By Kimberly Crossland

When I was asked to write this article, I was looking forward to learning more about a few members of the 2020 graduating class. The responses I received from the valedictorians and salutatorians at each school didn’t just give me a glimpse into the world of high schoolers today — these graduates left me inspired.

Looking back at their tenure in high school, each graduate can walk the virtual stage holding their head high because of the accomplishments achieved. Some accomplishments were personal.

  • Trevor Lusk, valedictorian at Pantano High School, said attending high school helped him overcome his anxiety.
  • Alyssa Molina, the salutatorian at Pantano High School, was most proud of being able to change the stigma around her school as being an alternative school.
  • Olivia Graves, salutatorian at Cienega High School, said happiness was her greatest accomplishment, which came from participating in a variety of activities from dance and choir, to community service and academics.
  • Sarah Bowling, valedictorian at Vail Innovation Center, offered a new perspective, stating a keen sense of self-awareness by learning what makes her happy and what doesn’t was her greatest accomplishment.

Other students cited academics, athletics, and advocacy as their greatest achievements.

  • Victoria Yusupova, Cienega High School valedictorian, was able to grow as a person because of how much she experienced while juggling the role of cheer captain that brought her squad to the state championships, leadership positions in 5 clubs, a part-time job, and a cumulative weighted GPA of 5.6.
  • Natalie Torres, Andrada High School’s salutatorian, ran varsity cross country and track and earned her National Medical Assisting Certification all while recovering from a traumatic saw injury that happened in the beginning of her junior year.
  • Crystal Benjamin, valedictorian at Vail Academy & High School, won first place in\public speaking at a Future Business Leaders of America conference in her sophomore year and placed 16th in the country that summer.
  • Nikita Rafikov, salutatorian at Empire High School, is most proud of the political advocacy he did with his friends, including organizing a walkout against gun violence with over 80 kids from Empire and registering 150 kids across two schools to be able to vote in the November election.
  • Diana RoDee, Empire High School valedictorian, said her greatest achievement was working towards her Capstone Diploma while surrounding herself with a supportive and inspiring community of peers.

And still others kickstarted their career path with their greatest accomplishments.

  • Diamond Benjamin, salutatorian at Vail Academy and High School had her award-winning script, Operation Tatum, produced into a film, while she also worked athletically to help her team remain undefeated in basketball.
  • Sam Rogers, Andrada High School’s valedictorian, kickstarted his career while working alongside school and Raytheon engineers to create an optical engineering program — a program that is getting funded and will allow him to build and execute education and research opportunities at Andrada, University of Arizona, and Pima Community College.

Many students work hard throughout high school, but each of these students have embraced their unique sides outside of the classroom too. Yusupova is a child of refugee immigrants and learned to speak Russian before she learned English while assimilating into American culture. Bowling is also multilingual having taken Spanish, French, and Italian classes. Lusk, who aspires to be a psychologist, thrives on helping others inside the class or with personal issues. RoDee enjoys the pursuit interests that span a variety of disciplines from social work to hard sciences. Crystal Benjamin is also multi-passionate, participating in activities that span athletics to the arts. Diamond Benjamin also has a passion for various interests, including basketball, paleontology, and astronomy. Molina is part of a military family, so has traveled extensively from a very young age. Graves also loves to travel and was able to go on two school-sponsored EF Tour trips. Rafikov loves doing anything that inspires creativity, such as the mock trial he participated in during high school that taught her how to adjust strategically on the fly. Torres is highly musical, playing in the Acacia Concert Band, Esmond Station Concert Band, Vail Youth Symphony, and Pima Jazz Band, and plans to continue playing for the University of Arizona. Rogers’ artistic talents come in the form of inventions and he has sold his 3D models of a Gary the Snail iPhone case and an invention called the Chanclarang.

Each student is proud of their education and the school they attended.

Lusk and Molina want the community to know how caring the staff and teachers are at Pantano High School. “Everyone treats each other with respect and we truly do care about each other,” said Molina. “If I could do high school over again, I would make the same decisions that led me to [Pantano],” Lusk said.

Rafikov and RoDee felt at home at Empire High School during their career. Rafikov wants the community to know, “Empire opened the world up for me to explore and thanks to the great teachers, friends and even administration, I have learned so much.” RoDee agreed, commenting, “All the staff members are there for us to help us grow.”

Yusupova and Graves are full of respect for Cienega High School. “I want my community to know one major thing,” Yusupova said, “Cienega cares. They really do.” Graves agrees, saying, “Cienega is a school filled to the brim with teachers and faculty who absolutely love what they do and love who they do it with. They have all been so inspiring to me!”

Both of the Benjamin sisters, Diamond and Crystal, agreed that Vail Academy & High School is an excellent place to learn. “Vail Academy and High School is a tight-knit community,” Crystal Benjamin said about her alma mater. “It was a place that I was free to be myself, and I am grateful for that,” commented Diamond.

Andrada is equally respected by its graduates. “Andrada Polytechnic was an amazing school that has a loving and accepting community, as well as many unique opportunities in career and technical training,” said Rogers. “The teachers and staff are very good people who are willing to listen and provide opportunities for students to grow and achieve their goals,” Torres agreed.

Vail Innovation Center’s graduate, Bowling, said, “Transferring to VDLP was the best decision of my life. It takes a lot of discipline, but being able to work at my own pace was worth it.”

Each of these students have big aspirations as they navigate the next chapter of their lives. Here’s what’s on the horizon for these graduates:

  • Yusupova plans to attend Arizona State University and study psychology.
  • Rogers plans to attend the University of Arizona Honors College and major in optical or electrical engineering before getting a Master’s degree to work for Raytheon or DARPA as a researcher.
  • Bowling plans to attend the University of Arizona to become a psychologist working with teenagers and young adults.
  • Lusk also plans to attend the University of Arizona and become a psychologist.
  • RoDee plans to attend the Barrett Honors College at ASU and study sustainability and physics.
  • Molina plans to go to beauty school and get her certification in cosmetology.
  • Diamond Benjamin plans to attend Grand Canyon University’s Honors College to major in film with an emphasis on screenwriting and a minor in Business.
  • Crystal Benjamin will also attend the Grand Canyon University Honors College and study business communication with a minor in worship arts.
  • Torres plans to attend the University of Arizona and major in physiology and medical sciences, with a minor in music before attending Johns Hopkins Medical School and becoming a flight surgeon for the United States Air Force.
  • Graves plans to attend Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University to study Justice Studies and Journalism with a minor in Dance.
  • Rafikov plans to attend the University of Arizona and study architecture.

Be sure to check out their essays to be inspired by the future of the students coming from the Vail community.

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