The News Tribune's 2014 All-Star Grads

Staff reportJune 7, 2014 

All-Star Grads

The News Tribune's All-Star Graduates were photographed at Foss Waterway Seaport. The museum, which chronicles Tacoma's maritime history, has undergone extensive renovations. The students are posing in and around the Poulsbo boat Omega II. Back row from left: Conrad Backstrom, Stadium High; Benjamin Smith, Peninsula High; Paulina Davison, Rogers High; Sloane McGowan, Bothell High; Adenike Omomukuyo, Emerald Ridge High; Drew Wallen, Auburn Riverside High; Alexander Moore, Charles Wright Academy; Cheyenne Peltier, Bonney Lake High; Brian Ward, Bellarmine Prep. Front row from left: Quenessa Long, Lakes High; Felicia Gorun, Wilson High; and Jesse MacKinnon, Gig Harbor High. Photo taken in Tacoma on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

DREW PERINE — Staff photographer Buy Photo

They’ve come a long way. In 1996, the year most of them were born, President Bill Clinton was re-elected, the Seattle Supersonics lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals, Google was created as a research project, and “The Macarena” topped the radio charts.

The Twin Towers were five years from falling, and The News Tribune was two years from starting its All-Star graduate program.

Every spring we ask a panel of community judges to select a dozen standout high school seniors. This year, a total of 101 nominees were submitted by 37 public and private schools in Pierce and South King counties.

The nominees were as remarkable as ever, and the judges had their work cut out for them.

We view the All-Stars not so much as the best of the best, but rather as a representative sample of excellence. In the selection process, academic achievement counts for a lot, but so does volunteerism, leadership, special talents and overcoming obstacles. These 12 students rose above challenges such as disease, disability, family member deaths and separations, poverty and cultural barriers.

We hope you’ll be as impressed by them as we are.

