Meet the Valley’s Top Teens
Faces of the future.
Written byDakota Kim
Photographed byMichael Becker
Meet 10 of the most inspiring teenagers in the Valley. These high achievers represent a diverse array of demanding disciplines, from robotics to public speaking, and all have outstanding academic track records. As if that’s not enough, they somehow make time for charity work, part-time jobs, and extracurricular activities. This year, the students selected by the VB team had the added challenge of dealing with a pandemic. But as you’ll see, they met it head on. Nothing holds these teens back.
Rand Meyer, 17
Valley International Preparatory High School
It’s a surprise when the charming and wry Rand Meyer shares that he struggled on the speech team his freshman year. “I wasn’t a performer or an actor, and it was a challenge because I wasn’t particularly great at it,” Rand says. “Being given a platform to talk about real issues day to day in my life, being able to flip them to a real positive and share that—that became a real addicting issue.”
By 2020, Rand had mastered the craft. Beating out 200 of the best high school storytellers from all 50 states, Rand won the National Speech and Debate Association’s storytelling competition. Because that wasn’t enough, he also scored a sixth place in the expository category—no sweat. “It was wild. I’d been doing speech and debate since freshman year. It was the first online tournament I’d competed in. I spent hours recording and re-recording videos. And then after a few days of stressing myself out, I won nationals from my bedroom!” he laughs.
With his skills and successes at storytelling, Rand decided to help several other students in writing their college essays. “It was a worthwhile and very fulfilling experience to try to help open up opportunities for people,” Rand says. “I helped my friend Jess work on her essay and she got into her top school. I want to see her fulfill all her opportunities.”
Rand has committed early-decision to Northwestern University in Illinois, wooed by the school’s top-flight communications program. He hopes to join the school’s mock trial and speech & debate team, pursuing a career in law, public policy or government. “The skills you learn in speech are applicable in almost any situation,” Rand says. “You find your individual writer’s voice, write essays with the intent that you’re going to speak them to people, and learn to communicate personality in presentation.”
Nadia Bradfield, 17
Champs Charter High School of the Arts
Nadia Bradfield started ballet dancing at the age of 4, but it wasn’t until she visited a new dance studio at 9 that she got hooked.
“I was fascinated watching the dancers on point. Normally teachers want you to wait until your feet and ankles are more developed and stronger. You are basically standing on a cardboard box, balancing on the circumference of your feet. But the teacher did a couple exercises with me and thought I was ready. That was it for me.”
And so her life became a pattern that continued through high school. If Nadia wasn’t training at Burbank Dance Academy, she was working on maintaining her 4.0 GPA. The senior has more than 300 total credits on her high school resume—exceeding CHAMPS’ requirement of 220.
Nadia has participated in several exclusive summer dance programs including one with the Bolshoi Ballet, and she has advanced to the second round of the classical ballet competition for the Music Center Spotlight Awards all four years of high school.
During practices, she often wears ankle weights. “I have a different physique than the typical classical ballerina—and at times it has been challenging. I’ve had several teachers tell me I need to go on a diet and lose weight. But I know that is not right for me.”
Last year Nadia was accepted to participate in a year-round intensive with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet, which could have resulted in an invitation to join the dance company. When the program was cancelled due to the pandemic, Nadia decided to pivot, making the decision to attend college. “I think going to college will give me more options. But I still have my dream. I still want to go to a classical ballet company. And I want to dance ‘Swan Lake.’”
Rayan Ansari, 18
Sierra Canyon School
Rayan Ansari managed to raise a 2.0 GPA to above 3.5—not his own, but those of three siblings from a Syrian refugee family who attend his mosque. He began tutoring the trio six hours a week while handling his own heavy course load. Buoyed by his success, he helped kicked off Canyon Tutoring, an all-volunteer peer organization assisting lower and middle school students struggling with distance learning.
“A lot of it is just bringing a human aspect to Zoom,” Rayan says. “I use the video game Fortnite as a metaphor for a math problem, or I find other topics that interest the kids.”
