Before queuing up “Pomp and Circumstance,” let’s take a moment to recognise the best and the brightest high-school seniors in the U.S.
All of these wunderkinds — including an Olympic athlete, a cancer survivor, a researcher, a Thiel Fellow, a self-published novelist, and a musical darling who’s been admitted to all eight Ivy League schools — show that age has no bearing on what people can accomplish.
Based on reader nominations, local news stories from around the country, and word of mouth, we found the 24 most impressive students graduating from high school this year.
High school: Indian Hills High School, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey
What makes her impressive: Avino founded Her Culture magazine so that women around the world would have a place to read about and share experiences, lifestyles, traditions, languages, and customs. She created the website -- which has articles, online forums, and a blogging platform -- in two days.
Magazine issues are published twice monthly and have featured prominent women such as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Congolese women's-rights activist Neema Namadu. Her Culture partners with organisations like World Reader, Hello Perfect, MissHeard Magazine, and Molly & Fox magazine, to help advance Her Culture's mission.
Avino writes for The Huffington Post and Chelsea Krost and is a member of the National Association for Professional Women and the International Women's Association. At school she is the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and the yearbook.
Plans for next year: Avino will be attending New York University in the fall, majoring in media, culture, and communications and minoring in entrepreneurship. She says she plans to continue working with Her Culture and 'kick-starting other magazines to spread women's empowerment.'
High school: Park Tudor School, Indianapolis, Indiana
What makes him impressive: When he was a freshman, Ryan Betz sat at the kitchen table one day with his mum and racked his brain for a way to give back to the community, which had given him so many opportunities for success. They decided he should run a half-marathon in every state to raise money for charity.
Over the past four years, Betz has run 655 miles and raised $US40,000 through his website, ryanrunning.com. He created an endowment allowing inner-city students to attend Park Tudor High School, Betz's private college-preparatory school, tuition-free.
He's talking to Guinness World Records for verification that he is the youngest person to achieve this feat.
Betz averaged one half-marathon a month -- running up a mountain in Hawaii, limping through a trailer park in Kansas with a broken toe, and exploring corners of the U.S. that he never expected to visit. 'The smaller, more obscure states showed me how truly awesome America is,' Betz says.
Plans for next year: Hoping to earn a college track scholarship, Betz will compete next year as a postgraduate at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, to beef up his transcript and run faster times.
Saira Blair is on her way to becoming the youngest person to ever serve in the West Virginia Legislature.
High school: Hedgesville High School, Martinsburg, West Virginia
What makes her impressive: Saira Blair turns 18 -- the legal voting age -- in July, but she's already defeated a two-term incumbent in the primary election for the West Virginia House of Delegates.
'I was surprised that the people in my community understood that someone as young as I am could share their conservative beliefs,' says Blair, who characterised herself as a pro-life, pro-family, and pro-jobs fiscal conservative on her campaign fliers. 'You don't have to wait until you're 40, 50, or 60 years old to recognise the social and economic benefits of conservative principles.'
When Blair decided to run for office, she set out to make a more business-friendly West Virginia. 'You can get a good education in W.V. if you choose to. What is difficult to get is a good paying job,' says Blair, describing students as 'our greatest export.'
If elected, she plans to address that issue through tax reforms, judicial reforms, and reducing government bureaucracy.
Plans for next year: Blair plans to double-major in economics and Spanish at West Virginia University this fall. She will appear on the ballot in November, facing off against Democratic candidate Layne Diehl.
High school: Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, Conyers, Georgia
What makes them impressive: Brockington and Barron's research on more efficient means of harnessing solar energy led them to find a sustainable and efficient replacement for the current semiconductors in solar panels. Their work won them the 2014 Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge competition.
The Nanocrystals, as they call themselves, determined a cost analysis and created a product design for the solar cells that would include these new semiconductors (two nanoparticles called CulnS2 and TiO2).
