Graduating Seniors Speak Their Minds

Making faces with Tina Fey, overcoming dyslexia, and curing eczema with outstanding students from the East Bay’s class of 2014.


Julian Mendoza


By scholastic accomplishment standards, this year’s crop of outstanding graduating seniors is exceptional. But their achievements go deeper than that.
The excellence of these Alameda and Oakland seniors extends beyond books and into the realm of service, innovation, and athletics. AP classes and exams are just the beginning of what makes them shine.
How they spend their time is atypical for teenagers on the verge of adulthood. How they look at the world is unique, shaped by hopes for something better and a desire to make that happen. Their priorities reveal heart and compassion, and perspectives often shaped by real-life circumstances.
What makes them tick? How do they excel at such levels? This year, the students speak for themselves, revealing their points of view through a question-and-answer exercise designed to uncover life in their East Bay schools.

If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?
“As a child, I would ask my grandmother about her life in East Africa, but she would always minimize her experience. She had left Africa in the midst of social and civil unrest. When I traveled with my family back to East Africa, I began researching novels to read. In the airport bookstore I found Unbowed by Wangari Maathai. I was curious and excited, because she would have been a contemporary of my grandmother.” —Rebecca Dharmapalan
“Virginia Woolf. Aside from the whole being-dead thing, she must be an incredible person to talk to. I imagine we’d talk about the meaning of the universe, the impermanence of life, and, you know, writing tips.” —Rebecca Shoptaw
“Barack Obama, about the pressures of being responsible for the most powerful country in the world, and how to remain calm with such a large responsibility.” —Akintunde Ahmad
“Abraham Lincoln because he embodies the American spirit. Lincoln was not handsome; he did not come from money, but he worked hard and has become an inspiration. If I could talk to Lincoln, we would talk about the importance of leading people.” —Christopher Melendez
“Definitely Tina Fey. We would start by discussing being female in male-dominated fields. Then we would probably just crack jokes and make faces at each other for the rest of the time.” —Naomi Asimow
“I would want to talk to Rosalind Franklin and how she was able to make her discoveries with DNA despite the adversities she faced as a women in a male-dominated field of research.” —Bianca Hsueh
“I would have lunch with Bill McKibben, the environmental activist who is leading the fossil fuel divestment movement. In my role as student body co-president at Head-Royce, I am working to push the school’s board of trustees to divest the school’s endowment from fossil fuels. It would be fascinating to talk to Bill McKibben about his vision for the divestment movement and other methods of demanding that those in political power confront climate change.” —Thomas Peterson
“I’d have lunch with Walter Bishop from Fringe and ask him if he’d share some licorice with me. We’d talk about his many adventures and how he understands so many aspects of the universe.” —Tony Lin
What’s the book, movie or song that’s changed you?
“Soul Serenade” sung by the glorious Aretha Franklin. It’s a song about empowerment and self-encouragement. Not to mention Aretha’s voice is over-the-top brilliant.” —Rebecca D.
 “The book Human All Too Human by Nietzsche. This book enhanced my perception of nihilism and how it is very critical to question everything that is in front of you. This book really helped me view life from a different perspective and allowed me to establish a revolutionary mind that seeks to advocate change within Urban communities as Oakland.” —Brandon Ros
“I watched the documentary Happy about a year ago. Happy explores the secrets of some of the happiest human individuals and populations and analyzes what it means to be happy and how to achieve true happiness. This film helped me to let go of a tremendous amount of school-related anxiety, to focus on my family and loved ones, and to generally have more fun.” —Naomi
“The Last Song, because she didn’t appreciate what she had until it was gone. This made me change my perspective on how I treat my parents in that they could be gone tomorrow. So I engage with them because today could be mine or their last day.” —Dezire Hall
 “Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It made me realize how much luck plays a role in success.” —Tony
“Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer because it sparked a sense of possibility and adventure in me that many people in our society have forgotten about. A couple of months later, I went snow camping for four days with my English teacher and six other students, and I felt that in some ways, I was living out the same thrill and pleasure that Chris McCandless had experienced in Alaska.” —Sylvia Necula