Rayan doesn’t just want peers to ace quizzes. He also wants them to question bias, so he serves as the editor in chief at NoCap News, a student-led, inclusive news site written by students around the world. “We want our readers to think critically, especially with the social media craze.”
Rayan is equally active at his high school, where he won the Sierra Canyon Community Service Leadership Award and has received the President’s Volunteer Service Award each year. He also founded his school’s Muslim Student Association and cofounded SC Voices for Change, a coalition that unites various clubs into one large community with the hopes of effecting real change by uniting students and faculty members for large projects. Since its inception, SC Voices for Change has orchestrated charity events, student workshops and Zoom civil discourse discussions.
Outside of school, Rayan has given speeches at multifaith charity events sponsored by Congressman Brad Sherman and bipartisan activist Mohammed Khan. He has also worked with the African American Islamic Council (AAIC) to conduct COVID relief food drives.
When asked about his charity work, Rayan is modest and circumspect. “I really think this ties into my interest in biology. I’m always fascinated with how these tiny, inner workings of life magnify into super complex social workings. Altruism is a primal experience.”
Adrianna Bean, 13
Millikan Middle School
Adrianna Bean is a straight-A student in the honors program at Millikan Middle School. But what she really wants you to know about herself goes beyond academics.
“I like to ask myself what if? That eliminates boundaries. I have an imaginative spirit.” That spirit incented her in the fourth grade to make a documentary about the Fetty Food Pantry at the Church of the Valley in Van Nuys. “Eight of the girls in my Brownies troop went to preschool at the church. I wanted to show that there are many types of people in need. People think that pantries feed just homeless people, but some come to the pantry to keep from being homeless.”
Also, in 2018 her 11-member Brownie troop (#6396 in Sherman Oaks) was awarded the Bronze Award, the highest award given by the Girl Scouts, for their service at the pantry. And during the pandemic, the troop continued with their monthly drives. “I don’t understand why human rights has to be a debated topic. Our differences aren’t an excuse to treat others in a bad way. We all share the same human code.”
Adrianna’s second film, The Homework Headache, won Best Short Film in the 2019 Los Angeles Public Library Teens of LA Film Festival. “I’d done a homework assignment incorrectly. I completely freaked out. Ultimately, I made the experience into a monologue, incorporating animation.”
An avid cartoonist, her work often features colorful characters that at times make political statements. She takes art classes after school from LA Mission College and thus far has earned nine college credits. Although just in the eighth grade, make no mistake, Adrianna Bean has a vision for her future. “Whether I’m working on a film or I’m the head of a record label, I want to send messages that are important to me. And I want to be the boss.”
Vasco Singh, 17
When Vasco Singh was just 12 years old, he took a trip to India and got sick due to the lead in the water. “Taking antibiotics for my sickness, my immune system got wiped out, leaving me with allergies. With no current proactive solutions for allergies, only reactive (i.e., EpiPens), I sought a better solution.”
Teaching himself immunology and business fundamentals, Vasco, along with three friends, researched and developed their first product, Allergy Immunity, in 2018. The 17-year-old says the probiotic relieved him of his allergies. “For people who have developed allergies later in life to things like gluten and peanuts, I challenge them to think of the exact time in which the onset of their allergies occurred. Many people will realize that it coincides with a sickness. If you can track the origin of your allergies to a time, probiotics can be a useful way of suppressing and fully relieving your allergies.”
Encouraged by his parents (his mom is a chemical engineer at the biopharmaceutical company Amgen, and his dad is a biotech entrepreneur), Vasco and friends founded Realign Therapeutics. Vasco says in its first year the online company had $10,000 in sales.
The four students are currently focused on getting their first patent, a proactive oral-immunotherapy methodology to be administered with probiotics, aimed at relieving allergies.
Of all his accomplishments, Vasco says filing for a patent is what he is most proud of. “In the world of medicine, many scientists and doctors carry skepticism about the nature and efficacy of probiotics. We had to go above and beyond to research, to self-study microbiology and immunology, to prove ourselves.”