Brockington and Barron presented their work at the White House Science Fair this year and to prominent figures in STEM and politics at the Capitol Hill STEM Diversity Symposium. They also participated in We the Geeks, a White House Google+ series that highlights significant contributions by minorities in STEM fields.
Outside their work in science, Barron is president of their school's Peer Mentoring Program and National Honour Society, cofounder of the varsity debate team, and a varsity tennis player. Brockington is the president of the student government association and community service club, captain of the varsity cheerleaders, and editor of the yearbook.
Plans for next year: Barron, who was named salutatorian of their graduating class, will be attending Stanford University to study biomechanical engineering. Brockington begins at Furman University in the fall, and while she hasn't declared a major she is considering biology and business.
High school: Southwest High School, San Antonio, Texas
What makes her impressive: Deidre Carrillo founded and now helps lead her high school's engineering team, which builds electric vehicles. Carrillo and her teammates built their $US5,000 race car from scratch, and Carrillo raced the car to victory at this year's Electrathon, a national competition for student-built electric cars.
For the first six months, Carrillo was the only girl on the Southwest Engineering Team and even now, at 4-foot-10, is the only team member small enough to manoeuvre the car.
Carrillo previously steered the car, called Dragon 1, to two second-place Electrathon finishes, in 2012 and 2013. Carrillo secured her team a sponsorship from Simpson Racing, which donated an official NASCAR helmet which the team still uses to race.
Carrillo presented the car at this year's White House Science Fair, demonstrating to President Obama how she operates the tiny electric car, which can reach speeds of 35 mph.
Plans for next year: Carrillo is interning at IT company Rackspace this summer and will begin studying public relations at Texas A&M University in the fall, but says she's 'still thinking about driving race cars, just as a side job.'
High school: Canyon Crest Academy, San Diego, California
What makes him impressive: Chen's Intel Science Talent Search-winning project involved finding compounds capable of blocking endonuclease, an enzyme that the influenza virus needs to spread. His research could lead to new, more effective drugs to treat the highly contagious illness. His Intel prize includes copious bragging rights, a serious résumé builder, and $US100,000.
But the modest Chen told his hometown newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, that he didn't expect to win Intel, despite the fact that he won the grand prize at the 2013 Google Science Fair and the top individual honour at the 2013 Siemens competition.
Chen's interest in new treatments for the flu was sparked by the 2009 H1N1 'swine flu' outbreak, which first appeared in the U.S. in the San Diego area.
When he's not curing the flu, Chen serves as copresident of his high school's fencing club, plays piano, and tutors Mandarin-speaking elders in computer skills.
Plans for next year: Chen is Harvard-bound, entering in the fall as a member of the Crimson class of 2018. Eventually he hopes to either pursue a career in academics or start a company that tackles world problems.
High school: Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, Massachusetts
What makes him impressive: Since he was a sophomore in high school, Cotillo has been breaking news in the world of Major League Baseball before the most famous sports reporters do. He's only 18, yet sources seem to trust him with information that others aren't privy to until much later in the game.
It started as a hobby, something Cotillo did for fun. He created a Twitter handle, @TradeDeadliner, from which he followed and tweeted the latest national baseball news. But his fanbase amassed and looked to him as an expert, and his hobby budded into a career. He now uses @ChrisCotillo to tweet, and has a following 21,700 strong. Cotillo began covering Boston sports for CLNSRadio.com and now dishes on America's favourite pastime for MLBDailyDish.com, a division of SB Nation.
Cotillo networks with sources and fellow writers better than many people twice his age; Fox Sports writer Ken Rosenthal has said he's 'totally impressed' by the way Cotillo carries himself, and the graduating senior got his college recommendation letter from none other than CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.
Cotillo is the managing editor of his high school's newspaper, a member of the National Honour Society, and the class steering committee. He plays for his town's baseball team.
Plans for next year: Cotillo will be a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, come fall, majoring in sports journalism.
High school: William Floyd High School, Mastic, New York
What makes him impressive: Eight fat, beautiful envelopes, stuffed with acceptance letters from all the Ivies, found their way to Kwasi Enin's mailbox.
