What makes a standout student? Find out with the 2016 News Tribune All-Star Graduates

The 2016 All-Star Graduates gather for a group portrait in the lobby of The News Tribune in Tacoma May 25. Clockwise from left: Aidan Kees, Graham-Kapowsin High; Brenda Ochoa, Washington; Joseph McCafferty, Chief Leschi; Zoe Nelson, Harrison Prep; Hashwinder Singh, Sumner; Kristen Nguyen, Mount Tahoma; CeDrice Howard, Curtis; Lucy Arnold, Peninsula; T.J. Hazen, Wilson; Tori Blackston, Lakes; and Ruhama Berta, Thomas Jefferson.
The 2016 All-Star Graduates gather for a group portrait in the lobby of The News Tribune in Tacoma May 25. Clockwise from left: Aidan Kees, Graham-Kapowsin High; Brenda Ochoa, Washington; Joseph McCafferty, Chief Leschi; Zoe Nelson, Harrison Prep; Hashwinder Singh, Sumner; Kristen Nguyen, Mount Tahoma; CeDrice Howard, Curtis; Lucy Arnold, Peninsula; T.J. Hazen, Wilson; Tori Blackston, Lakes; and Ruhama Berta, Thomas Jefferson.

Since 1998, The News Tribune has embarked on an annual search for some of the best and brightest among local high school graduates.

We call the selected dozen students the News Tribune All-Star Graduates.

South Sound high schools send us the names of students who excel in academics, community service, leadership, pure grit — sometimes in all these areas.

A panel of judges from the community helps us select the All Stars.

It’s difficult work. Each year, the nominees shine, and choosing just 12 from a field of more than 100 is always a challenge for our judging panel.

Meet the 2016 All-Star Graduates.

Jacoby Miles

Parents: Jason and Gretchen Miles

School: Gov. John R. Rogers High School

Residence: Puyallup

Grade point average: 3.9

In 2012, Jacoby Miles was paralyzed in a gymnastics accident. She was 15.

But the Rogers High student hasn’t let the accident, which robbed her of active participation in the sport she loved, define her.

“There is a lot to complain about in life,” she said in one of her college application essays. “But I choose to be grateful.”

She said her accident has made her a bigger person, and a more mature one. That’s not to say there aren’t down days, but she prefers to focus on the good ones.

“You can decide to get super bitter and angry,” she says. But she tries instead to see the beauty in a sunset and be thankful for her loving family of parents and five siblings, her friends and her Christian faith. All have helped sustain her.

“There’s something better to come,” Miles believes. And she is also certain that she has been given her burden so she can encourage others to bear theirs.

Teachers say Miles knows how important it is to work hard, and that she pushes herself to learn in challenging classes.

In addition to having a nearly perfect grade point average, she has been a leader in her school’s Be the Change Club, participated in Rogers High School’s award-winning concert choir, helps coach gymnastics and has been a leader in her church’s children’s program.

She’s looking forward to college.

“My disability doesn’t limit me,” she says. “It doesn’t make my mind less capable.”

What’s next: Miles is headed to Seattle Pacific University. She plans to major in business management and minor in Christian Scripture/theology.

T.J. Hazen

Parents: Tim and Bert Hazen

School: Wilson High School

Residence: Fircrest

GPA: 3.9

T.J. Hazen is ranked second in his graduating class at Wilson High School, earned recognition as an advanced placement scholar and was accepted to a lengthy list of prestigious universities, including Harvard, Duke, Swarthmore, Rice and Emory.

He did get one A-minus, from a teacher many top-notch Wilson students avoid because of his reputation for being a tough grader and a demanding instructor.

Hazen says it was a learning experience.

It’s not surprising he’s a good student. His mother is a kindergarten teacher at Whittier Elementary School and his father teaches PE at Larchmont Elementary School. His grandfather is a retired principal and he has uncles and cousins who are educators.

“People expect big things from me,” he says.

But Hazen is more than a brain. Teachers say he is trusted and respected by his peers and by Wilson High staff members.

