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Able and ready

Published May 18, 2007


They have more career options than ever. Their friends can freely enter the Citadel or West Point. These young women might even see a woman run for president.

Still, they're heading toward a work force where a woman typically earns 25 percent less than a man. Magazines bombard them with weight-loss techniques and stories about how to please a boyfriend. On television, they see women whose lives are changed by plastic surgery.

As high school graduations loomed, the St. Petersburg Times sat down with five accomplished members of the Class of 2007 - each near the top of her class - to hear what it's like to be a talented young woman on the verge of entering the adult world.

Sarah Carpenter, 18, Brandon High School

Sarah made a commitment to God and herself that she wouldn't have sex before marriage. When her longtime boyfriend broke up with her because of that, she started taking two-hour bike rides. At first it was once a week. Then it was every day. It quieted the mind. She lost 25 pounds.

In October, she was hospitalized. The doctors told her to eat. They put her on a feeding tube. She exercised in the hospital bathroom with the feeding tube inside of her. In January, she moved into a residential treatment facility for three months

She had to drop out of school. She only saw her parents for two hours on Sundays. Each day involved more than eight hours of therapy.

A little more than a month into the program, other residents caught her reading food labels - a no-no in the facility. They confronted her, and the depth of her problem finally became clear.

The struggle with anorexia nervosa never goes away. In times of stress, it tries to sneak back.

She wants to go to Hillsborough Community College and then the University of Florida to get a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling to help people with eating disorders.

Stephanie Deleanides, 18, Armwood High School

Stephanie learned a new vocabulary at age 16: lymphoma, counts, mediport, and sed rate.

She found out other things. A doctor who orders a biopsy is usually looking for cancer. And if the doctor calls your parents to discuss the results a day later, it's a bad sign.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at the end of her sophomore year, Stephanie spent three months undergoing chemotherapy. She missed school, but finished the semester because two teachers gave her lessons at home. Stephanie returned for her junior year, juggling school with a daily drive to St. Petersburg for radiation treatment.

If she's still out of treatment in five years, she will be considered cured.

She's ninth in her class and plans to attend the University of South Florida's honors program. Stephanie, who is undecided about a major, sees herself possibly working in public relations for a children's cancer center.

Megan Florez, 18, Riverview High School

Megan was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 10. Her eyesight has gradually reduced to tunnel vision. Eventually, her world will go dark.

The worst part of the disease: not knowing when she'll go blind. She started learning Braille in sixth grade and knows how to use a cane. She can't drive and had to stop playing softball after she got hit in the nose because she couldn't see the ball. She plays golf by asking her friends for reference points. She usually makes the hole.

Megan does well in school. Her reduced vision makes her work even harder because she wants to prove that "just because you're visually impaired, it doesn't mean you're stupid."

In July, she and 23 other young people with partial vision will spend two weeks hiking 6, 000 feet into the mountains of Peru to work on a reforestation project.

Megan wants to attend the University of Central Florida and study pediatric nursing.

Chelsae Johansen, 17, Bloomingdale High School

Chelsae is the salutatorian for Bloomingdale's Class of 2007. In addition to academics, she's involved in track, cross country, lacrosse, the Spanish Honor Society, True Love Waits, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the National Honor Society. She's a national merit scholar and a presidential scholar.

She says she likes being busy and trying her hardest. If she fails, misses a goal or messes up, she says she's hard on herself only if she knows she could have tried harder.

In seventh grade, she passed Algebra 1 in three weeks. As an eighth-grader, she studied geometry every day at Bloomingdale High School.

In June, she spent a week at Brown University in a program for prospective doctors. She wants a medical career with reasonable hours in order to have a family, so she's thinking of dermatology.

Chelsae plans to study chemistry at Northwestern University and then go to medical school in New York City.

Emily Wilson, 16, Armwood High School.

Emily Wilson rolls her eyes when she talks about the restrictions of high school. She has to ask for a pass to the restroom and the school dictates lunchtime. Emily can't wait for the freedom of college.

When her mom told her about the option to graduate from high school in three years, her first thought was, "Why not?" Her peers told her that she'll miss out on four years of fun and reminded her that she'll start college at age 16. Emily decided she was ready, and opted out of electives such a gym and health class to squeeze four years of work into six semesters.