After scoring a 2250 on his SAT, passing 11 AP courses, and graduating in the top 2% of his class, the Long Island teen received admission to Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale.
Enin's impressive feat drew national attention, and his college essay made its way onto many college hopefuls' reading lists.
His essay examined the effect music has had on his intellectual and personal development. 'My haven for solace in and away from home is in the world of composers, harmonies, and possibilities,' he wrote. 'My musical haven has shaped my character and without it, my life would not be half as wonderful as it is today.'
Priscilla Guo advocates for education reform as a representative on the City of New York's Youth Board.
High School: Hunter College High School, New York, New York
What makes her impressive: New York City native Priscilla Guo was for a time the only high school representative on the mayor's Youth Board, tasked with advising the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development on growing youth programming. This summer she will launch a summer program in conjunction with the commissioner.
An impassioned champion for girls' education, Guo serves as an adviser to Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign that empowers American teens to raise awareness and funds for U.N. programs that aid some of the world's hardest-to-reach adolescent girls. She also recently worked with congresswoman Grace Meng on the Girls Count act, which ensures girls receive birth certificates, documentation that is critical for accessing education, health and social services, and career opportunities.
In her free time, Guo blogs about education-reform policies for The Huffington Post and the New York Campaign for Achievement Now.
Plans for next year: Guo will attend Harvard University this fall; she aspires to work in public policy.
Conrad Kramer developed a revolutionary software that lets you move documents between tech devices with one touch.
High school: Cherry Hill East High School, Cherry Hill, New Jersey
What makes him impressive: The 17-year-old iOS developer and programmer was recently selected for the highly competitive Thiel Fellowship, which will give him $US100,000 to develop DeskConnect, a software that allows users to seamlessly move photos, webpages, and other documents between computers and mobile devices.
Kramer is the founder of Kramer Software Productions, an LLC he started almost five years ago to develop apps and other technology. In the past year, his ideas have won him major hackathon competitions such as the University of Pennsylvania's PennApps, NYU's hackNY, and the University of Michigan's MHacks. Winning multiple major hackathons in a row is a feat unheard of, especially for a high-school student.
Kramer hopes that his work on DeskConnect, and another app called Workflow (his MHacks product), will eventually improve mobile productivity. When he's not programming, Kramer can be found tutoring younger students or playing varsity soccer. Last summer Kramer was Airbnb's youngest employee, helping the company develop its iOS app.
Plans for next year: Kramer deferred his acceptance to MIT to spend the next two years as a Thiel Fellow. He will be building out DeskConnect with his partner and fellow Thiel Fellow, Ari Weinstein, who appeared on Business Insider's 2012 list of impressive high-school graduates.
High school: Mancos High School, Mancos, Colorado
What makes him impressive: LaChappelle built his first robotic hand out of LEGOs, fishing wire, surgical tubing, and five independently controlled servos at 14. LaChappelle kept improving the design with 3-D printed parts, dental rubber bands, and jeweler's wire. Not only were his designs amazing but his young age, combined with the fact that everything he knew about robotics was self-taught, got him a lot of buzz.
It wasn't until he met a 7-year-old girl at a science fair with an $US80,000 prosthetic arm that he decided to turn his prototype into the real thing. The girl would soon outgrow her prosthetic, costing her family a lot of money to replace it. LaChappelle realised that there was a way to create a better, more affordable prosthetic arm using his designs.
The latest version of the arm uses a tiny arduino microcontroller and Bluetooth receivers that the user can control by flexing muscles and doing a series of eye blinks to move the arm in any number of preloaded multiple and individual movements. An EEG headset measures brainwaves to control the movement. The best part is the cost for this incredible prosthetic is under $US400. The arm could change the lives of amputees everywhere or be used by armed forces for bomb defusal, and companies could benefit too. Heineken has already bought thousands of the arms from LaChappelle to serve their beer at bars.
