Both current and former students in Orange County have worked hard to make their schools and communities a better place.
It won’t be long before the seniors from the class of 2017 walk across the stage, take their diplomas in hand, and flip the tassel on their caps from right to left. As graduations take place across Central Florida this month, we recognize a handful of students, both past and present. Two of these students will be graduating as valedictorians this month and one is an alumnus and former valedictorian who has worked tirelessly to make a name for himself in the community. Their contributions throughout their four years in high school and beyond have made their schools and communities a better place.
Evan Thompson: Football Star and Community Champion
Evan Thompson, the 2017 valedictorian for Foundation Academy, put his all into his academics and athletics no matter what. That was never more clear than the summer before his sophomore year, when he broke his left leg at football camp and was out for four months. He felt the injury happened for a reason but he couldn’t help but wonder why.
“It gave me the drive and motivation to push through anything,” Evan says. “You can even nail it down to classes and school. When you’re faced with a hard class or a hard test you just push through it, work hard and believe in God that everything will prevail in the long run.”
And prevail he did. As captain of the varsity football team, Evan was named to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s 1st team all-state as linebacker this year, an accomplishment he strived for since his freshman year. He has also been nominated for the FHSAA student athlete of the year award. As a leader, Evan is known for bringing the team together at the end of every game – win or lose – to sing the school’s fight song.
“Evan will be very hard to replace here at Foundation Academy,” Head Varsity Football Coach Brad Lord says. “He not only impacted our football team but also our whole school community. His leadership skills were essential to the success of our football team this past season both on and off the field.”
He has also been the president of FCA as well as an Interact Club and National Honor Society member. Some highlights from his 217 community service hours include feeding the homeless with his classmates for the past three years, coordinating the football team to work with Habitat for Humanity and helping put on a football camp for underprivileged kids in the community.
Evan’s hard work earned him an academic and athletic scholarship to attend Florida Institute of Technology, where he will play football and study mechanical engineering and product design. His advice to other students is simple: “Work hard and humble yourself to be the best person you can be.”
Alexia Joseph: The Epitome of a WPS Laker
Through her high school years at Windermere Preparatory School, 2017 valedictorian Alexia Joseph logged about 400 to 500 community service hours. Time spent volunteering at her church and working as a camp counselor at JCC Orlando and Palmetto Elementary School helped her earn her first 200 hours in her freshman and sophomore years while the rest came from her involvement in clubs and honor societies or volunteering to play music or dance locally.
“While I feel like I would love to do all different types of service all the time, I really wanted to make sure the service I did could have an impact that I could directly see in my school and the Orlando community,” she says.
Juggling her volunteer requirements with her schoolwork wasn’t all that Alexia had on her plate. She has also been involved with the Student Government Association as junior class president and senior representative, played piano and soccer, and she is the editor-in-chief for the WPS yearbook. She says her high school success has come from never neglecting any of her responsibilities.
So does Alexia have advice for other students about balancing academics with extracurricular activities? “Do not do any things to pad your resume – you’ll be miserable. Do things that make you happy and I promise you will rarely even feel stressed out.”
Alexia says it’s important to prioritize schoolwork but also to never give up doing things you want to do. She also believes you have to be genuine about everything you’re involved in.
“One thing I think everyone should know is to never think that you can’t do it,” she says. “You are completely capable of anything and everything you set yourself out to do. It’s OK to make mistakes, but never let anything distract you from your goals, whatever they may be.”
Alexia is planning on attending the University of California – Los Angeles to pursue a pre-health track.
Julianne Cheatham: A Heart for Giving
Besides her impressive grades and solid work ethic, there is one thing that the teachers and faculty at Boone High School can’t help but notice about 2017 valedictorian Julianne Cheatham: her genuine kindness. She makes a point to sincerely thank her teachers every day after class, an effort they appreciate. This kindness, when combined with her academic ability and her willingness to tutor others, earned her the Student of the Year award in multiple academic categories throughout her high school career.
Her parents taught her the importance of giving from a young age. Julianne and her three sisters often accompanied their parents, who are doctors, on service trips to East Africa growing up. While there, Julianne assisted with clinical tasks and used her talents to knit hats for premature infants. She has created nearly 200 hats for babies and has personally given away as many as possible. It’s not uncommon to see Julianne with her knitting bag wherever she goes because she is constantly working on another project.
