Say hello to Fayette’s Class of 2015

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The 2014-2015 school year in Fayette County has come to a close. And with the end of the school year it is time to take a look at the valedictorians and salutatorians at each of Fayette’s five public high schools.

Each of the valedictorians and salutatorians were asked a number of questions by the school system. Several of those questions and their responses are included below.

The Fayette County High School Valedictorian for 2015 is Janeen Thomas, daughter of Santhosh and Rachel Thomas.

Janeen will be graduating with a 4.395 grade point average and will be attending Yale University with a major in biology/pre-med.

Janeen will receive the National Merit Eaton Scholarship and the Walter G. Harrison Scholarship.

Commenting on the key message of her commencement speech, Janeen said, “The key message of my commencement speech will be to not let fear keep you from being happy. Don’t be afraid to take risks, to do what has never been done, or to ask for help. I also plan to include words of wisdom from others.”

Pertaining to the best advice she received in high school, who gave that advice and how it helped – “My father always encourages me with ‘Don’t worry. Take it easy.’ My mother tells me, ‘God will help you, so don’t lose faith!’ My parents’ advice helped me get through rough patches because I know everything works out for the best when God is in control of my life.”

Janeen was asked if she ever thought she would represent her class when entering high school.

“I never thought I would represent my class as valedictorian when I started high school because I did not even know about being valedictorian. When I did learn about the honor, I never imagined I could achieve it,” she said.

Commenting on what the honor of being named valedictorian means to her, Janeen said, “Being named valedictorian means having the honor of representing such an amazing school and class of students. It is also a great honor to be able to speak to my peers as we make this great transition together. I know I could not have achieved this honor with the help of my family, friends, teachers and community.”

Asked about her favorite high school memory – “I have many great high school memories, but my favorite one is probably being a part of Who’s Who for my class. We missed school to take pictures and have lunch. I had an amazing time with my friends, and the lunch was scrumptious,” Janeen said.

Aside from being named valedictorian, Janeen said the highlight of her senior year “has been receiving the opportunity to participate in the International Science and Engineering Fair. It has been an honor to create a device with my brother that can save many children’s lives.”

The Fayette County High School Salutatorian for 2015 is Edward Legaspi, son of Elinor Legaspi.

Edward will be graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and will be attending Auburn University with a major in business administration.

Edward will receive the Hope Scholarship, Zell Miller Scholarship and Auburn Charter Scholarship.

Speaking about the key message in his commencement speech, Edward said, “The key message of my commencement speech is ‘The importance of never taking any experience for granted.’”

Pertaining to the best advice he received in high school, who gave that advice and how it helped, Edward said, “The best advice I ever received was that it was okay to fail. My U.S. history teacher, Mr. Miller, gave me this advice. His advice showed me not to be entirely grade-obsessed and only focused on making a 100. I learned the most important aspect of school was to try my best. With this advice, I know I can handle any setbacks in college or a future career, because I know I can get through any single failure as long as I continue to give my best effort.”

Edward was asked if he ever thought he would be representing his class when he started high school.

“When I entered high school, I thought I was average. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be salutatorian. In previous years (middle school and elementary school), I always maintained an A or B average (mostly B’s). I felt intimidated when I first started high school. This time was the first I chose to challenge myself and take gifted and accelerated classes. I was surrounded by greatly intelligent and gifted students, and I was unsure if I would succeed.”

Commenting on the honor of being named salutatorian, Edward said, “I feel the honor is a validation. Throughout high school, I prided myself on always giving my 110 percent in anything I tried. Receiving this honor fills me with joy. I now can look back at all my hardships and stress from my high school career and know there was a reward. I am so glad to be representing my graduating class.”

Edward said his favorite high school memory “would have to be from my days as a junior marshal. My school does a program where they reward the top 24 students by allowing them to be released from school a week earlier in exchange for helping out with different school functions and setting up for graduation. The best part of this experience was being able to spend time with my fellow marshals and being able to take a break from school work. This experience had to be one of the best times I had while in school.”

Asked about the highlight of his senior year beyond being named salutatorian, Edward said, “One of the most memorable parts of school this year was having my picture on the cover of a magazine for winning an essay contest. I had previously known I would be the cover, but I had no idea I would be recognized by everyone. When I came back to school, all my classmates and teachers congratulated me. I had never experienced “fame” like this before, and I greatly enjoyed the feeling.”

The Whitewater High School Valedictorian for 2015 is Jamie DeCicco, daughter of Christine DeCicco.

Jamie will be graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and will be attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a major in biology.

Jamie will receive the Whitewater High School PTSO Scholarship.

Referencing the best piece of advice she received in high school, who gave that advice and how it helped, Jamie said, “My mom and my gymnastics coach always tell me that I am capable of more than I think. This message has helped me change my mindset when approaching an obstacle, making it easier to overcome. It has reminded me to believe in and trust myself whether I am taking a test, competing in gymnastics, or trying something new. This piece of advice is helps motivate me to continue pushing myself to become the best possible me I can be.”