Click on a graduate to learn more
Parents: Greg and Shelley Backstrom
DREW PERINE/Staff photographer
Conrad Backstrom
What's next: Backstrom will enter a job training program at a public library.
Residence: Tacoma | GPA: 4.0
Diagnosed with autism at age 2-1/2, Conrad didn't speak until he was nearly 4. The big moment came during a Disney movie, with Thumper and Bambi. "He was trying to get something to eat," recalls Conrad's dad, Greg. "He imitated Thumper, but he was looking at me." It's a long way from "Bambi" to induction into the National Honor Society. But Conrad's perfect grades and can-do attitude helped get him there. "I got myself some good grades," he said. He has earned the admiration of many in the Stadium community. For the past three years, he's received the school's People's Choice Award. Conrad is a busy volunteer. His projects include wrapping gifts at the Toy Rescue Mission and caroling for retirement home residents. He helps at the Families for Effective Autism Treatment fundraising run. Telling stories, whether in school plays or as a mentor to kids at Lowell Elementary School, is one of his cherished activities. He enjoys his work in the school library. Conrad has memorized most of the Dr. Seuss catalog, and he can recite "The Cat in the Hat" and other stories from memory. He took general education classes at Stadium while receiving special services to accommodate his learning and communication needs. While some students learn by absorbing information and making inferences, Conrad's approach is different. "Conrad learns by memorizing everything first," his dad said. Then, teachers help him review what he has memorized. Conrad isn't afraid to talk about his autism. "It's who I am."
Residence: Gig Harbor | GPA: 3.97
Benjamin Smith
Parents: Amie and Ed Smith
The toughest challenge Ben ever faced might have been his shoelaces. Born with a fingerless left hand that ends just beyond his wrist, he wore slip-on shoes until, not yet in school, he determined to learn to tie laces. It was frustrating, but he found a way. Ben has done that all his life; he wants to use his experiences to pursue a career in prosthetics and orthotics and work at a children's or a Shriners hospital. "The things I learned from the challenges I've faced will help me," he said. Those challenges came almost daily. "I was always shy about accepting challenges as a kid. I would wonder if I could play baseball or football — and my mother would just sign me up to play." He was a captain of the Peninsula football team last season, played trombone, threw the javelin, joined a competitive snowboarding team and coached youngsters in the sport. His volunteer work includes camp counseling and neighborhood and beach cleanups. "I have learned not to give up," Smith said. "And I've learned that I want to help improve the lives of others with a similar disability." He discovered that four years ago, when he was part of a Shriners prosthetic research in Portland. CT scans were taken while he did tasks with each hand. "Afterward, they showed me a 3-D reconstruction of my brain and showed me which sectors were being used during the test. It was so complex, it was fascinating."
What's next: Smith has enrolled at the University of Washington.
Parents: Julie and Peter Davison
Residence: Puyallup | GPA: 3.9
What's next: Davison will attend Arizona State University.
Paulina has mastered the art of doing it all. She has a hard time naming one activity that stands out from the others. "I feel like I'm a really balanced person," she said. Paulina's test scores, course loads and activities back that up: She's taken seven advanced placement classes, participated in Tacoma Youth Symphony and other music programs on French horn and cello, and has competed in track and soccer — the latter for more than 10 years. School clubs and community service — including camp counseling and mentoring younger French horn players in the Puyallup School District — round out her list of responsibilities. Her various interests, she said, are "all high quality and highly enjoyable." Paulina has also juggled life at different schools. After 10th grade, she transferred to Rogers from the private Annie Wright School in Tacoma, and has taken Running Start courses through Pierce College. She also did a six-week genomic sciences internship at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in Baltimore, Maryland. It was clear in a recent interview that Paulina's mind is always integrating her knowledge of math. "I really do like spatial things," she said while explaining vector principles. She still knows how to have fun, though. "I really enjoy being able to sing in the hallways," Paulina said of impromptu performances with friends between classes. Paulina said Hamlet best describes her aspirations: "This above all — to thine own self be true."
Paulina Davison
Residence: Spanaway | GPA: 4.0
What's next: Sloane will attend Arizona State University.
Sloane McGowan
Parents: Lisa and Mark Neideffer
Sloane thrives in the limelight. She's her class valedictorian, cheerleading captain and a two-time student body president — the first person elected to back-to-back terms in school history. She aspires for a career in sports broadcasting. Better still would be a shot to work with the wrestling superstars at WWE. She's that comfortable on camera. "I love performing. It's my life." At Bethel, she made a big impression with an outgoing personality and a willingness to dive into sports, theater, community service and leadership activities. "She is that stand-out student who cannot be replaced," said Robin Hodges, Sloane's leadership adviser. "If there is anything that needs to be planned or organized, she is the person you go to." Sloane developed her strong sense of self early. Her father died when she was 8, and she was raised by a single mom until she was 12. What gives her pride? Helping revive a student government leadership retreat that had fallen by the wayside. It brought students together for some competitive fun that led to partnerships among different campus organizations. In sports, her cheerleading team had its best year in competitions her senior season. And in community service, she was a summer camp counselor for middle school students. She felt she made a difference in their lives as they prepared for high school. "It was great to see the growth of 10- and 11-year-olds in just four days," she said.
