Each year at graduation time, The News Tribune honors some of the area’s top high school seniors.
We ask high schools from around the South Sound to send us the names of students who are standouts in everything from academics to sports, leadership to community service.
Many excel in multiple categories. Others have overcome personal and family problems on the way to graduation.
A panel of judges chooses just 12 honorees from the nearly 100 nominees. We call the dozen standouts our News Tribune All-Star Graduates.
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Parents: Chris Savenetti and Rondi Savenetti.
School: Science and Math Institute (SAMI).
Grade point average: 3.9.
After graduation, Reily Savenetti is taking the road less traveled. While most of her high-achieving peers will start college in the fall, she plans to take a semester away from school to discover what awaits her in the wider world.
She will spend time in a program called Workaway, which will take her to Costa Rica and Peru, where she’ll work as a farm worker or nanny in exchange for food and shelter.
“I wanted to go because I haven’t traveled very much,” Savenetti said. “I want to get to know myself.”
She plans to start college after she returns from her travels in early 2018.
SAMI educators say Savenetti’s passion lies in caring for the environment. In January, she was part of a service and study tour to Hawaii, where students worked to restore wetlands and with elementary school students.
For her senior project, Savenetti created a hand-illustrated “Field Guide to Wildflowers of Washington.”
The idea for the project grew from her love of hiking. She often picked flowers and pressed them in a notebook. The practice pointed her toward a career choice in biology and a potential second career as a botanical illustrator.
In addition to her studies, Savenetti has been part of the Stadium High School cross-country team (SAMI does not offer sports, so students can participate at the city’s comprehensive high schools.)
She was a photographer and editor on the SAMI yearbook, and played saxophone for several musical ensembles at Tacoma’s School of the Arts.
What’s next: She will enter the University of Hawaii for spring semester 2018 and study plant biology.
Parents: Jin and Insuk Lee.
School: Puyallup High School.
Grade point average: 3.97.
Two weeks into his sophomore year, Sang Lee learned he had a dangerous condition that required two rounds of surgery to correct blood flow in his brain.
The surgeries and subsequent recovery meant he missed all of sophomore year. The situation might have left some adults unable to cope, but Lee just feels lucky his condition was caught in time.
“It was a terrible year,” he said. “I would have rather been in school studying.”
He returned to school a sophomore — even though all his friends had moved on to junior status. His teachers say he came back a stronger student who showed renewed enthusiasm for his own learning and a willingness to help other students.
He completed 12 Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school, earning recognition as an AP Scholar with Distinction.
He has volunteered as a tutor for calculus and chemistry at his school, helped students with math at a local elementary school and landed a paying job teaching algebra and geometry at a tutoring center.
Lee’s friends organized a fundraising concert for him, and their support inspired him.
“It got me deeply passionate about community service and giving back,” Lee said.
He has volunteered more than 250 hours at Tacoma General Hospital, escorting people to patient rooms, delivering mail and flowers, and serving as an interpreter for Korean speakers.
Lee was born in South Korea, and moved to the United States around age 3.
“Korean is my first language, and I struggled to learn English,” he said.
The difficulties he’s faced have inspired him to work harder, he said.
“All those challenges were more motivation for me than an obstacle,” Lee said.
What’s next: He’ll enter the University of Washington this fall and major in biochemistry. His career goal is to become a psychiatrist.
Parents: Deanna and Ray Fernandez.
School: Emerald Ridge High School.
Grade point average: 3.97.
Audrey Fernandez says her biggest fan is her twin sister Mikayla, who’s one minute younger.
In turn, Fernandez has served as the voice and advocate for her sister, who has a disability.
“We’re close,” Fernandez said. “So I always want to be there for her.”
Teachers at Emerald Ridge High School say Fernandez is willing to help whenever needed.
She’s earned a United Way varsity letter for her community service, which includes volunteer work at Good Samaritan Hospital and help with the Freezing Nights program, which shelters her community’s homeless.
Fernandez has served as president of her school’s Key Club and Interact Club. She’s been a student government leader, an orchestra member, a track athlete and a member of her school’s Daffodil Princess Court.
She’s an honor roll student who filled her senior year with rigorous Advanced Placement course work, and earned a Junior Masonic Academic Achievement Scholarship.
In June, she’ll leave for summer training at the U.S. Naval Academy. She said she visited the academy at Annapolis, Maryland, after receiving a recruitment letter and “fell in love with the school and its moral values.”