He moves easily among both athletes and scholars at his school. He was elected student body president in two consecutive years, has captained the football and track teams and won numerous athletic awards.

He’s a three-year employee of Tacoma Boys market and has volunteered at Tacoma General Hospital and Hilltop Artists.

What’s next: Hazen is headed to Harvard with a scholarship. He’s interested in studying biochemistry, business and Spanish but hasn’t selected a major.

Hashwinder Singh

Parents: Ranvir Singh and Arati Kaur

School: Sumner High School

Residence: Bonney Lake

GPA: 3.8

Hashwinder Singh is pretty sure he’s the only student in his suburban high school whose parents immigrated from India.

Although he was born and grew up in the United States, he knows what it’s like to be an outsider, and has watched his parents adjust to a new life in a new land.

He was only 3 when 9/11 happened, but he knows the challenges that came his family’s way because of it.

A student of history, his goal is to “be a voice for the voiceless.”

“So many people in the history of this country didn’t get representation,” says Singh, who counts Malcolm X as a personal idol.

He is an International Baccalaureate Full Diploma student. He’s been on his school’s varsity basketball team since sophomore year, and was student body president this year. In his limited spare time, he’s also a “huge movie fanatic.”

Singh is passionate about government and politics, and he hopes to have a career in both. He’s planning to run for public office and “maybe get into the Oval Office.”

He’s already got a leg up there. He was chosen as one of two Washington state students for the U.S. Senate Youth Program, spent a week in Washington, D.C., earlier this year and got to meet, among other luminaries, President Barack Obama.

“It still hasn’t quite sunk in,” he says.

He also was chosen to be a summer intern for U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.).

What’s next: Singh is headed with a scholarship to Georgetown University in the nation’s capital, where he’ll major in government and history. After college, he wants to attend law school “somewhere on the East Coast.”

Tori Blackston

Parent: Victoria Lewis

School: Lakes High School

Residence: Joint Base Lewis-McChord

GPA: 3.8

The daughter of a career soldier, Tori Blackston was born at Fort Hood, Texas. While her mother was deployed to South Korea for two years, baby Tori lived with her aunt. Her stepfather is a member of the military as well.

Like a lot of military kids, Blackston traveled a bit, living in Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi and finally, Washington. She’s attended 11 schools.

The family has dealt with hardships while Blackston’s mom, a 20-year Army veteran, was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany.

One of her greatest challenges, though, has come in her relationship with her father, who is serving a long prison sentence. In her college essay, she wrote about the struggles of trying to maintain a relationship with him.

“It will be tough,” she wrote. “But nothing worth having comes easy.”

Blackston’s teachers praise her academic achievements and school leadership, noting “her style is to encourage, empower and lead from behind.” She’s been a mentor for incoming freshman, and this year was picked to lead a team of eight other student mentors.

She’s a three-year member of the National Honor Society and has been a member of the Lakes High School dance team, cheer squad and drama team. She also spent a year as a member of her school fast-pitch team.

She earned a school first place and regional second-place award for her Americanism-Patriotism Essay in the Fleet Reserve Association contest.

What’s next: Blackston is headed to the University of Miami with a scholarship and plans to study mathematics. She’s interested in working in finance for a major corporation or possibly teaching.

CeDrice Howard

Parents: Cedric and Thais Howard

School: Curtis High School

Residence: University Place

GPA: 3.8

She’s an athlete and a scholar, a Running Start student at Tacoma Community College who will earn her high school diploma and her associate’s degree.

Curtis High School counselor Beth Edwards calls CeDrice Howard “a natural leader, mature beyond her years … determined to be successful in all she does.”

She’s a member of the Curtis National Honor Society and a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society member at TCC.

Howard says she’s always had a lot of confidence in her abilities as a student. But it was a different story in sports.

“Academics have always been super easy,” she says. “But athletics takes a lot of work.”