Residence: Lakewood | GPA: 3.58
What's next: Long will attend Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland.
Quenessa believes "everything comes down to its roots and its core" and she wants to pursue a career that gives insights into the cultures that drive people. The student who goes by the nickname "Que" (pronounced "Q") was forced to mature at a young age. Her father has been in prison since she was a baby, and her mother struggled to support four children. Quenessa became the emotional caretaker for her siblings and worried for her mother, a victim of domestic violence. These struggles affected Quenessa's academics, and she failed in school for a time. Her family fell into homelessness and moved around – including to Florida for a year. In her middle school years, the family moved between shelters, motels and abandoned apartments. By eighth grade, an acquaintance offered them a stable place to live in Lakewood. Quenessa's experiences taught her to "show compassion for others because you don't know what that person is going through." At Lakes, she took advanced placement classes and played three sports. She was catcher for the softball team and team captain this year. "The more work I put in, the better things work out," she said. She participates in Young Life, serving as a peer counselor. She also volunteers weekly mentoring children at Tillicum Elementary School. "People take one look at her and don't think Que has the ability to succeed, but she is eager to prove to herself and the naysayers wrong," school counselor Bobbie Richardson said.
Quenessa Long
Parent: Adriane Wilson
Adenike Omomukuyo
Parents: Tina and Adeleye Omomukuyo
What's next: Omomukuyo will be attending Cornell University in New York.
Adenike or " Nike " knows about adapting, and she's helped others do the same. The once-shy student (who pronounces her name "Nicky") has accomplished much since moving from Georgia to Puyallup, with an early-life detour to Africa. She volunteers with the Freezing Nights program for the homeless. She volunteers at Good Samaritan Hospital, works with kids at the Puyallup library, and still finds time for the club she founded. Equity Club, she says, helps kids feel loved despite differences or circumstances. Nike knows a thing or two about that. She was born in Atlanta, moved to her family's native Nigeria, learned the Yoruba language, attended preschool there and returned to Atlanta. The family moved to Washington state for a better life. Nike said she had a realization about her identity after coming to Puyallup in 2011. "I knew I was a minority, and that was something I wasn't accustomed to. That was something that hit me in the face." She ate lunches in the school bathroom or by the steps, away from people. She said joining speech and debate her sophomore year was the turning point. She gradually came out of her shell. This year, she spoke in front of a large audience for the first time, reciting her poem "What if I am a Black Woman?" at her school's Martin Luther King Jr. assembly. "I felt strong," she said. "I spoke with authority." Nike plans to study medicine in hopes of joining Doctors Without Borders. "I'm just excited about taking the next step. Beginning my dreams."
Drew was a below-average student and a self-described bully in middle school. He said he made fun of people and could be rude to peers, teachers and parents. Something changed when he was a freshman at Auburn Riverside. He heard activities director Meri Benedict speak at a mentor program. He recalled her words. "‘There are two types of people in high school: Those who watch it happen and those who make it happen.'" "It was kind of a wake-up call," Drew said. "I decided I wanted to make a difference at my high school and become a better person." He participated four years in the Random Acts of Kindness Club, and helped lead an anti-bullying campaign. He volunteered as a camp counselor, food bank worker and youth sports referee. Leadership has come to define him. Drew was class president for each of his first three years at Auburn Riverside, then for the overall Associated Student Body this year. He was captain of the varsity basketball and football teams. He excels at sports and plans to play safety on the football team at Central Washington University. Drew said it's important to give back to others through community service, which he plans to continue in college. "I believe I've been blessed with an amazing opportunity in my life. I will find my niche."
Parents: Allison and Terry Wallen
What's next: Wallen will attend Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
Drew Wallen
Residence: Auburn | GPA: 3.99
Parents: Iurie and Doina Gorun
What's next: Gorun will attend the University of Washington Tacoma.
Felicia has a foot in two very different worlds — her native Moldova and her adopted home of Tacoma. When her family moved from Eastern Europe, she was a shy 13-year-old. As an eighth grader at Truman Middle School, then as a student at Wilson, she spent more time listening than talking. It allowed her to master English well enough to ace her state reading and writing exams on the first try. Her teachers say that's unusual for a student just learning English. Felicia speaks four other languages —Moldovan, Russian, French and Romanian — and is learning Spanish. "My first two years at Wilson I didn't have many friends," she said. "If I didn't know something, I would ask the other Russian students." By junior year, she realized classmates were curious, in a friendly way, about her accent, academic ability and background. That's when she began to share — and blossom. She played volleyball, made the honor roll, taught Bible school at church. She found American high school easy, having already studied subjects such as biology and physics in sixth grade in Moldova. Still, she's grateful to the Wilson community for their support as she found her way in a new land. She also credits God for her success. "I am thankful to Jesus, (who) has blessed us through this country," Felicia said. "America has received our family warmly, has offered us opportunities to learn and to develop our skills."