After completing her studies at the academy, Fernandez wants to attend graduate school and become a biomedical engineer, and complete her Naval service.
Fernandez knows the coming separation will be challenging for her twin.
But she also knows that even while she’s away, “I am always in her life.”
What’s next: The U.S. Naval Academy.
Parents: Robert and Roxanne Adriance.
School: Rogers High School.
Grade point average: 3.56.
When her mom worried about her getting hurt or lost while running on her school’s cross-country team, Taylor Adriance told her, “If I fall down, I will get back up and I will keep going. If I get lost, I will just stop and wait for the next runner.”
Her mother’s concerns weren’t idle ones.
Adriance was born with a condition that caused her optic nerve to atrophy, leaving her legally blind. It also affected her speech and language, causing her to spend several years in occupational and speech therapy.
With the help of glasses, she said, she sees better close up than far away.
But what sets Adriance apart, say those who know her, is her ability to persevere.
When she wanted to join the wrestling team at Stahl Junior High School, she was undaunted when she had to compete on the boys team, because there was no girls team.
When she got to Rogers High School, she was happy to join the all-girls wrestling team.
At first, her coach said, she struggled in practices and lost a lot of matches. But she persisted, and this year won a spot as alternate at the state tournament.
“I can do anything,” Adriance said.
That attitude has carried over into the classroom, where she signed up for challenging classes and has earned eight scholastic awards from WIAA, the governing body for high school sports in Washington state.
What’s next: She plans to attend Western Washington University in the fall in pursuit of a career as a physical therapist.
Parent: Lisa Rand.
School: Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA).
Grade point average: 3.69.
As far back as he can remember, Antonio Ramirez said, his family has struggled financially. The family — his disabled mother and younger sister — gets by on his mom’s disability payments.
“It’s hard to get out of that,” he said of the poverty that’s always been part of his life.
But he’s determined to try.
Teachers say he’s a natural school leader.
He’s worked to improve his school’s robotics team, the SOTAbots. He taught himself the programming language Java.
“YouTube is a great thing,” he said, explaining how he did that. “I watched a lot of videos of people commenting in monotone.”
He also learned from a mentor, a Seattle business executive who works with the school’s robotics team.
In addition to teaching programming language to students joining the team, Ramirez has worked to increase female involvement in robotics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities.
He and his team host a one-day workshop for robotics teams from other schools in the region, and he’s given several lectures during the workshops.
But it’s not all-tech-all-the-time for Ramirez. He spent a school year volunteering each Friday at Hilltop Urban Gardens, where he helped with planting and did garden maintenance. He developed and designed a website for the nonprofit community garden.
This summer will mark his third as a volunteer at Xplore Camp, where he spends six weeks teaching younger kids about programming, robotics and art.
Though headed for a career in technology, Ramirez said he chose to attend SOTA, which focuses on the arts, “because I wanted to grow.”
Ramirez is the recipient of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, a Rotary 8 Scholarship and a College Bound Scholar.
What’s next: He’ll attend the University of Washington to study computer science and engineering.
Parents: Jafar and Sudi Taghavi.
School: Charles Wright Academy.
Residence: Gig Harbor.
Grade point average: 3.99.
It’s not about the GPA. It’s about the journey.
That’s the advice Kiana Taghavi gives to the younger students she mentors at Charles Wright Academy.
She entered high school shooting for a perfect 4.0. But then she started joining clubs and got involved in student government. That’s when she realized “high school is about more than numbers.”
Still, her GPA is mighty close to perfect. She is an Advanced Placement Scholar, a member of the school’s Cum Laude Society and the recipient of the Presidential Service Award.
She founded her school’s Women’s Empowerment Club, attended Model United Nations conferences and was a varsity volleyball player for three years.
Taghavi has volunteered for the Children’s Museum and the Boys and Girls Club, and was an intern for the campaign of U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
Taghavi’s parents are from Iran, and her grandfather was jailed during the reign of the shah of Iran. For a time, she said, she tried to distance herself from her Persian roots.
But after her grandfather, who had moved to Canada, died during her junior year of high school, “it jarred me into a state of awareness.”
She’s more aware of her heritage, although she acknowledges she now speaks better French than Farsi, her first language as a child.
She’ll have an opportunity to practice French when she travels to the city of Nantes, where she’ll complete a two-week internship teaching English.
Taghavi visited Iran twice when she was younger. But the family has not been able to return in recent years.
“I hope I can go back one day,” she said.
