Editor’s note: Pandemic-delayed high school graduations for Cherokee County high schools are scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The top scholars of Cherokee County School District’s class of 2020 have plans for the future and advice for the next graduating class.
Each of the district’s six high schools announced earlier this spring their valedictorians and salutatorians, those who earned their school’s highest GPAs.
“We’re so proud of these exceptional students for the many years of dedication and determination that led to this important honor,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Hightower said. “The School Board and I look forward to celebrating with them in July and to hearing about their many successes in the next chapters of their lives. They are excellent representatives of their schools and our School District, and I know their families, teachers and our entire community joins me in congratulating them and wishing them the best.”
Cherokee High School
Valedictorian Anna Huller will be attending the Georgia Institute of Technology as a Stamps President’s Scholar, majoring in computer science.
“There I will work hard to become a master at computer science, to improve as a leader and to help my community as much as possible,” Huller said.
Huller plans to join two clubs, CS + Social Good and biomedical robotics to learn outside of the classroom and have fun in the process.
“I have always loved math and science, but I have also always had a creative side,” Huller said. “Computer science allows me to combine those strengths in order to create products that advance society. Not only do I get to do what I love, but I also get to help people. I have always been interested in leading edge science, and I am very excited to be at the forefront of new technology in the future.”
Huller said that every class taken, every extracurricular activity she participated in and every person she met in high school shaped her experience into one she is proud of.
“Everything I did helped me become the student, person and leader that I am today. Each moment (good or bad) helped prepare me for my future,” Huller said.
Family, friends, teachers, administrators and community members all played a role in helping her to achieve her goals by believing in, inspiring and calming her down in times of stress, Huller said.
“I am very thankful for the support of everyone who helped me get here,” she said. “I am proud of this accomplishment because I worked very hard during high school, but I would also like to say that I met so many brilliant students during high school, and no matter what anyone’s class rank is, I believe that everyone has a capacity for greatness and the ability to influence those around them.”
Huller’s advice to high school students, to not give up on their goals in the face of obstacles and to discover their passions.
“No matter how hard or even impossible something may seem, if you stay up a little bit later, study a little bit harder and push yourself a little bit more than you think is possible, you can not only accomplish any academic goal but also grow as a person in the process,” Huller said. “Additionally, while it is very important to value academics, it is also important to discover your passions outside of the classroom by getting involved with your community and exploring your interests, so don’t forget to save some time for that.”
Salutatorian Sabrina Nguyen plans to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology with the intent of majoring in neuroscience.
“I have always been piqued by the topic of psychology throughout my whole life. I always wanted to know about why certain behaviors are prominent in comparison to others,” Nguyen said. “Neuroscience became more of a priority for me because while I was interested in the psyche of humanity itself, I was more interested in how chemical and biological functions of the brain work to create different behaviors.”
Nguyen said she feels proud to be able to receive such a highly accomplished title.
“I am humbled in that I know that this title won’t define the future ahead. This title just shows me that I have the ability to work harder so that I can continue to succeed in the future,” she said.
Though the shelter-in-place due to the coronavirus has been a low for many, Nguyen said her biggest highlight of the year has occurred over the last few months.
“Classes were all done online. For me, this transition was a difficult one, but I eventually worked until the results were just as fruitful as they were before this move,” she said. “While interactions with my other classmates were minimal, I feel as if we were still able to function as a class.”
Hard work is key, Nguyen said.
“My advice regarding academics is that they should still work hard despite it being their senior year. Don’t procrastinate so much because this coming year will be very busy, leaving little time to focus solely on academics,” she said. “Overall, academics don’t mean everything, so don’t be too focused on academics, and enjoy this last year left. I wish the next graduating class good luck.”
Creekview High School
Valedictorian Lauren Pitkins will be attending Mercer University as a psychology major.
“I find the complexities of the human mind very interesting,” Pitkins said. “There are so many sectors of psychology, and the field is constantly changing. Thus, the possibilities are endless and I could pave my own path in the field.”
Pitkins said her future is open to opportunity, however.
“My main priority in life is serving others and making an impact on those that I serve, so if psychology is not the best option for doing that, I am open to changing my path,” she said. “At the moment, though, I believe psychology will give me multiple ways to serve those around me.”
She also plans to join many clubs and get involved in intramural sports.
“I am going to college with a mindset of discovery, and I am very excited to grow and develop as an individual over the next four years,” she said.
In high school, cross country was Pitkins’ favorite experience.
“The sport has truly taught me the importance of sacrifice, dedication, perseverance and teamwork,” she said. “We ran through insane conditions not only to become better runners, but to become tougher runners. Running is such a mental sport, and the mental strength I have developed from cross country will stay with me the rest of my life.”
Pitkins said she feels blessed to have attended Creekview High School for the past four years.
