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Generation Next

Chalk it up to the city of Stamford, 10 future leaders already making headlines today

By now you know the drill. We put out the word for nominations, and resumés start pouring in by spring. And each year we are amazed all over again by the range of raw talent our schools are nurturing. But the job to narrow a collection of stellar teens down to ten is admittedly no easy task. Clearly there are others with sky-high GPAs, laundry lists of academic honors, service awards, and loads of trophies and medals from successes on fields, courts, and under the bright lights of the stage. So we dig deep, in search of special qualities that set each one apart from their peers. That is why we call this feature, one of our more popular annual projects, the 10 Teens to Watch. While our intent is to sing their praises—they are all top scholars and National Honor Society members—we also aim to acknowledge their individual passions and visions toward goals we believe they will achieve in time. We introduce to you ten future trailblazers already creating their own paths to success. —Camilla A. Herrera

Chandu Goli

Born in India and inspired by a physician aunt and uncle in his close-knit family, Chandu has long dreamed of being a neurosurgeon. “With surgery there’s a patient interaction that goes way beyond the diagnosis,” says Chandu. “I like the idea of being the one who does the fixing.” To advance his goals, Chandu has already taken on volunteer mentorships in Stamford Hospital’s Diabetes & Endocrine Center as well as for a physician administrator. Yet, as committed as he is to his Hippocratic ambitions, Chandu puts that same energy into his role as the senior class president at AITE. “I try to work as hard as I can, but life can’t be all about your grades,” he says. So this outstanding student tries to foster school spirit by coming up with inventive fundraisers such as last year’s Verse for Verse rap battle, and supporting original events such as a winter formal, a school first. “I ask everybody to have the goal of contributing one idea to the class and good things seem to happen when people are involved more fully. That’s how the formal came about,” he says. And Chandu leads by example, shaving his head for the St. Baldrick’s pediatric cancer charity at a school-based event. Chandu’s especially proud his class has quite a prom cash reserve, having raised more money than any AITE class in recent history. “I have an inner-business tycoon in me,” says Chandu, who’s already contemplated merging his knack for revenue-generating ideas with his planned medical career. “I’m thinking medical administration is something I might want to do eventually,” he says. Now that’s a prescription for success.

Kaitlyn Shen

Delving into a Brown University summer course called “Techniques in DNA-based Biotechnology” might sound like a research project for a doctoral candidate, but Kaitlyn was exploring such complex material before her junior year at Westhill. “They say girls don’t excel in science and math, but it doesn’t intimidate me at all. I think what you can do with [them] is just so cool,” says Kaitlyn, who especially loves combining the conceptual science of biology with the ordered logic and mathematical elements of chemistry. This summer Kaitlyn prepped for her senior year by interning at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, where she explored the use of stem cell research in heart regeneration. “I’m most interested in biomedical sciences,” says Kaitlyn, explaining she ultimately imagines a career “solving life’s puzzles in a way that helps [improve] lives.” But while this top honors student’s goals and accomplishments are scientifically serious, Kaitlyn likes to keep things on a lighter note too. An accomplished classical pianist, she travels to New York City every weekend to engage her passion for tap dancing. Although she’s studied everything from jazz to ballet—and danced competitively until she finished eighth grade— percussive tap is what gives her the biggest emotional kick. “It is like making music with my feet,” says Kaitlyn, who correlates tap choreography with the sequences in all that math and science she loves. “There’s a pattern. Everything I do kind of fits together.” Keep up that beat.

Brendan George

From an early age, when he spied cute kids posing in magazine and catalog ads and realized that there was a market for photogenic children with big personalities, Brendan has chased the spotlight. “Some kids have stage parents. I’m the one who insisted on modeling and acting,” says Brendan, who got his wish (for a while anyway) until his parents realized all the go-sees and detergent ads were overwhelming their busy family schedule. Not that his performing career ever really stalled—Brendan is still a rising star on so many different stages. Since politics is perhaps the ultimate theater, it’s only natural that this utterly charming senior has sought and won the “fun role” of class president for each of his four years at Stamford High. “I have always loved the school because it’s so diverse. I feel at home with lots of different kids,” he says of the secret to his electability. Brendan is just as comfortable on the SHS auditorium stage as the one at Curtain Call, where he’s an active performer and board volunteer. His acting and singing repertoire includes everything from a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and Pippin in Pippin to the Cat in the Hat in Seussical the Musical. “Every new role is my favorite role,” says Brendan, who was on his way to an audition the day of our shoot. Did we mention he’s smart and plays sports too? Currently the top-ranked student in his class, the varsity tennis player and avid sailor also has a keen interest in the environment cultivated by his longtime relationship with the SoundWaters Coastal Education Center. “I tend to fall in love with things and give them my all.” Bravo!