When is the last time you cried?
“Watching this year’s Oscars. I absolutely love movies and the Oscars, and when the writers of Let it Go went on stage to accept their award, I was touched by their speech. They felt so genuine and when the woman said that she had written the song for her daughter I couldn’t hold back my emotion.” —Lois Nersesian
“When I read the last birthday card my brother gave me before he went to prison.” —Akintunde
“I am taking a poetry seminar at school right now. My teacher read Paul Monette’s The Worrying aloud to us this week. The entire class had tears in their eyes, including her.” —Naomi
“When I found out I was accepted to UC Berkeley. I cried because I know I will get my mom out of work and she can finally rest. I will be able to get her everything she wants.” —Cynthia De La Torre
“The last time I teared up was while watching Frozen, I am only mildly ashamed to admit. The last time I truly cried was when my cousin died of cancer a couple of years back. I was managing to hold it together fairly well until I saw my dad, who is normally very stoical, on the verge of tears, and it just pushed me over.” —Dylan Grullon
“When my mom started crying when I told her I got into Harvard. I also remember wailing when I was young and had a dream that I was about to be crushed by a giant apple. It was probably the most terrifying moment of my life.” —Tony

What makes you so successful in school?
“Staying focused, time management, studying for two hours per day for each subject, and completing all my assignments on time.” —Dezire
“Surprisingly, my dyslexia. Being dyslexic has helped teach me life lessons about perseverance, self-evaluation, and confidence.” —Christopher
“What helps me become successful in school are teachers who are very supportive, and not always expecting their paycheck to summarize the amount of work they’ve done. Teachers who value teaching and dedicate their job to empowering each student to advocate change and positivity. People like these are the people who inspire me and allow me to look forward to a future in which we can achieve equality in developing countries that lack economic and institutional support.” —Brandon
“I take breaks. Too much of something is counterproductive. Especially studying. I also do everything that I can early on so that I can better space out my schedule and make room for other things as they come up.” —Tony
“The determination to make every assignment an opportunity to learn and grow.” —Garrett Woodworth
“My city moves me to do well in school. I have come to love so many things about this city, its people, its music, art, and food. It is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in this world. Mixed in with this richness is also the harsh underbelly of an inner city. Somehow I feel grateful to have been exposed to all this at a young age. … This freedom and cultural awareness that I have been gifted has helped me succeed in school, and even on a global level.” —Rebecca D.

Who is someone it would just kill you to let down?
“It kills me whenever I let my older sister down. She’s one of the most important and influential people in my life, and owns at least a 50 percent stake in any college-admission successes I encounter. She’s a great example, always has good advice, and is just there for me at all times.” —Amelia Khoo
“My dad. I see him struggle to rub two dimes together to make a dollar. I want my dad to have all his dreams come true. His compassion for everyone rubbed off on me.” —Luxor Lopes
“My tae kwon do instructor, Master Park. I have studied under him for about 10 years now, over half my life. I grew up in his studio, and he has trained me from a young age. He has taught me so much more than just tae kwon do, but how to be responsible, honorable, and self-confident.” — Dylan
“My brothers, because they always wanted the best for me and sacrificed a lot so I could have more.” —Akintunde
“Asher Wolf. Not only is he hilarious, brilliantly idiotic, and a great conversationalist, but Asher is also one of my closest friends, and I trust him more than just about anyone.” —Rebecca S.
When it’s time for you to just have fun, what do you do?
“I love to play Ultimate Frisbee with my team, Alameda Dark Meat. I’m really into singing, in and out of the shower. I also love creative writing, and watching Netflix.” —Amelia
“I love undertaking projects, particularly projects that are a little out there. Recently I have cultured my own yogurt, bred geckos, and incubated and hatched the eggs, knitted (most of) an enormous blanket, tutored my little brother in math to the point where he is ready to begin high school (he’s 12), and completed my first triathlon. There was no real reason to do any of these things, but I love having something to work on and feel productive about, even when I am just having fun.” —Naomi
“Build things! I want to be an engineer, and I love making things. From Pong on a microcontroller, to a set of chainmail, to a phone app, and even an electroencephalogram, I spend my time constructing whatever I can. Nothing brings me more joy than planning out and completing a plan from start to finish, with a beautiful result in the end.”—Dylan
“Video games are my passion, because in a video game, I do not have to be me. No matter what, I always conquer the world and end up happy. I get to let go of the cruel reality that is our unfair world. It is just pure fun, too.” — Luxor
“Edit films. Play guitar. Go on adventures.” —Rebecca S.

