy.” Now that's a winning recipe.

Peter LaBerge
Greens Farms Academy

Peter was an accidental poet. His passion for verse began with a poem he wrote rather reluctantly as part of a requisite writing submission for Penumbra, his school’s literary magazine. “I figured poetry was shorter,” Peter says of his initial motivation. But the process gave him an unexpected voice for expressing emotion in a challenging manner. “It was cathartic. I’m drawn to the way [poetry], with such brevity, can be so powerful.” Peter is now giving voice to other poets as the editor of Adroit, a poetry journal he founded in his sophomore year. He supervises its international staff of forty-five college undergrad and high-school student readers, who assist him in selecting online submissions. Although he favors showcasing the work of young talents, “the real emphasis of the staff is on the value of the diversity of content.” Hence, Adroit’s recent seventy-page feature on the work of dissident Cuban poets, which Peter helped translate from Spanish.

Peter’s own efforts as a poet and writer (he’s also penned some plays) have earned him honors from some elite scribe circles, including the three Gold Keys in the 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Of course, Peter’s talents are not limited to a few well-crafted stanzas. The National Merit Scholar is active in GFA theater, its improv troupe Bloopers and the a capella singing ensemble Beachside Express. With so many creative instincts, we expected Peter to profess a desire to be the nation’s next poet laureate, but he surprised us. “I actually have a real interest in business.” This calls for a promotion to editor-in-chief.

Gunjan Hooja
Stamford High School

Gunjan has dreams that span the universe. One of them is to be a female astronaut. But for all her stratospheric talent and potential, there’s something this honors student never takes for granted: “There are still girls in the world who don’t have the opportunities I do,” she begins. “They go to inferior schools or no schools at all. They live in places that don’t value girls receiving good educations or even forbid it.” Gunjan is completely devoted to changing that, and to that end she founded the Shakti Empowerment Club, a school-based philanthropy devoted to raising awareness about global educational inequity. The club also raises and donates money to designated charities that build schools for girls around the world. Gunjan’s parents, who moved here from India when she was in sixth grade, inspired Shakti’s basic values. “They came here so I could be a doctor or engineer or, hopefully, an astronaut. They put their needs second to mine. But there are so many girls who won’t get this chance unless they get help.” A grateful Gunjan takes advantage of every opportunity she’s received; she’s an ace on the Black Knights tennis and debate teams, mentors at Dolan Middle School and excels in math and science. Her astronaut dreams were inspired by a story her father told her  when she was a child: “He said one day the earth was going to be swallowed up by the sun. From that moment on I wanted to know everything there was to know about space.”

Nicholas Bellacicco
Trinity Catholic High School

The list of dietary threats that trigger Nick’s life-threatening food allergies is precariously long—peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds and legumes—and made for a medically complicated childhood. But instead of dwelling on what he good-naturedly shrugs off as his “sob story,” Nick has found a way to make his challenges reflect his benevolent spirit. As a National Teen Advisory Board member for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) Nick writes encouraging essays about his own experiences. “When I was a kid, living with this was such a big deal,” he explains. “I thought it would be helpful for other kids to read about how I dealt with things.” The varsity soccer midfielder’s experience has also influenced his future goals to become a doctor and follow in the footsteps of the caring medical practitioners who helped him cope and thrive. “I was lucky enough to get into research studies and have been helped by doctors my entire life. Now it’s my plan to do what they did for me.” So perhaps it’s no surprise that the favorite good deed of this top honors student is his Greenwich Hospital volunteer work. “I started off folding clothes in the maternity ward, but I worked my way up to (transporting) patients. It’s more hands-on and I enjoy the more personal connection with the patients.” Now that’s a healthy perspective.

Hailey Parry
Academy of Information Technology & Engineering

One day, when Hailey was about five, her mom, Michelle, popped in a video of the Celtic dance tour de force Riverdance into the VCR. “[My sister Kelsey and I] sat through the whole thing speechless,” Hailey recalls, “and then we turned around and said, ‘We want to do that.’” Hooked on the tempo, speed and percussive artistry of Celtic dance—where the upper body stays still while the feet tap and kick in syncopated motion—Hailey and her sister have been dancing and competing for Stamford’s Pender-Keady Academy ever since. “Dancing to me is like a drug. If I’m the least bit down, even tired, I just have to go to the studio and everything changes.” Last year, Hailey placed fourth in New England and thirteenth at Nationals, earning a place at the Irish Dance World Championship in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Remarkably, Hailey accomplished that feat with a broken foot, and in considerable pain, “I was so proud to just get up there.”

Hailey’s just as dedicated when it comes to school. The Harvard Book Award winner and National Honor Society member excels in math and chemistry but her favorite is physical education. (She’s a student aide in that class.) “I know it sounds strange to like gym, but I crave the endorphins.” Hailey hopes to choreograph her future by pairing dance with her interests in science, health and fitness. “Whatever I do, I know that dance will have led me there.”

Daniel Chimes
King Low Heywood Thomas

Even when Daniel looks at mundane objects, he sees artistic possibilities. This year he took a tired old dress shoe from his dad’s closet and turned it into “a hermit crab coming out of the family dog,” he says. His irreverent sculpture won Daniel second prize in the Stamford Art Association’s annual juried student art show. His honored piece was typical of the way this senior experiments in his broad creative life. The talented guitarist, who performs in several ensembles at KLHT, is as musical as he is visually artistic. “One sort of speaks to the other, I think. It all seems to help me find a way of expressing what otherwise can’t be spoken.” Daniel treats the arts like one big personal adventure. Take his attempt at glass blowing: “I wasn’t very good at it, but I like learning new things to see where they take me.” His guitar led him to the mandolin and then, the accordion. “It’s an instrument that doesn’t get a lot of respect, but musically, you can do some pretty cool things with it.”

Daniel does other cool things when he isn’t busy writing original lyrics or taking AP music theory. Active on his school’s debate team and Model UN, Daniel was also captain of KLHT’s cross-country team. Last year he discovered a new and unexpected passion for science in his AP biology class. “I don’t think I ever realized science and the forces of nature could be creative too.”

Claire Kaptinski
Stamford High School

As a three-season varsity scholar-athlete, Claire could (and should) be running on empty. Instead, the softball, soccer and indoor track star—who comes from a family of marathon runners—seems to be fueled by adrenaline on, and off, the field. “When I have free time I just don’t know what to do with myself,” she confesses. “I don’t really like having a second with nothing to do.” Claire’s full-speed-ahead approach to life often put her in the role of pinch runner on the Black Knights softball team, but she really excels at indoor track; the long jump, hurdles and the 300 meters are her main events. Claire was understandably thrilled when she qualified for States Class LL Championship in all three events last year. Somehow the seventeen-year-old National Honor Society member manages to squeeze in hours of intense training, while maintaining exceptional grades and finding time to edit a section of the school yearbook. “What I’ve found is, the harder I play at sports, the more focused I am on my school work. The sports clear my head and help me concentrate.” Not that she’s always so serious; Claire likes to channel her inner Martha Stewart making crafts (belts are a specialty), and even runs her own creative summer camp for kids in her Shippan neighborhood. No wonder this good sport’s scant free time is often booked with babysitting gigs.

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