Jamie was asked if she ever thought she would be representing her class as valedictorian when she entered high school.

“When I started high school, I never really thought about becoming valedictorian. I didn’t really picture myself as a contender whatsoever. I always just try to do my best in everything I do, and as a result, my hard work has paid off,” she said.

Speaking about the honor of being named valedictorian, Jamie said, “I hope that I can be seen a good example of a motivated student who sets goals, works hard, and is always pushing herself or making sacrifices in order to be successful. I hope I can show how the work of each individual can really make a difference. I am honored to be recognized for all of my hard work and dedication towards education, which I value greatly. Additionally, I know there are many students like me who have worked very hard and done so many amazing things, both inside and outside of the classroom, who should also be very proud.”

Jamie also spoke about her favorite high school memory.

“Being voted homecoming princess my senior year was one of my favorite moments in high school,” Jamie said. “I never expected to win anything like that. I had fun picking out a dress and getting ready with the help of my friends, and my favorite moment was when they called my name as the princess; my friends freaked out and actually starting crying because they were so happy for me.“

Jamie in commenting on the highlight of her senior year said, “Committing to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to be on the women’s gymnastics team has definitely been the highlight of my senior year. Three years ago, I would have never thought I would be possible for me to do college gymnastics, but through my hard work and the help of my coach, I was able to fulfill my greatest wish and cannot wait for the experience!”

The Whitewater High School Salutatorian for 2015 is Kathryn (Kate) Lewis, daughter of Tony and Sonya Lewis.

Kate will be attending Berry College with a major of neuroscience/pre-med.

Kate will receive the Whitewater HS PTSO Scholarship, Provost Scholarship, Winshape Scholarship, Berry College Music Scholarship, Mercer University Music Scholarship, Veterans of Foreign Wars Voice of Democracy Certificate of Merit, Penfield Scholarship, North Georgia Academic Scholarship and Zell Miller Scholarship.

Kate said the best advice she received, who gave it and how it helped was “from my youth group’s female intern. She told me that the best way to manage your life was to use the five-finger rule. You can only effectively commit to five things at a time, one for each finger. This rule of thumb (literally) has given me perspective about my commitments and my priorities.”

Kate was asked if she ever thought she would be representing her class as salutatorian when she began high school.

“When I started high school, I wanted to do my best and nothing less. I hoped to be in the top five, but I did not predict that I would graduate second in my class,” Kate said. “I figured that the stress and challenge of advanced coursework would have weighed me down, but instead I surprised myself and rose to meet the challenge.”

Kate said the honor of being named salutatorian means that “After numerous late nights of studying and endless piles of homework, the title of salutatorian truly honors my work ethic and provides tangibility to my accomplishments.”

Kate’s favorite high school memory was the experience of “our marching band’s trip to Disney. I rode the Rockin’ Roller Coaster for the first time, marched around Cinderella’s Castle and had the best Chinese food of my life.”

Asked about the highlight of her senior year, Kate said, “The highlight of my senior year would be winning Grand Champion at my last marching band competition. All the seniors got to stand on the field to receive the awards, and our old assistant band director, Mr. Truan, was there to witness our accomplishment.”

The Sandy Creek High School Valedictorian for 2015 is Taylour Howell, daughter of Millette and Reginald Howell.

Taylour will be graduating with a 4.0 grade point average. She has not decided on the college she will be attending.

Taylour will receive the Ron Brown Scholarship and National Achievement Scholarship.

Commenting on the best advice she received, who gave that advice and how it helped, Taylour said, “‘Happiness is a choice.’ – Shay Carl Butler. This helped me to realize the futility of any opposition, as I am in charge of how I feel and how I react to my surroundings. I take an active role in achieving my own happiness by doing what I want to do unapologetically. It helped me not to let others take advantage of my gifts or my talents at the cost of my own merriment.”

On her thoughts about representing her class as valedictorian when she first started high school, Taylour said she “definitely wasn’t planning on it. I entered high school with no explicit academic goals. Coming across the street from Flat Rock, I was virtually oblivious to anything high school entailed except marching bands and student parking lots.”

Asked her thoughts on the honor of being named valedictorian, Kate said, “Being named valedictorian tells me that I probably spent an unhealthy amount of time reading essays. No, honestly though, it’s not really an honor so much as a technicality. Sure, I made an effort to make good grades, but so do a lot of students around the globe. The title, in the end, makes no difference. To me, at least.”

Taylour was asked about her favorite high school memory.

“Other than binge-watching episodes of Celebrity Apprentice, my favorite high school memory has to be spending time with my best friends in and outside of school,” Taylour said.

