Oh, the places they'll go!

Published May 1, 2007

Today we begin our homage to 2007 valedictorians and salutatorians from area high schools, offering a glimpse into what makes them so special. As you will see, having the highest grade point averages isn't the only thing that sets these elite teens apart.

Clearwater High

Valedictorian: Alanna O'Brien, 18.

Parents: Martin and Joanna O'Brien of Clearwater.

Activities: Academic team, National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Future Business Leaders of America, soccer, flag football, tennis, nursing home volunteer, restaurant hostess.

Plans: Florida State University, Tallahassee, majoring in premed.

Hero or role model: "My parents. They've instilled in me great morals and values, and have made me who I am today. They inspire me to perform to the best of my ability, and to believe that I can achieve any goal I set my mind to."

Reason for my success: "I have an extremely close family and an amazing group of friends. Without them, I would not have had the mental and emotional strength to accomplish this honor. They continually motivate me and give me the support I need."

Before 30, I hope: "I would like to have found something that I enjoy and turned that into a career. If that's in the medical field or if that involves interpretive dancing, we'll see."

High school memories: "One of the things I will miss when I move on with my life is the great teaching staff at Clearwater High. My teachers are always enthusiastic and have created in me an insatiable thirst for knowledge. They challenge, then enlighten, and most importantly, they care."

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Salutatorian: Kelsi Marie Russell, 18.

Parents: Jon and Penny Russell of Clearwater.

Activities: National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Drama club president, RCS food pantry volunteer, TVR Christian Camp counselor, youth group, choir.

Plans: Florida Southern College, Lakeland, majoring in ministry or education.

Person who impacted my life: "My good friend Debi Powers taught me more about faith and love than I can put into words. Her spirit will always be with me."

Advice to freshmen: "Get involved and try new things. You'll get out of high school what you put into it."

Reason I feel hopeful about the future: "Jeremiah 29:11 says, 'For I know the plans I have for you, ' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' That's reassuring enough for me."

Favorite book: "While there are an endless number of excellent books, I'd have to say the Bible is honestly my all-time favorite. It's packed with adventure, action, love, tragedy, wisdom and truth, and to top that off - it's straight from God."


East Lake High

Valedictorian: Manoj Kannusamy, 17.

Parents: Sekar and Umarani Kannusamy of Oldsmar.

Activities: Academic team captain, National Honor Society, varsity tennis, hospice volunteer, Humane Society volunteer.

Plans: Duke University, Durham, N.C., majoring in biochemistry or biomedical engineering.

Reason for my success: "Great support and encouragement from my parents."

Before 30, I want to: "Finish medical school and go skydiving."

Difficulties overcome: "Maintaining a challenging workload while setting aside time for family and friends."

Greatest challenge: "The college application process, and my greatest satisfaction was receiving the acceptance letters."

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Salutatorian: Meredith Moukawsher, 18

Parents: Lisa Moukawsher of Palm Harbor.

Activities: Senior class vice president, National Honor Society, Eagle Eye news staff, academic team, Principal's Multi-cultural Advisory Committee, Peer Connection, Student Government, Humane Society volunteer.

Plans: University of Florida, Gainesville, majoring in anthropology and broadcast journalism.

Person who impacted my life: "My grandfather struggled his entire life to escape poverty and never allowed his ambition to overcome his moral and religious beliefs. He taught me to follow my own path and never lose sight of what is important to me."

Advice to freshmen: "I would tell them to have an open mind and experience all different aspects of high school before deciding what they want to focus on. Also, I would encourage them not to worry about making a fool out of themselves, because they'll have more fun if they let go of their fears."

On the future: "My generation has a great choice ahead of us with what legacy we want to leave for future generations. We have the power to shape the world, and I know we will make it a more safe and understanding place."

Favorite book: "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice because it had a great impact on my character and helped me to develop my passion for Victorian literature. I read it before the newest movie came out and fell in love with the story and its contemporary attitude."


Palm Harbor University High

Valedictorian - Traditional/Medical Program: Natalie Alexis Booth, 18.