When it comes to academics, Julianne is an AP scholar with 18 college-level courses to her credit. She is also a champion diver, a theatrical wizard with stage makeup, and the first student in BHS history to work in the Writing Center as a consultant for all four years. Her academic, extracurricular and philanthropic successes are what earned her the title of valedictorian.
Kevin Fenter: A Current and Future Leader
Out of 728 students, Kevin Fenter is graduating at the top of his class at Colonial High School. The 2017 valedictorian has a weighted grade point average of 5.06 and an unweighted grade point average of 4.0.
Since his freshman year, Kevin has participated in the Cambridge International Diploma program, a rigorous academic and accelerated program of study that is offered through the University of Cambridge International Examinations, a division of the University of Cambridge in England. This diploma is recognized by well-known universities in the United States and internationally.
Kevin challenges himself with the most rigorous courses including Advanced International Certificate of Education, Advanced Placement and honors courses. When he completes his senior year, he will have completed the Cambridge AICE curriculum and will be one of just 16 seniors eligible for the Cambridge AICE diploma.
While Kevin’s success in academics is impressive, so, too, is his dedication to the Air Force JROTC program at CHS. A member for all four years of his high school career, he has been responsible for leading all of the other cadets in the program as Wing Commander during his senior year. Through the JROTC program, he has volunteered at countless school events. In addition, he spent two consecutive summers working as a counselor at an equestrian camp where he mentored and taught children all summer long.
Kevin’s dedication to his academics and his leadership within the JROTC program has molded him into a well-rounded individual who never neglects his responsibilities. It’s clear that he will represent the class of 2017 well on graduation day.
Mehdi Baqri: A National Merit Scholarship Winner
This year, for the first time in the history of Freedom High School, a student won the prestigious National Merit Scholarship. That student is 2017 valedictorian Mehdi Baqri. With an overall weighted GPA of 5.45, Mehdi has taken and passed 16 advanced placement courses, 13 of them with a perfect score of 5. His senior year schedule has included six AP courses and a math class at the University of Central Florida, in which he has earned an A grade.
Not only has Mehdi excelled in academics but he is also heavily involved in extracurricular activities such as tutoring his peers in math as the Mu Alpha Theta vice president, serving as the vice president of the American Red Cross Club and president of the LifeCycle Club, and participating in National Honor Society, American Student Democrats, the Beta Club, MedQuest, Quizbowl, Stand Up to Cancer and STEM Club. He has also competed in the Science Olympiad.
One of Mehdi’s greatest accomplishments in high school is founding a not-for-profit organization in the summer of his sophomore year. He created Virtual City of Knowledge, Inc. to tutor underprivileged children in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana and the area from which his family emigrated, as well as other places around the world. Through Virtual City, Mehdi has had the opportunity to tutor Syrian refugees.
“I did not turn to this girl because of any selfless moral compass; I did so because of my conscience,” Mehdi says. “I reached out to her and others like her – those who are voiceless – in an effort to help them access the same opportunities with which I was blessed and to share with them these rays of good fortune from which they were robbed.”
Dr. Anup Patel: An Alum Who Has Made a Difference
While he is far from a current student, Dr. Anup Patel, who graduated from Lake Highland Preparatory School as valedictorian in 2000, has made a name for himself as a local surgeon. The class of 2017 can certainly look to him for inspiration as they pave the way for their own success in adulthood.
“My time at Lake Highland was one of exceptional preparation,” he says. “All our teachers … went the extra mile to help us.”
After graduating from LHPS, Patel attended the University of Florida, where he majored in economics, biochemistry and molecular genetics, and earned the title of valedictorian to represent the Class of 2004. He went on to earn his MD/MBA from Yale University and completed plastic surgery training there before completing a hand/microsurgery fellowship at New York University.
Patel now specializes in hand and microsurgery at Orlando Hand Surgery Associates and is the founder of Orlando Plastic Surgery Institute. His experience and strong connections within the medical field led him to work with Dr. David Chiu to treat and manage Jimmy Fallon’s famous hand surgery in 2015.
In addition to his professional success, Patel strives to give back to the community as a whole. He is co-founder of Cents of Relief, a nonprofit that empowers victims of human trafficking through healthcare and education. Through the organization, he has worked with LHPS alums in support of its mission.
Just as he leans on LHPS alums in his philanthropic efforts, he has also worked alongside them throughout his career. He has even had the opportunity to treat his former teachers such as Peg Thomas, who taught him how to read in first grade.
“Being a Highlander means having relationships with your classmates that last a lifetime,” he says.