The hard work paid off. She was captain of her basketball team junior and senior years, a WIAA State Scholar Athlete, Tacoma Athletic Association Athlete of the Year and she placed first in shot put district competition in 2015.

Howard has been an Elizabeth Wesley scholar — an honor bestowed on Tacoma-area African-American students — throughout her high school career.

She also found time to volunteer, logging more than 800 hours of volunteer work with several youth programs and at St. Joseph Medical Center. She earned a varsity letter in community service from United Way of Pierce County in each of her four years of high school.

What’s next: Howard will enroll at D’youville College in Buffalo, New York, where she will spend 4 1/2 years earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, on the road to becoming a physician’s assistant. And she’s looking forward to hitting the court as a member of the college’s Lady Spartans basketball team.

Ruhama Berta

Parent: Michael Megnta

School: Thomas Jefferson High School

Residence: Kent

GPA: 3.5

High school taught Ruhama Berta that it’s OK to be confident.

Her school counselor says Berta knows the importance of understanding other cultures and helping those in need.

Through her school district’s Global Initiative program, Berta volunteered two summers ago in the West African nation of Ghana.

“We stayed in a village, and tried to put ourselves in their shoes,” she says. Part of that experience meant hauling food and water.

It was the same kind of experiences she’d heard about from her father, who is from Ethiopia.

“I had heard stories about how he had to carry water,” she says. “I had heard about it, but I had never experienced it before.”

Berta’s mother, also from Ethiopia, died when her daughter was young. Berta was raised by her dad and her aunt, who the teen calls “my rock.”

She spent time in her younger years searching for purpose, and found it at Thomas Jefferson High School, where she earned the “Heart of a Raider” award.

She grew into a leader and a scholar, earning a spot in the National Honor Society, serving as senior class senator and co-chairing the Halloween food drive called We Scare Hunger.

She was president of her school’s Black Student Union and was a student member of an advisory team that helped choose the Federal Way School District’s newest superintendent, Tammy Campbell.

What’s next: Berta plans to enroll at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. She’s interested in studying public policy and political science.

Aidan Kees

Parents: Matthew and Kymberly Kees

School: Graham-Kapowsin High School

Residence: Spanaway

GPA: 4.0

As a sergeant major in his high school’s Junior Army ROTC unit, Aidan Kees is following in his grandfather’s footsteps.

His grandfather served with Special Forces during the Vietnam War, and has been Kees’ career inspiration.

“He influenced me growing up,” he says. “He has been a big motivating factor.”

With an appointment to attend West Point, Kees is poised for a successful military career.

“I’m happy to make him proud,” he says of his grandfather.

A member of JROTC for four years, Kees has been in leadership positions for three.

He’s earned a perfect grade-point average in high school, taking a slew of Advanced Placement classes, including world and U.S. history, language and composition, government and politics, calculus, computer science and literature. He is one of six valedictorians at Graham-Kapowsin.

He has a twin brother, Griffin, and the two are what’s known as mirror-image twins.

“I’m left-handed and he is right-handed,” Aidan says. When they were growing up, they would lose teeth on opposite sides of the mouth.

“We think a lot alike, but personality-wise we are pretty different,” he says.

In addition to aiming high in JROTC and in the classroom, Kees volunteered for the Emergency Food Network and at Mother Earth Farm, and has run cross country and track. He’s a two-year member of his school’s Link Crew, which helps welcome freshmen and promote school spirit.

What’s next: Kees is headed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he wants to focus on computer science.

Zoe Nelson

Parents: Scott and Rachel Nelson

School: Harrison Preparatory School

Residence: DuPont

GPA: 3.9

When she entered high school, Zoe Nelson says, she was a shy kid. But she says it was easy to get involved in activities at her small high school, which is part of the Clover Park School District in Lakewood.

Nelson became vice captain and captain of her school Knowledge Bowl team, was editor of its literary magazine her freshman year and was a designer of the yearbook.

Outside of school, Nelson served on the Dupont Youth Council, and volunteered at the Dupont Historical Society, digitally archiving photos and artifacts.