When it came to the highlight of her senior year, Taylour said, “Traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet and connect with fellow African American intellectuals as well as with prospective employers at the American Journey Awards.”

The Sandy Creek High School Salutatorian for 2015 is Preston Earle, son of Greg and Cheryl Earle.

Preston will graduate with a 4.167 grade point average and will attend Mercer University with a major in pure mathematics.

Preston will receive the Mercer Presidential Scholarship.

Preston was asked about the key message in his commencement speech.

“We are all called to love; we are all called to serve. In order to be successful, we must find our vocations bristling with love and ordered towards service,” he said.

Commenting on the best advice he received, Preston said, “Just about every word out of the mouth of Dr. Tony Pattiz was inspiring and profound. His constant guidance and support helped me to decide to dual-enroll at Georgia State and get a head start on my undergraduate degree requirements.”

Preston also had thoughts on the honor of being named salutatorian.

“It is a great honor, but I also know it means very little once I leave Sandy Creek,” Preston said. “I just hope to use this as an opportunity to help and inspire my fellow classmates through my words at commencement.”

Asked about his favorite memory of high school, Preston said it was Spanish IV.

“There never was a class so versatile, interesting and hilarious,” he said.

Asked about the highlight of his senior year, Preston said, “Being named as a Presidential Scholar at Mercer University was exciting. However, I suspect the highlight of the year will come for me when I speak in front of my class mates during graduation.”

The McIntosh High School Valedictorian for 2015 is Alex Tchaykov, son of Diliana Panova and George Tchaykov.

Alex will attend the University of Georgia with a major in music, English and philosophy.

Alex will receive the Zell Miller Scholarship and SMAMTA Piano Scholarship.

His commencement speech will include the key message that notes “time will change all but the timeless.”

Asked about the best advice he received, from whom and how it has helped him, Alex said, “Don’t think too much. I can’t tell you the number of people, peers and adults that have given me this advice. Sometimes, over-analyzing a situation isn’t the way to find a solution. In fact, more likely, it’s staring at you straight in the face, and you’re just pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Commenting on his thoughts on representing his class as valedictorian and the honor of being named, Alex said, “When I first started high school, I didn’t believe whatsoever in my academic abilities. I wasn’t in the gifted program, my middle school grades were pretty average, and I lacked a real exuberance for school in general. I’m really not certain at what point my perception changed, but certainly something sparked the competitive spirit in me.”

Alex also shared his perspective on his favorite high school memory and the highlight of his senior year.

“What a question. There are many, but the first thing that pops into my head is all the discussions and conversations that were had here,” Alex explained. “Whether in class, at lunch, at club meetings, on the golf cart, at Starbucks, or any other location; whether funny, tragic, awkward, or philosophical, there was great fun to be had.”

The McIntosh High School Salutatorian for 2015 is Tarna Zander-Velloso, daughter of Elizabeth Zander-Velloso and Victor Velloso.

Tarna graduated with a 4.318 grade point average and will attend Yale University with a major in environmental studies or international studies.

The key message in Tarna’s commencement speech will be, “‘There is no secret ingredient’ to success, happiness or fame. We are all unique, so life is about finding our own unique bliss and making our own choices. I’m going to try to give as little advice/messages as possible and instead focus on the memorable moments of high school and what we can do with our futures after graduation.”

Commenting on the best advice she received, Tarna said, “‘It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates.’ I don’t know if this really counts as advice, but learning this optimistic quote from ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in Mrs. Carman’s AP Language class taught me to value the good in people more. It was funny because everyone in my class, including me, disagreed with it, but as time has passed, I began to side with Hawthorne more and more.”

Asked if she ever thought she would be representing her class as salutatorian when she entered high school, Tarna explained, “It was a dream in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really think I would end up as salutatorian right when I started high school. I knew I would do fairly well because I had always been a straight A student, but it wasn’t until high school that I started getting really high A’s. I don’t exactly remember how I got so much better at school all of a sudden; maybe it was the competitive nature of academic ranking that brought out something extra in me.”

Tarna also gave her thoughts on the honor of being named the school’s salutatorian.

“It’s a great feeling and one of many things that has made my senior year special,” Tarna said. “The honor reminds me that I am smarter than I sometimes think I am, and it’s a testament to four years of incredibly hard work and a perseverant dedication to something that I love: learning. It means that I was somehow strong-willed and responsible enough to both commit myself to my studies and find enjoyment in the little moments and big lessons throughout my classes.”

Asked about her favorite high school memory, Tarna said, “I would say that it was the 2013 Friday Night Lights track meet at Starr’s Mill because it was a great night for the team and a special turning point for me in my track career. Not only did my 4×800 meter relay team of Joy Cummings, Lauren Wilson and Carson Silbert set a meet record (even with Lauren and me dropping the baton on the last exchange), I also set two big personal records in the 800 meter run & the triple jump.”