She wants to go to USF's honors college. She's undecided on a major, but is considering the Ph.D. program in physical therapy. It only takes six years.

Q&A with the girls

Each of you have excelled at your school work, in spite of any obstacle. Who puts the pressure on you to do well?

Stephanie: "That pressure is just something within me. I guess you could say it's a part of my personality."

Chelsae: I'm competitive and I put the pressure on myself.

Emily: "I think I do. I know that it's really important to do well. My parents encourage me ... but as far as the decisions that I've made, that's me."

Sarah: While in treatment she thought, "If I live through this, then I'm here to do something."

Megan: Class rank is a highly competitive thing. Everyone wants to know everyone else's GPA and it was that competition that inspired me to work so hard.


How was your high school experience different from your mom's and grandmother's?

Overall, the girls agreed that academics are more important now than they've ever been.

Stephanie: I spent many weekends in SAT prep classes. My mom's generation didn't have to worry nearly as much about the test.

"Now it's, 'Where are you going to college?' Back then, it was, 'Are you going to college?'

Sarah: It was less stressful back then and [my mom's generation] could pursue their passion without a college degree much more easily than they can now. In my grandma's time, women were just expected to be housewives.


You all grew up in an age where the media is accessible anywhere and anytime. How are men and women portrayed differently in this constant barrage of television, Internet and magazines?

Megan: Female celebrities are usually famous for their looks, not for their intelligence. On MySpace and social networking sites, it's the females who tend to have revealing pictures and suggestive poses. She calls it a 'Look at me. I'm hot' thing.'

Chelsae: Some popular magazines portray female celebrities as ditzier than males. Popular music, including some songs by female artists, can be misogynistic. Women - she's thinking of Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas doing My Humps - sing too much about their bodies.

Stephanie: Rap music treats women like objects, not people. She thinks it's degrading

Sarah: There are so many diets on the market, and the media promote them to excess. After finishing treatment, she's noticed airbrushed models more frequently.

Chelsae: "In commercials I think they still portray the woman as the all-doer. She can be a mom, have a career. I think that's difficult." Women, she said, have to take the time off to have the baby while men can advance in their career fields.


Does this have an effect on people?

Chelsae: If a girl doesn't see any female doctors on television shows and thinks that she can't be a doctor, that's her problem.

"I think media have a small effect, but it wouldn't inhibit me. I can be the different one."

Sarah: "I believe that whatever you see you think it's normal and you try to adapt yourself to it."

Stephanie: Television's reality and game shows used to be about contestants' intelligence, but now looks are emphasized. Just look at America's Next Top Model and The Swan.


Do you think that there is equality between men and women in today's society?

Sarah: It all depends on one's culture and location.

Stephanie: "I would say we're 99 percent there." She thinks it's great Hillary Clinton is running for president, though she doesn't know if she would vote for her.

Emily: "I think so. I can't even think of a time when I couldn't do something, or my mom, my sister, or my grandma couldn't do something, or were held back [because they were female.]"

Megan: Generally, yes, the genders are equal.

Chelsae: "Girls have made a comeback."


What's more important to the average high school girl, brains or beauty?

Chelsae: "I am in advanced placement classes. I know more girls who are into their brains"

Emily: Beauty, but only because the typical high school girl may not realize the importance of brains. If you asked the average college graduate the same question, the answer would be brains.

Megan: It's a mixture.

Sarah: Beauty is more important to the average high school girl.

Stephanie: Beauty - because of the media and the ideal image of what you're supposed to look like.


Who are your role models?

Stephanie: Oprah Winfrey. While researching a fourth-grade book report, I learned that Oprah had been poor and sexually abused as a child. After all that, she still rose to success and helps others.

Emily: Tyra Banks, not just because she's pretty but because of how she is so encouraging to the people who appear on her show.

Megan: Mothers are unsung heroes. All the effort that women put into being mothers is often overlooked.

Chelsae: Dr. Ben Carson, a Maryland pediatric neurosurgeon. He had to overcome obstacles to be a talented doctor.

Sarah: Fern Hill, the head of her treatment center. "She helped me find life again."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at 661-2439 or

[Last modified May 17, 2007, 06:52:41]

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