What’s next: She’s headed to Columbia University in New York, where she wants to study comparative literature and minor in French or in human rights studies. She’s also interested in studying politics and law.
Parent: Hattie Cuadras.
School: Lincoln High School.
Grade point average: 3.94.
Isaiah Cuadras calls his grandfather, who died just before the start of the teen’s senior year of high school, his “biggest inspiration.”
His grandfather was a founder of Childhaven, a King County organization that works with abused and neglected children.
During his junior year, Cuadras helped care for his grandfather, who underwent several surgeries. His single mom was busy caring for his younger brother, who has autism.
Cuadras would come home after sports practice or an after-school club and then help his grandfather. At night, he sometimes woke up to help his grandfather up from the floor.
He also held down a job at a pizza shop, often returning home late at night with homework still to complete. It wasn’t unusual for Cuadras to stay up past midnight.
How did he manage to do it all?
“It was tough,” Cuadras said.
He studied hard in Advanced Placement classes and was named scholar athlete of the year in basketball and tennis. He took part in student government, was captain of the varsity tennis team and manager of the girls tennis team.
He’s volunteered in a classroom for special needs students at Franklin Elementary School since 2013. At Lincoln High School, he helped organize the Dream Prom, a special event for students with disabilities.
Cuadras was one of the Lincoln students who traveled to China, by invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping after his 2015 visit at Lincoln. The visit provided a glimpse at the Chinese education system that impressed Cuadras.
“Their system is far ahead of ours,” he said. “Fourteen-year-olds were doing the same math as some of the Running Start kids at my school.”
What’s next: He’ll attend the University of Washington to study aeronautics.
Parent: Donald Benoit.
School: Peninsula High School.
Residence: Gig Harbor.
Grade point average: 3.914.
When she runs with her cross-country team, Emily Benoit likes to imagine her mother is cheering from the sidelines.
“I know my mom would be so proud of me,” she wrote in an essay.
Benoit’s mother, Diane, died in August, right before the start of her daughter’s senior year at Peninsula High School.
She had been diagnosed years earlier with breast cancer, and later, uterine cancer. She had always beat cancer in the past, Benoit said, and she was confident her mom would pull through again.
But her mother’s final battle, against a rare and aggressive form of cancer known as rhabdomyosarcoma, would be her last.
The diagnosis hit during the summer of 2013, just as Benoit, the youngest member of her family, was starting high school.
She remembers staying home from school to care for her mother on the first day of chemotherapy. She drove her mom to medical appointments, and helped with medications and feeding tubes at home. She took on more household chores.
But she never wavered in her commitment to school. She entered the Running Start program at Tacoma Community College, so she’ll finish high school with both a diploma and an associate’s degree.
She’s a member of the National Honor Society and her school’s Interact Club.
Benoit said she never considered dropping out or slacking off during her mother’s final illness.
“I had to think about what my mom would want,” she said. “That kept me motivated.”
Benoit is grateful for the support she got from her school and from her Young Life group during her mother’s ordeal. The adult leaders in Young Life, a Christian teen group, “are like other moms to me,” said Benoit, who’s friends with their daughters.
“It’s like having a whole other family,” she said.
What’s next: She plans to attend Western Washington University and study kinesiology, then pursue a master’s degree at the University of Washington. She wants a career as a prosthetic and orthotic practitioner.
Parents: Victoria and Ruben Gonzales.
School: Bethel High School.
Grade point average: 3.97.
From the day she set foot in Bethel High School, her teachers say, Susie Noble has been laser-focused on one goal: attending the U.S. Air Force Academy.
She’ll report there June 29 for basic cadet training, and she’ll be well-prepared, thanks to her participation in Air Force Junior ROTC at Bethel.
“I love the atmosphere of the Air Force, and their values,” she said. Her ultimate career goal: Air Force pilot.
Noble has been a leader in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, as squadron commander at an ROTC leadership camp and as a flight commander at Bethel, where she helps the ROTC instructor, maintains records and teaches new cadets.
She’s earned the AFJROTC academic ribbon, an American Veterans Award, American Legion Scholastic Award and Tuskegee Airman Award.
Outside of ROTC, she’s worked with her school’s Link Crew, which helps incoming freshmen deal with high school, captained the swim team, run cross-country, been a flute section leader and drum major for the school band and a leader in the wind ensemble.
“Susie is consistently the person who makes a class or event work smoothly,” said band teacher John Wetherington. “She has high expectations of herself and encourages others to do the same.”