“I had incredible teachers that challenged me and pushed me to be the best I could be. I also had incredible family members, friends and teammates that supported me and encouraged me along the way. Without these people, I would not be the person I am today,” she said.
She leaves her fellow high school students with these words.
“Learn, learn some more, and then give yourself the grace you deserve,” Pitkins said. “Remember that learning is so much more than a grade on a test. More importantly, remember that you are so much more than a grade on a test.”
Salutatorian Hannah West will be attending the Georgia Institute of Technology to pursue a degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
“The ability to use my critical thinking skills to solve complex problems in order to help a lot of people is the main factor in why I want to use my degree to pursue a career in pharmaceutical research and development,” West said.
She has also joined the Explore Living and Learning community.
“I will be surrounded by many like-minded people who have an interest in using their science education for health research,” she said.
West said she is honored to hold this title for the Creekview class of 2020.
“I am so happy to have recognition for all of my hard work and late nights these past four years,” she said. “The biggest highlight of high school has to be all of the people I have met, including my friends and teachers, as they have made an everlasting impact on my life. I am so grateful to have been surrounded by so many unique and incredible individuals.”
Her advice to others is to set priorities and not letting school overwhelm them.
“It is so important to have adequate time in the week where school is not your number one priority, so that you can combat the stress of high school while still making sure all of your work is taken care of,” she said.
Etowah High School
Valedictorian Rachel Hugenberg will be attending the University of Georgia as a part of its Honor Program, majoring in Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“I believe that it is perfectly suited for me. I am an extroverted person with a passion for service, and I absolutely love math and science, especially chemistry,” she said. “Serving patients as a pharmacist would allow me to express all of these passions, while also providing me with an opportunity to make an impact on the world.”
Hugenberg plans to pursue a master’s in Business Administration and Doctorate in Pharmacy following her completion of her bachelors degree.
“In times such as these, it is evident how imperative the medical field and medical workers are, and I am honored to be striving for a career in such a vital field,” Hugenberg said.
She will also pursue organizations that help serve the community and enhance her leadership skills, as well as go through sorority recruitment this fall.
“Attaining the honor of valedictorian has been beyond a blessing. I have dreamed of achieving this accomplishment since I was a young girl, and to see it finally come to fruition is so incredible and humbling,” Hugenberg said. “I am so grateful for my family, my teachers, the staff of Etowah High School and my peers that have assisted me in reaching this goal. Without them, I can certainly say that I would not be where I am today.”
Hugenberg said high school has been unforgettable due to being involved in a number of academic ventures, sports and clubs.
“Etowah has been my home away from home, and at times it felt like I was at school more than I was at home with all my activities. Because of all I was involved in, my experience as an Eagle blossomed and surpassed my expectations coming into high school,” she said.
Hugenberg enjoyed it all: planning the first homecoming dance in four years through the Student Government Association, scoring her longest career three point shot for basketball in Etowah’s new gym during Senior Night, achieving her personal best time in the first cross country 5K of the season, finding her passion for long distance running after her first race for track, having fun at out-of-town tournaments with the tennis team and walking into each class with excitement.
“But, most of all, I will never forget the amazing people I have met and grown alongside these past four years. I would never trade this unique and truly outstanding experience for anything in the world,” Hugenberg said. “It will definitely be bittersweet leaving my teachers, the staff and my friends behind as we all go our separate ways, but I will always remember each and every experience I have had at Etowah with such fondness and happiness.”
Hugenberg is a strong advocate for excelling in academics while balancing life outside of school.
“Think about how many hours a week you have practice, you have clubs or you have family events. From there, make your schedule accordingly,” she said. “I want them to make sure to not overload themselves and stress, but rather to strive to do the best they believe they can. I want them to be the best version of themselves while also living a happy and healthy life. I want them to find the balance. When they do, I can promise that their academic life will only improve.”
Salutatorian Maxwell Marchetti plans to attend the University of Georgia and intends to major in Data Science and minor in Business.
“Being a data scientist is interesting to me because it combines computer based analytics and problem solving with a social business environment,” Marchetti said. “I like the idea of solving problems on my own or with a team, and then presenting my results in an understandable format to clients. Data science will allow me to have a diverse skill set that could be useful throughout my future.”
Marchetti said he is thankful to have received the salutatorian title.
“It is an honor to represent the Etowah class of 2020. I was lucky enough to have had many amazing teachers that helped me further my knowledge and pushed me to be a better student,” he said. “Thank you to all of the teachers that have helped me throughout my high school career.”
The highlight of his high school career, however, was volunteering with Hidden Falls Homework Helpers.
“I volunteered with a group of other high school students who helped elementary school students with their homework every week,” Marchetti said. “I was able to build relationships with the students while I helped further their learning by helping with their homework, and I have been able to learn valuable lessons from the students that have changed my outlook on my life.”