As for the highlight of her senior year, Tarna said it was, “Getting into my dream school, Yale, and finally breaking 20 minutes in the 5K for cross-country.”

The Starr’s Mill High School Valedictorian for 2015 is Emma Wernecke, daughter of Mary and Bill Wernecke.

Emma is graduating with at 102.833 grade point average and will attend the University of Notre Dame with a major in business.

Emma is a National Merit Finalist and will receive the Miss Starr’s Mill High School Scholarship, State Farm Leadership Essay Scholarship and the Miss Georgia’s Outstanding Teen Scholarship.

Asked about the key message in her commencement speech, Emma said “I would like to encourage students to take every opportunity for personal and intellectual growth. At 17 years old, I can’t pretend to have all the answers about success in life, but from my experiences, I have found it so crucial to believe in yourself and your abilities. Never let anyone set limits for what you can achieve.”

Emma said the best advice she received came from her dance director.

“Ms. Sherri Davis, has always reminded her dancers not to be complacent and self-satisfied,” said Emma. “There is always something more to improve upon or achieve. I took this advice to heart beyond the realm of dance as well, constantly remembering to challenge myself to be the best I can be in everything I do.”

When asked if she ever thought she would be representing her class as valedictorian, Emma responded, “Class rank was one of the last things on my mind when I was starting high school. I was doing all I could to learn and do well in my classes, and I didn’t know we would even find out about class rank until I was called up to the office one day.”

Emma also commented on the honor of being named valedictorian.

“The honor of being named valedictorian is a special conclusion to my high school career, one that represents a journey of dedication and commitment, enriching experiences, and continuous growth,” Emma said. “More meaningful than the title, however, is the positive reflection of my family, friends, teachers and administrators who supported me every step of the way.”

Pertaining to her favorite high school memory, Emma said, “My favorite memory is the moment I was named the first sophomore to be crowned Miss Starr’s Mill High School. The overwhelming feeling of taking my inaugural walk around the stage as the new reigning titleholder cannot be matched. It is a moment that I could relive endlessly and still feel the same joy and exhilaration. It is a moment that changed my life because of all the amazing opportunities it provided for growth and confidence.”

Emma said the highlight of her senior year dealt with her participation with the school’s yearbook.

“This year, I have had the honor of being Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook. The countless hours spent with my co-editors pouring our hearts and souls into the creation of a final product we could be proud of were so worth it. I can’t wait to look back in 20 years and remember all the memories that we captured from our senior year in high school,” she said.

The Starr’s Mill High School Salutatorian for 2015 is Cody Clements, son of Curt and Zena Clements.

Cody will graduate with a 4.286 grade point average and will attend Yale University with a major in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Cody has received scholarships from the University of Alabama, Presidential Scholar, the Emory University Oxford College Dean’s Scholarship Scholar, University of Georgia One UGA Scholarship and the HOPE/Zell Miller Scholarship.

Cody said the key message of his commencement speech will be “For my classmates to consider graduation as a fresh start, one in which we look past what we believe is possible for ourselves and just do it. It being anything we desire, now is the time in our lives to expand our horizons and to discover what truly excites us . . . besides food.”

Cody said the best advice he received in high school came from his dad.

“When I was entering high school, I had trouble picking a spring sport to play because baseball, soccer and track and field all had the same season, yet I loved all three of these sports,” Cody said. “My dad told me, ‘You can’t do everything in life, so pray about it, pick what you love the most, and don’t worry about it. You will make a definitive mark on whatever you channel your energy toward.’”

Asked if he ever thought he would represent his class as salutatorian, Cody said, “I had an inkling of a feeling that I would be toward the top of my class because I am a perfectionist, I strive for success, and I have extremely high expectations for myself; however, I did not envision myself graduating as salutatorian.”

Cody also spoke about the honor of being named salutatorian.

“I am incredibly privileged to graduate as salutatorian of my class because I know how talented and intelligent my peers are, and I feel honored to receive the opportunity to represent my class and share my reflections and future expectations with the audience at graduation,” Cody said. “I am also ecstatic that my decade of hard work has been recognized and rewarded at this time in my life.”

Asked about his favorite memory from high school, Cody said, “My favorite high school memory is when some of my excellent friends and I gathered around on the track after a hard workout and checked our college acceptances together. The excitement of being admitted into one’s dream school while surrounded by one’s best peer influences is one feeling I will never forget, and I’m sure a half-dozen of my teammates can attest to that as well.”

Cody on speaking about the highlight of his senior year said, “Definitely being a member of the Boy’s Track and Field Team this season. My teammates and I were able to advance to Sectionals in the 4×400 meter relay after a tremendous performance in the Regional Finals. The camaraderie I experienced then, and when I broke my school’s high jump record (6’6.5”), was inexplicable and irrevocable.”