What’s next: The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Parents: Angela and David Lusk.
School: White River High School.
Grade point average: 3.7.
Ryan Lusk’s list of high school achievements in football, basketball and track goes on for several pages — captain of the football team, year after year of scholar-athlete kudos, varsity letters and Male Athlete of the Year his junior year at White River High School.
So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear him reveal this: “When I was younger, I was always picked last for sports.”
But he was determined to succeed, so he returned to the playing field and kept trying.
“It was on the football field that I found passion, friendship and my first taste of achievement and acceptance,” he wrote in an essay. “Athletics has offered me a family.”
That drive spilled over into Lusk’s academic life. He worked his way up from a writing and reading disability, and in high school challenged himself with honors and Advanced Placement classes. In 2015, he was inducted into the National Honor Society.
“That was a huge accomplishment for me,” he said.
In addition to playing sports, Lusk has been a member of his school’s student government. He’s worked on school assemblies, food drives, dance committees, teacher appreciation week, spirit week, youth sports, events to support Special Olympics and more.
He’s also held a part-time job.
How does he do it all?
“Sports keeps me going,” he said. “It keeps me time-managed.”
What’s next: He’ll attend Pacific Lutheran University as the recipient of an academic scholarship. He wants to study kinesiology, and wants a career as a physical therapist or personal trainer.
He’s also looking forward to playing Lute football.
Sam Nyamu Munyaga
Parent: George Nyamu.
School: Federal Way High School.
Residence: Federal Way.
Grade point average: 3.5.
Sam Munyaga arrived in the United States just a few years ago from Kenya.
His family sold farm products to pay for his school fees back home.
His father immigrated first, when Munyaga was about 8. He remembers the day his dad left for America.
“I walked with him to the airplane,” Munyaga recalled. “I cried so much that day.”
For the next eight years, Munyaga and his mother went it alone in Kenya, while his father remained in the United States. The family struggled to survive in Kenya.
Finally, Munyaga and his dad were able to reunite.
“He applied for a green card, so everything was set and done for me to come here,” he said.
Munyaga grew up speaking Swahili, and learned English in school.
“I sort of pushed myself to learn,” he said.
That drive helped him succeed at Federal Way High School, where he has been part of Key Club, performed community service with the We Act and the Interact clubs and has been part of the Advancing Leadership Youth Program.
“My motivation, what defines me, is my spirit,” Munyaga said. “I never give up.”
Through the long years of waiting, he said, he never gave up his belief that he’d be able to come to the United States. Once he arrived, he vowed to work hard in school.
He said his AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class, which focuses on study skills, was a big help.
He’d like to return to Kenya some day and help others struggling with poverty and disease.
“I pledge every day in my heart, and pray that I will make a difference,” he said.
What’s next: He’ll study biochemistry at Washington State University.
He’s interested in becoming a physician, a researcher or both.
Parent: Richard Martin.
School: Bellarmine Preparatory School.
Grade point average: 4.0.
Tommy Martin says he’s a competitive person, in a competitive senior class.
He draws inspiration from others “when they’re trying to go after the big questions and answers.”
His drive kept him working hard in school, even after learning that his mother, Ellen, was diagnosed with cancer. She died shortly after he began high school.
He remembers being pulled out of class the day it happened. He took some comfort in learning there was a prayer service for her in the Catholic school’s chapel.
Erik Michels, chairman of Bellarmine’s counseling department, said Martin has “maintained a perfect GPA while taking the most rigorous courses that we have to offer.” He took five Advanced Placement classes senior year.
“He simply loves to learn,” Michels wrote.
In addition to being named a class valedictorian, Martin is a member of the National Honor Society and a multiyear winner of school awards in math, social studies and English. He received the College of William and Mary Leadership Award.
In addition to being class president for each of his four years at Bellarmine, Martin has been the varsity soccer captain and a broadcast editor and editorial writer for the school’s newspaper, The Lion.
He also reads scriptures at school Masses and penned plays for the school’s spring Dramafest.
Outside school, he volunteers serving breakfast to the homeless at Nativity House, teaches soccer skills to children with mental and physical disabilities and joins other Bellarmine students who deliver food to the homeless before school starts.
“My mom was always big on gratitude,” Martin said. “A tenet of my personal philosophy is that there’s always something to be thankful for.”
What’s next: He will attend Yale University. He’s uncertain about a major, but is interested in math and social science.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635