What is the most difficult assignment you have been given in school?
“The justice and peace project. It’s a humanitarian service project that’s challenging far beyond the academic pursuits I’ve encountered because it requires commitment, whole-hearted commitment, and compassion, too. Things you can’t just study for.” —Amelia
“Doing an essay that defines what intelligence may be. My definition focused on the idea that the concept of intelligence was nonexistent and experience was the proper term to use when defining a person’s ‘intelligence.’” —Brandon
“There was this one time where I had to develop my own experiment related to food and chemistry, perform it in lab, write a whole lab report, and present my results in front a bunch of chemistry professors at the College of Alameda. I ended up analyzing the sugar and fat content in various types of milk by performing a series of qualitative tests and separations.” —Tony
“There were a couple of essays I was assigned for a course on the history of Western civilization last year that were extremely difficult. One particularly memorable one, a comparison of some works we had read by Montaigne, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, had a prompt that was several pages long.” —Thomas
“Anything that involved drawing.” —Christopher

What do you look forward to most about college?
“Being able to go out and eat just about whenever I want. On a more serious note, I’m looking forward to meeting many talented people and learning from the best of the best. Also, I’m looking forward to exploring a myriad of fields and hopefully finding my passion before I graduate.” —Tony
“New settings, challenges, and people. I love familiarity, but I know that I have to push myself if I want to gain more experience. Oftentimes, though it’s uncomfortable at first, my out-of-comfort-zone experiences end up being the best ones.” —Amelia
“Freedom to do as I please, and playing baseball.” —Akintunde
“Meeting new people and finding new ways to make an impact on the lives of the people in my new community inside and outside of the classroom, while making the most of the new opportunities at my school.” —Garrett

In what way do you dream of changing the world?
“With innovations in technology and medicine. Technology has done both good and bad things, but I think that with the right ideas, advancements in technology can save the planet and create a better world.” —Lois
“Through art and culture. I think freedom is granted and through resistance against oppression. I envision a world where people of color can access resources and where equality is the symbolic icon in a community.” —Brandon
“Maybe develop an eczema-be-gone lotion. As a child, I struggled with eczema. I decided to become a dermatologist in order to help others who are inflicted with skin conditions.” —Yaasantewaa Ayinde
“I would like to help more students, particularly low-income students, with gaining higher education. With more students gaining higher education, the world will change for the better.” —Bianca
“Introducing some new piece of technology that will fundamentally change people’s lives.” —Julian Mendoza
“I want to contribute as much as I can to the fight against climate change, which I believe is my generation’s primary challenge. The science needed to avoid climate disaster exists; what is lacking is the political impetus. I want to help to ensure that the political sphere takes climate change seriously before it’s too late.” —Thomas

Akintunde Ahmad
Oakland Technical High School
College options: Yale (accepted), Columbia, Brown, UCLA
GPA: 5.0
Recognitions: National Achievement Scholar, AP Scholar, OAL Baseball League MVP
Quote to live by: “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” —Emiliano Zapata

Naomi Asimow
The College Preparatory School
College: Harvard
GPA: 4.28
Recognitions: National Merit Commended Scholar
Quote to live by: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” —J.K. Rowling
Yaasantewaa Ayinde
Skyline High School
College options: UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced, San Jose State
GPA: 3.8
Recognitions: Youth leader at East Oakland Youth Development Center, volunteer at Kaiser Hospital
Quote to live by: “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.” —Lauryn Hill

Cynthia De La Torre
Alternatives in Action
College options: UC Berkeley
GPA: 3.96
Recognitions: Honor roll, Executive Team Youth Leadership Program
Quote to live by: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” —Jim Valvano