Plans for next year: LaChappelle graduated in December and interned at NASA last summer. After a talk at TEDxMileHigh in July and a Reddit AMA in January, LaChappelle is continuing to build his company and better prosthetics.
High school: Oak Park and River Forest High School, Oak Park, Illinois
What makes him impressive: Lehman made his Olympic debut in Sochi this year, competing in the 5,000-meter race for speedskating. He was the top American finisher, coming in 16th overall with a time of 16 minutes and 29.95 seconds. He placed 10th overall in the men's 10,000-meter race.
Lehman's parents and grandfather made the long journey from their home in the suburbs of Chicago to watch him race in Russia. They're no strangers to seeing him in sport, as the graduating senior also plays ice hockey and lacrosse for his school. He was made captain of the varsity lacrosse team as a freshman, which is virtually unheard of in his school district.
When he's not training with his coach, two-time Olympian Jeff Klaiber, Lehman is a volunteer at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry.
Plans for next year: Lehman will continue to train with Klaiber and plans to attend Marquette University in the fall.
High school: Dover High School, Dover, New Hampshire
What makes him impressive: Austin Long founded SquareOne, a talent management and marketing network for gaming-content creators, at the start of his junior year in high school and built it to almost 13 million subscribers with a projected $US4.2 million in gross annual sales for 2014.
SquareOne works with top YouTube gaming personalities and content creators, providing technical support, branding and marketing services, and guidance to optimise revenue.
In January, multiplatform media company Omnia Media acquired Long's company; Long can't specify the amount Omnia Media paid for SquareOne, but at 17 he now makes more money than his father, his mother told WMUR New Hampshire.
Long is still plenty busy with SquareOne but tells Business Insider that he's been playing soccer for Seacoast United and is on the under-18 team.
Plans for next year: This summer, Long moves to Los Angeles to begin working full time as Head of Gaming Acquisitions for Omnia Media in its Culver City office.
Rashema Melson was homeless when she was named valedictorian and received a full scholarship to college.
High school: Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C.
What makes her impressive: For the past few years, Rashema Melson has been living with her mother and three of her six siblings in a hospital turned homeless shelter in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. All the while she still maintained a perfect grade-point average, became valedictorian of her high-school class, and received a full ride to Georgetown University.
Melson's father was killed before she was a year old, leaving her mother to support four children on her own. Melson often spent 13-hour days at her high school, beginning at 7 a.m., for a chance to find a quiet, private place to get her homework done and study for exams.
Melson enrolled in honours classes and ran for her high school's track team. In her valedictorian speech, she told her classmates, 'Life is not fair. Life is not fair. But despite that harsh reality, you must keep striving for success.'
Plans for next year: Melson plans to study forensic pathology at Georgetown and hopes to attend medical school.
High school: Wilmington Friends School, Wilmington, Delaware
What makes him impressive: A varsity swimmer, serial entrepreneur, and world traveller, Luke Morgan is a dedicated chamption for clean-water projects and education.
'Each year, Africa uses 40 billion hours trying to collect water by hand,' Morgan says. 'That's the entire workforce of France.'
To support global charities that provide more efficient collection and filtration systems, Morgan organised a swim-a-thon with more than 200 participants and a 5K race attended by Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, Rep. John Carney, and a Charity: Water representative. He coordinated a dress-down day at school during which he sold tribal pants to help pay for the construction of schools in Benin, Africa. Morgan has raised more than $US10,000 and increased visibility of the crisis.
Last summer, he helped construct a three-classroom school in a rural village in Benin, where he slept on the floor of a hut and lived without running water or electricity for a month. Many of the children had never seen white people before and were cautious of the volunteers, so he organised a 3K race to bring them closer. Morgan made it his mission to immerse himself in the community and keeps ties through fundraising and care packages.
Plans for next year: Morgan will study economics at Harvard University; he plans to become an entrepreneur after college.