Felicia Gorun
Residence: Tacoma | GPA: 3.96
Residence: Federal Way | GPA: 3.75
Parents: Sandra and Milan Moore
Alexander Moore
What's next: Moore will attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Alexander didn't exactly have a safety net. He applied to just one school — Harvard University. He learned he was accepted by an email that he almost missed because it went to his spam folder. He's not yet sure what he wants to pursue as a career. That doesn't bother him except when people ask. "They hear ‘Harvard' and they ask, ‘What do you want to do with your life?' "I can't tell you what I want to do with my life," Alexander said. "I'm 17." He does plan to run on the track and field team. At Charles Wright, he was a Class-A state champion in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. He holds the school record in all three events. He also played football four years for the Tarriers and was captain his senior year. This year, he was Associated Student Body president at the private Tacoma school, and was awarded last year as the top junior in science and mathematics. He has volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club. Noel Blyler, associate director of college counseling at Charles Wright, described Alexander as an exceptional student and leader — the kind who's at ease leading a class discussion while wearing a Burger King crown on his head. "I can think of only a handful of students I've ever known who have Alexander's blend of academic and athletic ability, leadership, humility and humor," Blyler said. "He is a rare gem."
Everything she has and all she is, Jesse owes to her parents — all four of them. Born in China, she and twin sister Molly pushed her parents beyond that country's two-child policy. "They left my twin sister and I at a busy restaurant when we were days old, knowing it would give us the chance to be adopted," Jesse said. Later, when she was 10, she got to meet them. "They lost their jobs because of what they'd done for me." As a young child, she was adopted by a Gig Harbor couple. Her adoptive father was a businessman who changed careers and became a doctor when Jesse was about two. "His determination to start over has always been an inspiration." She turned that inspiration into results. After being home-schooled through eighth-grade, she and Molly — also a standout student — started high school at Life Christian Academy in Tacoma. To stay challenged, the girls did research projects on their own. Jesse spent her sophomore year at Peninsula High School, but by her junior year she was taking a full load of community college classes through the Running Start program, plus a Chinese class at Gig Harbor High. She traveled summers with her father, visiting China, Kenya and other countries on medical missions. "I am so grateful to both my sets of parents," she said. "I want to give back, not just to my community but to the world."
What's next: MacKinnon will attend the University of Washington.
Jesse MacKinnon
Residence: Gig Harbor | GPA: 4.0
Parents: Melodee and Brad MacKinnon
What's next: Peltier has enrolled at Stanford University in Stanford, California.
Parents: Cory and Maureen Peltier (stepmother), Melina Peltier (mother)
Residence: Orting | GPA: 4.0
Cheyenne found a trick to earning straight A's while juggling responsibilities as a community volunteer and participant in multiple campus clubs. By taking a leadership role in each, she could set schedules so they worked for her. "It gets easier to schedule when you're in charge of everyone," she said, laughing. Cheyenne says she might have learned the discipline to handle so many things from her dad and stepmom, each of whom served on two yearlong deployments to Iraq with the Washington National Guard. Cheyenne has become a master at managing time. She's a leader at her school's Key Club, Humanitarian Club, Leo Club and National Honor Society. She also spent her summers volunteering, most recently helping monitor Puyallup River water quality for the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma. She also gave her time to an autism group at a local elementary school and has delivered meals through a food bank. For all four years of high school, she earned a varsity letter in community service. She thought of herself as someone who helped new clubs get started at Bonney Lake. "I laid down the groundwork," she said. The real payoff will come, Cheyenne said, when younger students develop the programs into something greater after she graduates. She's been coaching a junior to take the reins. "My favorite part (will be) seeing what she's done."
Cheyenne Peltier
What's next: Ward will attend Gonzaga University in Spokane.
Parents: Todd and Kim Ward
Residence: Tacoma | GPA: 3.87
Diagnosed with Crohn's Disease in sixth grade, Brian hasn't let his medical condition hold him back. He was "mediocre at best" when he joined Bellarmine's track and cross country teams four years ago. But he fell into step and celebrated with his cross country teammates this spring when they placed fifth in state competition. Athletics helped him become a leader. He was elected student body president this year and has earned the Eagle Scout honor. Brian also grew into an academic leader. He's one of 25 seniors in the school's four-year extracurricular marine chemistry program. He's an advanced placement scholar and received a perfect score on his AP world history exam. He volunteers with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America and will serve as a counselor this summer at Camp Oasis, a getaway for children with Crohn's Disease. "He feels blessed that he had an early diagnosis and wants to inspire others with the same condition," said his school counselor, Annette Michalson. "As a camp counselor he can share his story and listen to the stories of others." Other parts of Brian's story include Bellarmine choir, musical theater performances and serving as eucharistic minister at school masses. With an older brother pursuing the same major at Gonzaga University, Brian knows he's in for a challenge. The hardest part about leaving for college will be saying goodbye to close friends and parents, he said. "It's going to be tough to leave my mom."
Brian Ward

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