His advice to fellow students in Cherokee County, set goals.
“My advice would be to choose a specific goal of where you want to be at the end of your senior year and work hard all year to achieve it,” Marchetti said. “This could be getting a high enough test score to get into your dream school, maintaining high grades throughout the year, preparing for a career when you graduate, or anything else. Planning a goal for your future allows you to take the necessary steps to achieve it.”
River Ridge High School
Valedictorian Alicia Mazzurra will be attending Yale University with the Jack Kent Cooke College Scholarship.
“While I am quite undecided on major or career, I’m really excited about taking classes on race, creative writing and ecology,” she said. “Writing fascinates me with how it can be used as an influential tool in society, a form of vulnerable self-expression and a bridge between people of starkly different backgrounds. I like biology because of its artistic complexity and how science can create ground-breaking changes that positively impact others.”
Mazzurra’s said her future is full of possibilities.
“Baking and making art allow me to create things for the people I love while also experimenting in new ways with flavor and color. Whether I become a baker, scientist, writer, or something completely different, I just want to focus on loving and connecting with people, creating and learning for the sake of learning,” she said.
Achieving the valedictorian title, she said, is not a measure of intellect but rather a reflection of support.
“I think that class rank does not define anybody and should not be used as a measure of intelligence, value or potential. Rather, for me, it is a reflection of the amazing support that I’ve had and the work that I’ve put into just trying the best that I can,” Mazzurra said. “I could not have made it here without my mom and her endless sacrifices, the love of my family or God. I am also so thankful for the dedication of my teachers and the Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars Program.”
Mazzurra said the highlight of her high school career was being a part of the poetry club.
“Hosting a slam at the local library with my poetry club was a beautiful experience full of community, fun and talent,” she said. “I really miss seeing my club, hugging them and hearing the powerful ways that they utilize words to not only express themselves, but also change the world.”
She encourages the next class to find what they love and to focus on what matters.
“Focus on what matters: the people around you and your future. If college is not the best fit for the long-term careers you hope to pursue, then please, do not go into debt for a degree you won’t use. For those of you who want to go to college, work hard and get those scholar dollars,” she said. “Find what you love to learn about, love to do, and pour yourself into those passions. Don’t worry about what everyone else’s best is, because in the end we’re all running our own races alone. Cut the toxic people out of your life and hold tight to the friends who elevate, motivate and encourage you to do the best that you can. And, in all things, love.”
Salutatorian Sathvika Narasimhan will be attending the University of Georgia next year with a major in Computer Science while on the pre-med track.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a doctor. When I was seven, I saw a doctor fixing my baby brother’s dislocated arm, transforming my mother’s tears and hours of sorrow into a smile filled with gratitude. This incident only strengthened my drive to become a doctor,” she said. “A doctor who can not only help physically heal her patients but can truly make a difference in their lives through compassion.”
Computer science, she said, was introduced to her during high school.
“My interest in the subject has grown over the years as I’ve continued to learn about its numerous applications to several other fields, including medicine,” Narasimhan said. “I’m very excited to explore the numerous interconnections between medicine and technology, which could lead to breakthroughs, helping me to better serve my patients.”
Narasimhan said she is also excited to pursue undergraduate research and being involved with volunteer groups on campus.
In regards to her new title of salutatorian, she said she feels fortunate and honored.
“It is rewarding to be named the salutatorian in recognition of my hard work throughout high school,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful to those who’ve been with me every step of the way to achieve this honor, including my parents, friends and teachers that have motivated, inspired and guided me throughout my life.”
The “simple moments” are what Narasimhan will remember the most from high school.
“Going to early morning clubs I struggled having to wake up early for, but enjoyed every second of, rushing through hallways and running across stairwells into the next class with my friends just as the tardy bell rang, bonding as a team and going on crazy adventures every Science Olympiad competition day, bursting out laughing in the middle of physics class because of something my friend just said…the list goes on and on,” she said. “Every one of them together makes up my fondest memories of high school. They may have felt insignificant at the time, but those moments are the ones I will cherish most.”
Narasimhan said there are three things she would tell current high school students.
“Enjoy the process of learning, work hard and aim high. Remember, hard work may not always pay off the way you expected, but it will never be wasted. Always be hopeful,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to explore new things, don’t be afraid to be different, but most importantly don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Remember to make time for family and friends. Form new relationships while strengthening your old ones. More than your grades or awards, these relationships we have, filled with kindness and compassion, are what help us grow and evolve.”
Sequoyah High School
Valedictorian Valerie Ambriz-Villela will be attending Yale University as a Gates Scholar, with a plan to double major in Global Affairs and Ethnicity, Race and Migration.