Rebecca Dharmapalan
Oakland School for the Arts
College options: UCLA, UC Berkeley, USC
GPA: 4.2
Recognitions: National Honor Society, founder of Oakland Youth for Democracy, grand prize winner at Girls Impact the World Film Festival, performed at Carnegie Hall, first-place winner at American Protégé International Vocal Competition, first-place winner at American Fine Arts Festival
Quote to live by: “Satcitananda,” which in English means “the beauty and brilliance when everything is clear and you can see reality in its purest form.” —Sanskrit concept

Dylan Grullon
The College Preparatory School
College: MIT
GPA: 4.16
Recognitions: Eagle Scout, third-degree black belt
Quote to live by: “Carpe diem.”—Horace

Dezire Hall
Castlemont High School
College options: UC Merced, CSU Chico, San Francisco State, Langston University
GPA: 3.83
Recognitions: Honor roll, first team All-OAL for basketball, second team All-OAL for softball, Star Playerz Student Athlete of the Month
Quote to live by: “If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.” —Sister Act 2
Bianca Hsueh
Alameda Science & Technology Institute
College options: UC Berkeley, Barnard College
GPA: 3.98
Recognitions: Regents and Chancellor’s scholarship at UC Berkeley, honor roll, Phoenix Feather Academy
Quote to live by: “If you are going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, because second chances are rare.”

JinCan “Tony” Lin
Alameda Science & Technology Institute
College options: Harvard, Swarthmore College, Williams College, UC Berkeley
GPA: 3.9
Recognitions: QuestBridge Finalist, ASTI Most Outstanding Student (Calculus), ASTI Best Performance (English), third place in Alameda Season for Nonviolence Speech Contest
Quote to live by: “To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” —Winston Churchill
Luxor Lopes
Alternatives in Action
College: CSU Stanislaus
GPA: 3.09
Recognitions: Honor roll
Quote to live by: “Long live the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete.” —Tupac Shakur

Amelia Khoo
Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School
College options: Brown University, Santa Clara University, UCLA
GPA: 4.6
Recognitions: SJND Poet Laureate, Hazelwood Science Scholar of SJND, treasurer National Honor Society, member Spanish Honor Society
Quote to live by: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”—Winston Churchill

Christopher Melendez
Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School
College options: Washington University, Stanford, Harvard
GPA: 4.37
Recognitions: Student Body President, Cross Country State Champion, AP Scholar
Quote to live by: “You can’t tell a story after the first page.”

Julian Mendoza
Encinal High School
College options: MIT (accepted), Stanford, UC Berkeley, Caltech, Dartmouth
GPA: 4.36
Recognitions: MITES summer program at MIT
Quote to live by: “The circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” —Mewtwo

Sylvia Necula
Bentley School
College options: UCLA, University of Michigan
GPA: 4.3
Recognitions: AP Scholar Award
Quote to live by: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” —Coco Chanel

Lois Nersesian
Bishop O’Dowd High School
College options: UCLA, UC Davis, Occidental
GPA: 4.26
Recognitions: First Honor Roll, department certificates in English, Spanish, math and science
Quote to live by: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”—Albert Einstein

Thomas Peterson
Head-Royce School
College options: Harvard, Yale, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
GPA: 4.39
Recognitions: National Merit Scholar, Head-Royce Upper School Co-President, AP Scholar with Honor, semifinalist in extemporaneous speech at 2013 California State Speech and Debate Tournament
Quote to live by: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”—Bill McKibben

Brandon Ros
Castlemont High School
College options: UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, Sacramento State, Cal State East Bay
GPA: 3.1
Recognitions: Honor roll, student of the month
Quote to live by: “One voice can change a room. And if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.”—President Barack Obama

Rebecca Shoptaw
Head-Royce School
College: Yale
GPA: 4.38
Recognitions: National Merit Finalist, Head-Royce Film Award
Quote to live by: “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” —e.e. cummings

Garrett Woodworth
Bishop O’Dowd High School
College: UC Davis
GPA: 4.28
Recognitions: UC Davis Regents Scholarship, Eagle Scout, 2014 National Merit Scholarship Program Commended Student, member National Society of High School Scholars, member National Honor Society, Bishop O’Dowd High School Outstanding Achievement award in Honors Pre-calculus, Calculus BC, Honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry and Spanish; scholar athlete in basketball, football, and lacrosse
Quote to live by: “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” —Master Yoda

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