When not doing schoolwork (20 AP/honors classes; ranked near the top of his class), Vasco volunteers at the Westminster Free Clinic & Community Care Center in Oxnard. He also is a center midfielder for Viewpoint’s varsity soccer team (captain, CIF All-League). After an undergrad degree in biomedical engineering, he hopes to go on to medical school.
Jake Futterman, 18
Jake Futterman wanted to do something meaningful with his ninth-grade community service requirement. Inspired by his aunt’s work with Ethiopia Health Aid (EHA), he decided to teach robotics in Ethiopia. The chief designer, builder and drive coach of the Harvard-Westlake VEX Robotics Competition team, “62A,” traveled to Ethiopia for a week to teach robotics to 20 kids by using Lego Mindstorms, a beginner robotics system employing Legos as the basic building materials. “Most of the kids had never even seen a computer and I had to teach them through an interpreter. But it was incredible how smart they were. The kids constructed complex robots in less than a week—half the time I’d allotted. I learned that someone’s background does not define what they can and can’t do.”
And so the afterschool EHA Robotics Academy was born. Jake wrote a new curriculum, sent more kits, and returned in 2019 for a second year. But when the coronavirus struck, Jake’s plans to return in 2020 were crushed. “I had planned to establish an EHA Robotics Academy outside of the village where we could get 50 to 60 students from five or six schools,” Jake says. “That really hurt me. I know how much those kids enjoyed it.”
With extra time during the lockdown, Jake decided to found Global Educational Missions in Robotics (GEM Robotics). Built to reach underprivileged students outside of Ethiopia, Jake also worked with Paradise Games to create a robotics program on the Ivory Coast. He then took on leadership roles at Bored of Boredom, a student-led organization through which he teaches LEGO robotics via Zoom to hundreds worldwide.
In 2019, Jake led the Harvard-Westlake team on an undefeated run to the State Robotics Championship and quarterfinal finishes at both the National Championship and World Championship. But his mission isn’t winning competitions. “My life mission is to use robotics as a tool for social equity,” he shares. And as you might have guessed, he hopes to return to Ethiopia this summer.
Cordelia Zawarski, 18
Louisville High School
Cordelia Zawarski, who goes by “Cordy,” knew she wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon after a doctor saved her godfather’s life.
“My godfather had an aortic dissection and multiple open-heart surgeries. His cardio surgeon somehow saved him, multiple times. Once that happened, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
To achieve her goal, she took initiative. Cordy joined Louisville’s Medical Focus Program, shadowed doctors at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center and participated in Brown University’s Two Weeks in the Life of a Medical Student. She hasn’t let COVID interrupt her quest for knowledge. “You just have to be creative with opportunities. I participate in live physician shadowing opportunities with doctors from varying specialties—with Q&A sessions. These free programs are technically for university premed students who need to log shadowing hours but cannot due to COVID, so I kind of sneak in and participate also.”
A competitive dancer at Degas Dance Studio in Encino since age 7, Cordy has never been the prima ballerina. “I wasn’t the most naturally talented person, but I was so headstrong in wanting to accomplish, so I worked as hard as possible,” she said. “Since I’ve always had to try a little harder, I’m very understanding and aware of people who are struggling too.”
Empathy and gumption are important skills for a tutor, which is Cordy’s part-time job at a Kumon learning center. Cordy also finds time to volunteer with Louisville’s Empowerment Club for young women, as well as at food banks, women’s shelters, a horse rescue sanctuary and environmental cleanup groups. She cites her mom, a teacher, as a role model, adding “Degas Dance Studio owner Anacia Weiskittel and teacher Danielle Towne taught me I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to do if I just put in the time and effort.”
James Burch, 18
When James Burch, who goes by “Jem,” was in preschool, he became fascinated with the shapes of letters. At the age of 5 he started learning Russian though Rosetta Stone, and playing Scrabble with his parents. “I started beating them on a regular basis. Then I discovered competitive Scrabble.”
Jem’s first competition was at age 9, when he placed fourth in his division. But it wasn’t long before he started dominating the game. The Buckley School senior is currently ranked in the top 25 players in California. He won the last National School Scrabble Competition he played in—during his sophomore year, before the pandemic. He also won twice in middle school.