She’s been a YMCA volunteer, a Relay for Life team member and a volunteer at the Tacoma Children’s Museum.

Her academic achievements are many: several college scholarships, named as an Advanced Placement Scholar and a National Merit Commended Scholar, first place at last year’s Washington State Science Fair and first place at this year’s Puget Sound Regional Science Fair.

She is a founder of her school’s National Honor Society chapter.

Her teachers describe Nelson as intellectually hungry. When she wanted to enroll in Advanced Placement Psychology, she found out her school doesn’t offer the class. She enrolled in an online course and the school made arrangements for her to take the AP test. She has taken independent digital technology classes as well.

Nelson has a cousin with epilepsy and a great-grandmother who suffers from dementia. They were part of the inspiration for her to research the field of neurology.

She wants to become a computational neurologist — a field that combines math and science to create mathematical models of neurological processes.

What’s next: Nelson is headed on scholarship to Swarthmore College near Philadelphia

Kristen Nguyen

Parent: Ket Nguyen

School: Mount Tahoma High School

Residence: Tacoma

GPA: 4.0

On paper, Kristen Nguyen — valedictorian, Advanced Placement scholar, National Honor Society member, Knowledge Bowl team member, tennis player, orchestra violinist — might look perfect.

And she’s got the GPA to prove it.

But she says senior year at Mount Tahoma High School helped her get closer to her friends and through friendship she was able to talk through some of the issues they share.

“It’s good to know you’re not alone” she says.

Nguyen is a first-generation Asian American and will be the first in her family to go to college. Her grandfather fought the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War and was taken prisoner and held for 15 years. When he was released, the family immigrated to the United States and Nguyen was born in this country.

She traveled to Vietnam with her family when she was 8, and says she was blindsided by the level of poverty she saw there.

“My mother always told me to be thankful for what I had, and that is when I understood why,” she wrote in an essay.

Her single mom is raising Nguyen and her 12-year-old brother alone, and Nguyen worries about being able to afford college.

But she dreams about a career in science. She’s interested in 3-D printing of cells, and developing the technology to create human organs for transplant.

What’s next: Nguyen plans to attend the University of Washington in Seattle and study bioengineering.

Brenda Ochoa

Parents: Brenda Franco and Rogelio Ochoa

School: Washington High School

Residence: Spanaway

GPA: 3.6

When Brenda Ochoa started school in the United States after moving here from Mexico at age 12, she knew only a few words of English.

“My first day of middle school, I cried,” she says. “I was shy when I got to high school. My accent bothered me.”

But she’s about to graduate as one of the top 10 students in her class at Washington High School in Parkland.

“I learned English,” she says. “It was a blessing to be such a fast learner and to adapt to a different culture. I am a Christian, and I feel like my faith pushed me through.”

Ochoa has embraced school, taking Advanced Placement courses in biology, chemistry, Spanish, English language and literature and government and politics.

She’s a student leader who is part of her school’s Green Team, Latino Club, Patriot Crew, varsity soccer team and step team.

Outside of school, she is a facilitator for La Chispa (The Spark), which helps students build confidence and strengthen their cultural identity. This year, she was selected as a LEAP (Latino/Latina Educational Achievement Project) ambassador. The program is a yearlong leadership development experience designed to engage students in civic life.

She led a group of students to meet with state legislators and advocate for change.

What’s next: Ochoa will attend Pacific Lutheran University with an academic scholarship. She’s not sure of a major yet, but is interested in accounting, social work or possibly the medical field.

Lucy Arnold

Parents: Rebecca and William Arnold

School: Peninsula High School

Residence: Port Orchard

GPA: 4.0

Lucy Arnold is headed to Stanford University to study biology. But she acknowledges that writing has always come more naturally to her than science.

“I hope to be ambitious in college,” she says.

That likely won’t be a problem for a student who’s taken 14 Advanced Placement classes, including a self-study of AP European history and an online AP art history course.