High School: William Amos Hough High School, Cornelius, North Carolina
What makes him impressive: When Matthew Newman was in the fifth grade, his love of author Brian Jacques' novels provided refuge from the bullying he endured in school. Now the self-published author of not one but two novels hopes to give others the same comfort.
When Brian Jacques died, Newman discovered his calling. 'That's when I realised what I wanted from my life,' Newman says, 'to help others understand that while magic may not exist in the form of spells on this earth, they have the power to create their own magic through the use of their imaginations.'
He published 'The Castle in the Wishing Well,' the first instalment of a five-part 'Lord of the Rings'-esque saga, as a freshman. The story follows a young boy who comes into possession of stones that grant magical abilities; he uses these stones to defeat a looming evil. The sequel hits digital bookshelves this past year.
The books have received attention from New York Times' bestselling authors Michael E. Gerber, Robert Allen, and John Hart, and funneled money into Newman's college savings.
Plans for next year: Newman will attend Duke University this fall, where he will continue to write. He wants to play a role in the evolution of publishing in the digital age and work to assure equitable access to literature for all who want to enjoy it.
High School: Dexter Community Schools, Dexter, Michigan
What makes her impressive: While her classmates walked at their graduation ceremony, KayLyn Pace strutted across a stage to the tune of an original song.
The aspiring country music and acoustic artist recently missed her high school graduation to open for The Band Perry and Big & Rich at Detroit's summer music festival.
Pace started taking singing lessons when she was 8 years old and with the encouragement of her parents began performing when she was 11. This past April she released her debut album, 'In the Past,' featuring five original songs with her band of 20-something Metro Detroit musicians as backup.
Juggling a full-blown music career with high school presented its challenges. Late-night shows and singing competitions often conflicted with school, but the budding artist will graduate with the Learning Disabilities Association Senior Scholarship under her belt.
Plans for next year: Pace will continue to juggle her education with a music career, planning to study at Washtenaw Community College. Her parents, acting as managers, are entertaining offers from others to professionally manage Pace.
High School: Paul D. Schreiber High School, Port Washington, New York
What makes him impressive: Growing up, Harry Paul was in and out of the hospital every three to six months for surgeries to treat severe curvature of the spine, a disability he was born with.
Now, thanks to his invention, other children suffering from scoliosis may not have to go through the same ordeal.
Paul, who is 4-foot-10, designed a spinal implant that expands as the child grows and helps prevent infection, rod damage, muscle spasms, pain, and disjunction. It buys the patient up to three years between operations, as opposed to the typical six months.
His incredibly personal school science project has earned Paul top honours at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and $US20,000 in prize money. He's working with engineering company K2M to test and develop the implement, which could be in use by 2017.
Plans for next year: Paul is headed to Tufts University and will likely study biomedical engineering and public health.
High school: Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica, California
What makes him impressive: After performing in front of an audience of 3,000 and a panel of celebrity judges, Ryan Roberts was named first-place grand-prize winner in the classical instrumental category at the 26th Annual Music Center Spotlight Awards.
Having toured New York, D.C., St. Petersburg, and London, the 17-year-old music prodigy will add Carnegie Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall to his concert résumé this summer.
Roberts began studying piano at age 5 and dreamed of being a concert pianist, that is, until he spent a summer attending orchestral concert after concert with his parents and fancied a new sound. 'Of all the instruments I was exposed to during that time, I fell in love with the voice of the oboe,' Roberts says. 'Even when in the background, its unique sound is always present.'
He switched from clarinet to oboe in his school's music class and spent virtually all of his free time practicing. Today, Roberts plays in the American Youth Symphony, the Colburn Honours Woodwind Quintet, the YMF Honours Woodwind Quintet, the National Youth Orchestra, and ensembles at school.
Plans for next year: Roberts will join the inaugural class of Kovner Fellows at The Julliard School, which awards full-tuition scholarships to classical-music students. After college, he hopes to win an orchestral job, perform chamber music, and teach college.