“I love learning about the history of words—how they’ve evolved over time. Scrabble is really a game of word memorization. My goal is not to win a tournament. It’s to see the luck that is in the bag [the letters] to create something.”
Jem can easily recall his favorite victory. “It was the nationals, sophomore year. It was round 5 and I was behind. I stumbled upon the word ‘calisaya.’ It’s a plant that is grown in the Andes mountains. I had learned the word on the app Aerolith. That moment reaffirmed why I play Scrabble. You just find these incredible words.”
In addition to continuing with his Russian studies at home, Jem also studies Latin at Buckley, where he has a 4.78 GPA and shows promise as a poet. This past year Jem won a national silver medal for poetry. Thus far, he’s been accepted to Yale University.
“I want to major in linguistics with a minor in creative writing or maybe Russian. I envision a career as a professor of linguistics. Or maybe a translator. I think it would be interesting to do field work with environmental linguistics. The world has over 7,000 languages and 5,000 are in danger of dying. Or maybe I’ll be a code breaker for the CIA.”
Xavier Chan, 17
Xavier Chan isn’t waiting until college to start his engineering journey. The young inventor has applied for a provisional patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a unique unidirectional sidekick thruster for remotely operated underwater vehicles. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. Bottom line: This 12th-grader wants to power the industrial Teslas of the water.
Xavier’s dream of developing electrically chargeable battery systems to propel large cargo ships and submarines was inspired by his work as a captain in Bridges Academy’s robotics club, Mechanical Paradise. The club competes in the FIRST Robotics each year and Xavier was nominated for a Dean’s List Award for his work in this year’s competition.
“Robotics is just like writing a story—it’s building something up from bare bones,” Xavier says. “You just see a bunch of metal, bolts, circuits and wires lying around, and there are infinite possibilities of putting it all together, each with its own problems and advantages. It’s just amazing when it succeeds.”
Xavier maintains a full course load of humanities, languages and STEM honors classes, as well as taking AP courses in Chinese, physics and calculus BC. Through all his successes, Xavier remains humble and says he prefers cooperation over working alone. “I myself can only come up with one or two ideas max within the same amount of time that a team could come up with 15 different ideas to solve a problem. Among those 15 problems, there are many that are better than my own in a large pool of ideas.”
In his spare time, Xavier runs on the school’s cross-country and track-and-field teams and volunteers at the Animal Hope and Wellness Shelter.
Noi Kertis-Sella, 18
Champs Charter High School of the Arts
Noi Kertis-Sella weighed only 3 pounds at birth, and doctors told her parents that she probably would never walk. But when the preemie spotted her twin brother crawling around, much to her parent’s surprise, she started mimicking him. Noi ultimately did walk, and much more. Today, she is ranked #13 nationally in archery, and she’s #5 in California.
It is a sport that takes an extraordinary amount of strength. “My archery setup is 40 pounds when I draw back my bow with my three fingers. I am essentially holding 40 pounds with my fingers,” she says. The 5-foot 3 high school senior works out regularly with weights and does core exercises to help with strength and balance.
Noi got introduced to archery when she joined a school club at 12 years old. “I felt a natural ability. I had a lot of strength in my arms and hands from doing monkey bars as a kid. When I took a class and I really felt like I could hit center, and then I did, it gave me confidence.”
Noi clearly remembers her first big win. “It was my first time doing Olympic rounds. I won the match and shot 60 meters, shooting 29 out of 30 in the bull’s-eye.” But for her, the rewards of archery go beyond winning. “Every time I draw my bow back it is like a meditation because of my focus. It calms me and makes me feel in the present.”
Practicing six days a week after school at the Woodley Park archery range with a coach (she also has a setup at home), Noi has managed to earn a 3.7 GPA as a student in the CHAMPS Digital Media Arts Academy.
She aspires to win an Olympic medal at the 2024 games, and will attend college to study graphic design next year, tackling both those endeavors with her signature mindset. “I see a challenge and I want to prove to myself that I can do it. I want to overcome the labels and limitations put on me. I have what they call grit.”