Katrina Black

During a visit to the one-room schoolhouse her mother once attended in Kingston, Jamaica, Katrina was profoundly moved by the educational contrasts in one generation of her immigrant family. “It was [so different] to the places where I’ve learned,” says Katrina, who studied at Greenwich Country Day before entering Stanwich as a Merit Scholar in 2010. “There were fifty kids in one room. The roof was leaking. It leaked when my mom was there. The conditions were still terrible.” So Katrina boldly went before her classmates and teachers with a plea. Would they help her “adopt” the Cove Basic School? (The answer, of course, was yes.) And so Katrina started her focused philanthropy by raising money for basic supplies with the S Factor cabaret, a night of song and Jamaican food on the Stanwich campus. Last Christmas, Katrina’s family took supplies to the Jamaican school wrapped as gifts. “It’s special to be part of their learning life now.” The devotion Katrina shows to her mom’s school is a theme in her young life. The self-described “old soul” shares her sensitive side through a passion for music cultivated at church and in school choral groups. An equally dedicated student, Katrina is honing her love of writing as the founding editor of Stanwich’s online newspaper, a role she will keep in her senior year. Among the high-level classes Katrina will tackle this year is AP Psychology. “I’m fascinated by behavior,” says Katrina, who plans to pursue a “well-rounded” education at a top liberal arts college, but hasn’t ruled out a career in the psychology field. Now that’s an open mind.

Paul Whittingham

Paul’s always had a passion for foreign languages (he speaks three) because they take him places his mother tongue can’t. “Understanding [languages] almost helps you understand different parts of the world, because there are cultural nuances in how things are spoken,” says this King Scholar. And since Paul is always up for a “good challenge,” he’s especially drawn to Mandarin Chinese. He’s intrigued by its artful alphabet and tonal qualities, or pinyin, which makes words spelled the same have distinct meanings depending on pronunciation. To get his fellow classmates more interested in the world’s most popular language, he founded the Chinese Club at King, where he’s a senior this fall. Planning fun activities such as a Ping-Pong tournament and a Chinese New Year’s celebration helped Paul build interest in the new club. His efforts were also typical of this Renaissance teen’s leading-man style. Paul’s got a passion for song and dance that earned him significant roles in every school production, but he’s a star offstage too. He first took on such a high-profile leadership role as cofounder of King’s Milestone Club, an affinity group for students of color. Last year Paul was elected King’s student body president, an achievement he modestly credits to his consensus-building style. (Also, a little encouragement from President Barack Obama, whom Paul had the rare chance to meet at Obama’s inauguration.) At King, Paul leads his peers with an “open forum” system that is focused more on listening than issuing executive orders. “Politics can be so divisive. I always try to focus on finding common ground.” Lead on, Paul.

Leora Bell

When Leora decided to devote Sunday mornings to the Fairfield County Friendship Circle, a nonprofit that pairs high-school teens with special-needs students for socialization and support, it became more than a good deed. “I made a wonderful friend,” says Leora of Becky, a local high school student with some complicated medical disorders. “She’s more like me than she is different. We both have brown eyes, brown hair and love art and dancing and hanging out with our friends.” Leora’s bond with Becky made her so committed to Friendship Circle’s goals, she now sits on the agency’s Teenage Volunteer Board, helping to plan fundraisers and special events. “Being her friend taught me to embrace things that might normally intimidate me, because what’s on the other side can change you and make you a much better person.” The AITE senior approaches her diverse interests, ranging from playing several musical instruments to academics, with the same devotion she gives to service. An outstanding student who has racked up an impressive list of honors in a wide variety of subjects, Leora is also that rare learned soul who excels in English and math and science. “You know how you’re supposed to be left-brained or right? I never got the message. I love them exactly the same,” she says with a laugh. “What I like about math is that there’s one right answer and with English you can write something creatively and the answer is open to interpretation.” Her long-term goals include finding an interesting way to pair her two passions creatively. Sounds like a perfect equation.