Her teachers lavish praise on Arnold for her intellectual prowess and writing ability. They say she’s motivated in her personal quest for knowledge, and is a resource for her peers who seek her out when they need help in a subject.

Her AP computer science teacher says she’s a standout.

“The finest universities ought to send people here to recruit her like an All-American athlete, except that her gifts are so much more valuable,” says history teacher Jonathan Bill.

In 2015, Arnold attended a summer humanities session at Stanford, where she wrote a paper on “The Power of Poetry,” and connected the dots between writers as different as Shakespeare, Baudelaire and Nelson Mandela.

She was editor-in-chief for The Peninsula Outlook student news organization this year and was a reporter. She’s been part of her school Knowledge Bowl team and is a runner who’s completed half-marathons. She’s had to scale back her running, however, because of injuries. She’s been a counselor at Vacation Bible School and has volunteered at cross country and community races.

As a sophomore, Arnold attended a “model United Nations” event with more than 100 other students.

“I did tons of research to prepare, but I almost never go to speak,” she recalls. That’s when her teacher suggested she try debate, and another talent bloomed. Arnold was a state champion in impromptu speaking this year.

What’s next: Arnold plans to attend Stanford and major in human biology. She’s particularly interested in learning about the biology of cancer and environmental science.

Joseph McCafferty

Parents: Barbara and Larry Everhart

School: Chief Leschi Schools

Residence: Puyallup

GPA: 3.9

Joseph McCafferty says he struggled with school in his early years. He never thought he’d be going to college or that he’d be chosen as valedictorian for his graduating class.

A troubling family environment eventually led to foster placement with the Everhart family when McCafferty was 12.

“My high school experience changed me for the better,” he says. He thanks his foster parents for giving him the support he needed to succeed and earn a state Governor’s Scholarship for Foster Youth. He’s been on his high school honor roll for four years and has had perfect attendance.

By choice, he is drug and alcohol free and focuses on academics.

“I think of it (alcohol) as a poisonous snake,” McCafferty says. “I stay away from it.”

He says he learned a lot from his foster family, including the importance of putting education front and center in his life.

“I learned a lot of great lessons from my parents,” he says. “I knew I had to go out into a pretty big world.”

McCafferty is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Educators at Chief Leschi Schools, which is operated by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, say he has shown resiliency in spite of personal challenges. He is a mentor for sixth-grade students at his school. He has been a camp counselor through the Gang Resistance Education and Training program throughout his high school years, and he’s a former Boy Scout.

What’s next: McCafferty is headed to Bates Technical College. He’s interested in a career in digital media.

All Star judges

Here are the people who chose this year’s roster of News Tribune All-Star Grads:

Steve Smith is the executive director of the College Success Foundation — Tacoma, which supports underserved low-income students finish high school and graduate from college.

Before this, he held various administrative positions at Pacific Lutheran University, the University of Washington Tacoma and the University of Puget Sound. He is on the Pierce College Board of Trustees, has served on numerous other boards and is a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum.

Eva Frey is dean of students at Pacific Lutheran University. For more than 20 years she has worked in education, spanning public K-12 and higher education.

Her research focuses on the experiences of first-generation college students, building student agency and resiliency; and the intersection between hope and student success. Most recently, she served on the board of a public charter school in Tacoma.

Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro has been in law enforcement in Pierce County for more than 22 years. He also is on the board of directors for Greater Lakes Mental Health and volunteers as a mentor through Communities In Schools.

Gwynne Kuhner Brown is associate professor of music history, music theory and world music at the University of Puget Sound. She received the university’s President’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013.

Matt Driscoll is metro news columnist at The News Tribune. He writes about issues of government, public policy, social justice, equity and — most importantly — people.

Education reporter Debbie Cafazzo was part of a News Tribune reporting team honored by Columbia University School of Journalism in 2001 for a series on race and ethnicity in South Sound high schools. In 2012, she earned a first place award for education reporting from the regional Society of Professional Journalists.

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