“I’ve always had a passion for helping others, which is why I want my career to revolve around helping underprivileged and oppressed communities,” Ambriz-Villela said. “I plan on attending law school so that I can become a human rights lawyer, focusing on immigration. I’d ideally love to work for the American Civil Liberties Union or start my own nonprofit, working in other countries as well.”
Growing up being told she was “born smart,” Ambriz-Villela said her achievements are nothing short of the result of hard work.
“It’s the result of long nights spent doing hours of homework and studying for that Advanced Placement Physics test. It’s learning to balance extracurriculars — volunteering and clubs — with academics,” she said. “I’m grateful that I’ve had such amazing parents, sisters and friends who have always encouraged me and pushed me to be the best version of myself.”
“Not only did it improve my public speaking skills, but it also gave me a second family at Sequoyah. I met some of the best people here and made lasting friendships,” she said. “Traveling to the Harvard national tournament in Cambridge every year was such an amazing experience. While staying up until 3 a.m. prepping for the big tournament was exhausting and stressful, laughing over dinner in Harvard Square later that day and having a snowball fight at midnight with my team made it worth the while.”
Ambriz-Villela said her advice to other students is to “be in constant competition with yourself.”
“If you compare your achievements to someone else’s, how will you ever grow? Never doubt your abilities, even after getting a low grade or making a mistake. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up on a test. After all, we’re all human,” she said. “Remember, a number on a transcript doesn’t define you, which is something that I’ve struggled to understand for a while. Instead, what you do as a person and how you impact others is what really matters.”
Salutatorian Cailyn Hooper will be attending Smith College as a Student Research in Departments scholarship recipient and is interested in pursuing a Sociology major.
The college’s STRIDE scholarship pairs students with faculty members as paid research assistants.
“I really want to help people, and Sociology will set me up for positions working at nonprofits,” Hooper said. “Also, I think it’s very important to understand others and to understand the systems of oppression that are at hand in order to avoid being complicit in them.”
She said she was proud of achieving the salutatorian title.
“I’m very proud to be part of the several-year-long-trend of all female valedictorians and salutatorians at Sequoyah high school,” she said.
Hooper said the highlight of her high school career was joining the school’s newspaper.
“I really enjoyed being the copy editor of my school’s newspaper. I only joined my junior year, but my two years writing for the Arrow really strengthened my writing ability and allowed me to become more comfortable voicing my opinions,” she said.
Her advice to fellow students of Cherokee County, focus on passions.
“Honestly, if I had to do it again I would focus less on having perfect grades and more on participating in extracurriculars that I was passionate about,” she said.
Woodstock High School
Valedictorian Hayden Johnson plans to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology and major in biomedical engineering following a pre-health pathway.
Following his bachelors degree, he plans to apply to medical school or begin a career in the engineering industry.
“My parents always worked in the medical industry. Seeing that growing up fascinated me and likely pushed me toward the direction in which I plan today,” Johnson said. “However, throughout my education I also enjoyed math and the sciences outside of the health field. I wish to continue studying in a field which these subjects exist. Biomedical engineering seemed like the most interesting path which plays to each of my passions.”
Johnson thanked the school for recognizing his achievement of valedictorian and his family, friends and teachers for helping him through the years.
“While I am no doubt ecstatic to have been named Woodstock High’s valedictorian, I am also aware that this achievement is not the end of a successful school career but the beginning of the next step of my educational journey,” he said. “I am excited to start the next chapter of my life.”
Her greatest highlight of high school could not be consolidated to a moment, she said, but is rather a culmination of all four years.
“Over high school, I most enjoyed building the relationships and friendships I have today with both my peers and instructors. I know high school is a place of learning, but it is also where you find out who you are as a person,” Johnson said. “My highlight was building those relationships and finding out who I really am.”
Johnson said it’s important to remember to be passionate, go with the flow and always work toward goals.
“First and foremost, I urge the next graduating class to follow their passions no matter what they may be. People are more likely to be happy and successful in a career and academically when they build off their own interests,” he said. “Furthermore, I encourage each student to go with the flow. With turbulent times such as today it is hard to tell what the future may hold, so be ready for anything. Finally, the simplest yet most important advice I have is to keep working hard toward your goals.”
Salutatorian Zakwan Khan will be attending the University of Chicago.
“It’s definitely been an enjoyable moment,” Khan said of being named salutatorian of Woodstock High Schools class of 2020.
He said the biggest highlight of his high school career was traveling cross-culturally.
“Traveling to Morocco on a study abroad scholarship during the summer prior to my senior year,” Khan said.
He leaves his fellow high school students, the next graduating class, with these words.
“Make sure you remain cognizant that academics aren’t everything,” Khan said. “Pairing your academics with activities that you’re genuinely passionate about will take you a lot further than solely striving for the highest grades on everything, and will more than adequately compensate for grades that are somewhat lower.”