Claire Howlett

It seems like Claire is always on the right track. Sure, she’s one of the fastest high school runners in the state and Connecticut’s 2013 Gatorade Track & Field Athlete of the Year, but the Westhill runner makes an impressive scholarly finish too. “I like to think of myself primarily as a student,” says Claire. So while she logs fifty-five miles a week of practice for races that have put her in the national spotlight, those competitions come in second to the stellar academics that positioned her at the very top of her class. “I’ve been blessed with a lifelong love of learning,” says Claire, who excels in math (“I like solving problems”) but adds, “I can read and read and read.” It’s incredible that lightning-fast Claire, who started running at Cloonan Middle School, claims she was once “the worst kid on the team. I was slow and had terrible form.” Yet under the tutelage of Westhill Coach Edward Lane she went from a 6:36 to 4:57 mile, placing second in the state in that event. Soon Claire was racing at nationals, placing an impressive ninth among high school five-kilometer athletes. “I’m a kinetic person and there’s something about running that motivates and focuses me and even gets rid of my stress,” she says. Claire’s focus extends to off-track service as well. Her active role in Westhill’s chapter of buildOn took her to the impoverished African nation of Malawi, where she spent three weeks living under harsh conditions as part of its Trek for Knowledge school-building program. “I knew it was rural and poor, but what touched me was the deep joy and strong values of the people despite their hardships. My view of the world is no longer so one-dimensional.” Keep running strong, Claire.

Michael Szemenyei

Golf is a cerebral game. So perhaps it’s no surprise that after years of juggling an intense roster of sports, Mike, an exceptional student, made the call to leave Trinity Catholic’s baseball program to focus on the links. “It came down to the idea that golf is a sport I can play my whole life,” says Mike, explaining how he chose between the rival spring sports. “I like that it requires such mental focus. It’s like a chess game. And every time you play, it’s really about doing your best. You are playing against yourself as much as you are your opponent.” Golf’s requisite of quiet concentration also reflects Michael’s personality and academic interests. The high honors student excels in math and science, and is considering a career in engineering, although he’s still open to many possibilities. “Like golf, the things I like involve problem solving,” he says. Besides having on par academics, he plays forward for the school basketball team and is an active volunteer. So he keeps a scholar-athlete schedule that would make most grown-ups hit the snooze button. “It’s a lot of late nights—school, practice, showers, eat fast and then study as late as I can.” The intense schedule also explains why Michael says he’s not one to goof off at Trinity. “People at school will tell you I’m super quiet, but really it’s just that I’m that focused on learning as much as I can,” says Michael, who shares his smarts as a peer tutor to his fellow Trinity classmates. “It’s a small school and we’re like a family. I like to see other kids improve and do their best, too.”

Bennett Leeds

Once a linebacker for his championship middle school football team, Bennett has the kind of brawny presence that makes him a curiosity in ballet class. “It’s me and a bunch of eleven-year-old girls in puffy tulle skirts,” says Bennett, putting his size fifteen feet in first position to emphasize the way he stands out. Yet Bennett’s place at the barre is, well, right on pointe: “I want to be a triple threat. And so I’ve got to dance.” Indeed, this affable honors student has long had his mesmerizing gaze fixed on Broadway and to that dramatic end, his Stamford High career is punctuated by a playbill’s worth of noteworthy musical theater performances. “I’m an actor before a singer, a singer before I’m a dancer, but I feel like I have to have to be good at everything to accomplish all my goals,” says Bennett. Since starring in Grease freshman year, Bennett’s had a significant role in every SHS theater production including his recent award-winning turn as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls. He’s also spent summers training in pre-college theater programs at Carnegie Mellon and Emerson College. Offstage, Bennett’s got an impressive second act, too. Inspired by his volunteer work at Stamford’s Curtain Call, he also dreams of a future behind the scenes in arts management, or as a drama educator. To that end, he recently helped cofound the Southern Connecticut Board of Theatre Directors as an outlet for brainstorming in the teen thespian leadership community. “Everyone loves an audience, especially me, but theater has been more than that for me. It’s become like a family. I think if you’re passionate about something you should teach it too.” Applause, applause!

Emma Snover

Emma first approached Neighbors Link thinking that by teaching, she might learn. Tutoring the nonprofit’s new immigrant clientele in their ESL classes was a great way to practice her Spanish while exploring her keen interest in global studies. Naturally, Emma’s Spanish improved, “but it was about so much more,” she says. Indeed, once she began working with assimilating immigrants prepping to take their American citizenship tests, Emma instinctively knew she could have a profound impact. “With test taking there’s a certain amount of rote memorization, but I wanted to create an experience that was more meaningful.” So she drafted curriculum for a citizenship test prep course that went beyond requisite facts and figures. “I thought, let’s talk about the stories behind important points in our history, like the American Revolution, and suddenly you are not thinking about a test, but having an experience.” Whether it’s hand carving adorable iPhone apps in fondant for a friend’s birthday cake, leading King’s Unicef chapter as its president, or serving as the school’s head delegate in Model UN, Emma, a King Scholar, commits to her many interests with a similarly creative verve. “Service for me is a true passion and it’s a way for me to explore things I care about,” says Emma, who ultimately imagines an international law-related career. First, though, this exceptional student is beginning her senior year with a heavy load of AP classes and a long list of extracurriculars that complement her steadfast commitment to becoming a more engaged global citizen. Watch out, world!

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