High school: The Brearley School, New York, New York
What makes her impressive: After losing a relative to metastatic cancer when she was 9, Sara Sakowitz didn't understand the disease that took her cousin's life. But she did understand its effect on her family and has since worked tirelessly to revolutionise treatment.
She joined a research team at 16 and began studying a critical pathway in cancer that is responsible for silencing normal genes that block cancer progression. Interrupting that pathway -- part of a novel treatment strategy -- appears to stop the cancer from spreading, because cells lose their aggressive, migratory, and invasive behaviour.
In addition to her research, Sakowitz works to create opportunities for girls who are as enamoured with science as she is. 'So many girls turn away from science because they feel they don't belong, but that couldn't be further from the truth,' she says.
She founded an organisation called Build Her Future to change the perception of a scientist and give girls the chance to explore engineering and programming before they dismiss those fields from their future plans.
Plans for next year: She will attend Columbia University as a C. Prescott Davis Scholar and biomedical engineering major, all while starting a biotechnology company.
High school: The Dalton School, New York, New York
What makes her impressive: After Elana Simon survived a battle with fibrolameller, a rare liver cancer, she teamed up with her pediatric surgeon and her father, the head of the Laboratory of Cellular Biophysics at The Rockefeller University, to research the differences between fibrolameller tumour cells and healthy liver cells.
Looking at 15 tumour samples from patients with fibrolameller, Simon discovered a mutation that was present in all of the samples she and her team collected -- essentially, a broken gene.
Simon and her father authored a paper together in Science magazine on their findings. The discovery won't yet cure the disease, but it will certainly give new insight into understanding it and therefore better identifying, diagnosing, and curing it in the future.
Simon won the American Association for Cancer Research's Junior Champion in Cancer Research Award, where she presented her findings before 16,000 cancer researchers. She was invited to participate in the 2014 White House Science Fair. To keep her research going, Simon built a website, the Fibrolameller Registry, to empower those with the disease to share their medical data that can inform future research.
Plans for next year: Today, Simon is cancer-free and plans to study computer science at Harvard in the fall.
High school: Atlanta Country Day School, Atlanta, Georgia
What makes him impressive: As a little kid, Cody Simpson began recording covers of songs on YouTube and was discovered by Shawn Campbell, a Grammy-nominated record producer, who has worked with Jay Z and other artists. Now the Australian-born Simpson is signed to Atlantic Records and has four albums out; his record 'Coast to Coast' was No. 12 on the Billboard chart.
Simpson's songs have twice been No. 1 on Radio Disney. He has toured with Justin Bieber and performed on the 'Today' show and 'Ellen,' among others. In October, his memoir, 'Welcome to Paradise: My Journey,' was published by HarperCollins.
Most recently, Simpson appeared on 'Dancing With the Stars.'
Plans for next year: Simpson will begin his European tour in June, playing 19 cities in two months.
High school: Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School, San Luis Obispo, California
What makes her impressive: Molly Smith doesn't fit the marksman stereotype. Standing under 5 feet tall with springy blonde curls, she says most people don't believe her when she explains her sport.
As junior team captain for Smith & Wesson, she shoots competitively around the world and snagged 15 titles between 2012 and 2013. This month she represents the U.S. in the World Action Pistol Championship.
Smith has been training since age 11 and is now on a mission to change the misconceptions associated with firearms through intellectual and professional engagement.
'I believe it's in unusual places where the biggest progress can be made in empowering society,' Smith says. 'My focus has been in providing access for women to try marksmanship in a safe, educational, and enjoyable environment.' She documents her experience in the male-dominated sport as a staff writer at Women's Outdoor News.
On the side, Smith argues constitutional matters on her school's mock-trial team and volunteers with HAVA, which organizes activities for veterans and families to reacquaint them with civilian life.
Plans for next year: Smith is thrilled to be studying international relations or journalism at New York University this fall. Her plan includes becoming a human-rights lawyer, writing a novel, and working her way through the ranks as an appellate judge to become a Supreme Court justice.
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