Parents: Deborah and William Booth of Palm Harbor.

Activities: National Honor Society, French Honor Society, Health Occupation Students of America, Peer Connector, East Lake Library volunteer, Mease Hospital volunteer, Walk for the Cure, equestrian sports.

Plans: University of Miami, Coral Gables, majoring in biomedical engineering.

Hero or role model: "My role model has always been my mother. She is a woman strong in character, confident and intuitive. She has defied the glass ceiling that exists over women in corporate America. I aspire to follow her good example as a mother, wife and career woman."

Reason for my success: "My success can be attributed to the love and support I receive from my family. My mom and dad have taught me how to deal with success and disappointment. They have encouraged me to dream big dreams, and they have advised me to never be satisfied with yesterday's accomplishments."

By the time I'm 30: "I plan to be a surgeon specializing in neonatology."

Difficulties overcome: "The most difficult thing I have ever had to do is say goodbye to someone I love. My grandfather passed away at the age of 95, just before Thanksgiving last year. I had hoped he would live to see me graduate from high school. I am comforted in knowing he will be watching from above."

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Salutatorian - Traditional/Medical Program: Ariel Alexander Gonzalez, 17.

Parents: Ariel Gonzalez Sr. of Kendall, Fla., Maria and Frank Papa of Clearwater.

Activities: National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Student Government representative, cross country team captain, hospice volunteer, NHS blood drive, Spanish tutor, Publix employee.

Plans: University of Florida, Gainesville, majoring in chemical engineering.

Change I would like to see: "I wish that all people could live in a democracy that allowed them to live the life of their own choosing."

Person who impacted my life: "My father has shown me through his success after coming to America from Cuba that any goal is attainable. I should never give up on what I aspire to do in life, despite the obstacles I encounter along the way."

On the future: "I feel that our generation is becoming more focused on humanity and the global implications of everyone's actions. I think the world will benefit from this point of view."

Favorite book: "Animal Farm by George Orwell because it is an entertaining, satiric fable that cleverly displays the injustices behind an oppressive totalitarian form of government."

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Valedictorian - International Baccalaureate Program: Bhavana S. Vangara, 18.

Parents: Drs. Sreenivas and Malleswari Vangara of Palm Harbor.

Activities: National Honor Society, French Honor Society co-president, Amnesty International, National Merit finalist, hospice volunteer, Medical Mission of Mercy in El Salvador, Hollister employee.

Plans: University of California, Berkeley, majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Reason for my success: "I attribute my success to all the great teachers I have had throughout the years, within the school system and out of it."

Hero or role model: "My parents are my biggest heroes because they have always overcome whatever obstacles have been placed in their path while retaining a sense of the true value of what matters in life."

By the time I'm 30: "I hope to have graduated medical school and begun an international organization to provide free health care to underdeveloped countries."

Memories: "I will miss the friends I have become close to, the dances and the school traditions we have kept over the years."

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Salutatorian - International Baccalaureate Program: Jasmine Robinson, 18.

Parents: Melinda and Mark Robinson of Palm Harbor.

Activities: National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Fusion dance team, hospice volunteer, March of Dimes, restaurant hostess.

Plans: Harvard University, Cambridge, majoring in business management.

Change I would like to see: "I would support a movement toward better international communication in mediating conflicts to diminish the use of war as a means of resolving an international dispute or issue."

Person who impacted my life: "My mom has made a huge impact on my life in many ways. However, one in particular is very pertinent to this accomplishment. Unhappy with the educational opportunities for me in the area, she opened a school called Safety Harbor Montessori Academy from which I was able to grow academically in a way I would not have been able to elsewhere."

Advice to freshmen: "High school is for you, not for your parents or teachers, so whatever work you put in will be for your own personal benefit. Therefore, it's better to authentically work hard than try to cheat the system."

On the future: "I am hopeful about my future because of the many wonderful people and institutions that have shaped me throughout my life and from which I have learned many influential life lessons."

This series continues next week with a look at the valedictorians and salutatorians from Countryside, Dunedin, Largo and Tarpon Springs high schools.