Top Teens: 10 to Watch

Meet 10 extraordinary teenagers who are striving for excellence—and achieving it—in areas ranging from technology to philanthropy. For each one of this year’s esteemed Top Teens, iron-clad drive and awe-inspiring passion are key components of their DNA and critical to their success.

  • Category
    People
  • Photographed by
    Monica Orozco
  • Illustrated
    Christine Georgiades

Michael Wilson, 17

Chaminade High School

Football Player; nationally ranked receiver

 

Proudest Accomplishment

Receiving a scholarship offer, committing and being admitted into Stanford University.

Why?

I set this goal at the age of 10 and to achieve this dream—being admitted into one of the most prestigious schools in the world—tells me I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.

What was the biggest challenge?

The hard work that went into it was draining. Sometimes you wanted to give up and not study for a test, not go work out, not watch film, etc. But something deep down never let me quit, never let me cheat the grind and process.

Who inspires you?

My three brothers inspire me to become a better person, leader and athlete/student. I hope I am as good of a brother as they are to me.

What drives you?

Seeing my parents work so hard every day inspires me. I work hard because I never want to let them down. They’ve sacrificed so much for me, so it’s only right for me to make those sacrifices pay off.

Person you feel grateful for?

I am grateful for my trainer, Jerome Riley, because he has pushed me to be the best. He helped craft my game and has taught me to become a better, more confident man.

How do you stay focused?

By surrounding myself with people who are hungry for success—like me.

Madison Stein, 14

Notre Dame High School

Philanthropist; developing innovative ways to inspire youth to give back

 

Proudest Accomplishment

At 7 years old, I became a founding member of LemonAID Warriors, a nonprofit created to give youth a platform to make social good a part of their social lives. I recently took over as President and have already expanded our reach by starting the first LemonAID Warriors School Club and creating curriculum to share with schools nationwide.

Second proudest accomplishment?

Last year, my friend and I founded an organization called Believe Year Round. It is a 100% youth-run organization that partners with schools and businesses to collect books, shoes and school supplies for underprivileged communities. We recently collected over 6,500 books to donate to families at LA Family Housing.

What drives you?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had internal motivation. I have always been one to go out and get things done. Adults often assume that age determines our capability, and I want to prove them wrong.

How do you stay focused?

I’ve always felt like I lived in a bubble, sheltered from the harsh realities of the real world. Yet I know that there are so many people in the world who don’t have the same opportunities as I do.

Ryan Iwata, 17

North Hollywood High

High Achiever; headed to Bucknell University

 

Proudest Accomplishment?

My acceptance to the LA Posse Foundation as a scholar. [The foundation identifies public high school students who have extraordinary academic and leadership potential, matches them to a college and provides a full-tuition scholarship.] There were multiple interviews and applications.

Who inspires you?

[Philanthropist and LA native] Linda Duttenhaver, who has provided so many people with life-altering experiences, thanks to her belief in the “pay it forward” ideology.

Person you feel grateful for?

My mother who, through ups and downs in my life, has always been there to support me.

Biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Maintaining a balanced life as president of ASB [on-campus leadership group], as coordinator of the Colfax Tutoring Club and being part of Cross Country/Track & Field for all four years.

Pivotal moment in your life?

My two-week expedition to Kenya to study elephants. The experience made me appreciate the beauty of our planet and why we need to work to protect it. That’s why I’m pursuing environmental engineering, so that I can be a part of the changes we make. We need to be able to coexist with our environment.

Lily Rowe, 16

Campbell Hall School

All-Around Doer

 

Proudest Accomplishment

Creating Cleanup Encino, a community-wide litter pickup event that the Encino Chamber of Commerce agreed to co-sponsor with me. I had to generate volunteers and get local schools involved and get sponsors like the McDonald’s in Encino.

What inspired you to create the Cleanup?

Litter isn’t only an eyesore, it can also clog storm-water drains and cause flooding, and it can travel through drains and pollute our ocean.

Second proudest accomplishment?

Last summer I had two jobs. I worked at Brandy Melville in the mall at Westfield Topanga and at Campbell Hall’s volleyball camp. Often I worked both jobs on the same day.

Who or what inspires you?

My parents. My mom was the first in her family to graduate college. My dad grew up on a farm and went on to work in media in NY and LA.

What drives you? Why do you work so hard?

I’ve been given a lot of advantages and want to use those to make a difference.

Person you feel grateful for?

My grandma. Though she lives in Minnesota, she always shows great interest in whatever I’m doing.

What do you do for fun?

Volleyball tournaments. I compete on Campbell Hall’s varsity volleyball team and the Sunshine 17 Elite club team.

Matthew Navarro, 18

Viewpoint School

Nonprofit Founder; National Hispanic Merit Scholar

 

Proudest Accomplishment

My nonprofit, Pass It On 4 Eyesight. It’s collected $228,250 worth of used prescription eyewear to be recycled and repurposed for those who can’t afford it. When I started this in middle school, I had no clue I’d get this far, especially considering that I was kind of just figuring it out on my own.

Other endeavors?

I volunteer at Hope Gardens, a nonprofit organization supporting homeless women and children. Last year, I helped coordinate a Mother’s Day photo shoot for nearly 70 families at the center. I also photographed their graduation ceremony and delivered the pictures to each graduate as a gift.

What makes you so philanthropic?

I think that this drive to give back isn’t something that is unique to my character or experience, but it is something that exists within everyone. The key is to build the bridges that awaken the drive. I’m just fortunate in that I discovered this at an early stage in my life.

What’s next?

I don’t know yet where I’ll be going to college next year, but I want to study physics.

What do you do for fun?

I really love to cook. It’s what I do to relax. I’m really into fermentation right now.

Eva Yguico, 17

UCLA

Passionate Learner; graduates  UCLA in May; nationally ranked competitive Alpine skier

 

OK to call you a “brainiac?”

I prefer to be called a thinker or learner. When I was younger, I had a normal progression, getting A’s and B’s. Then at one point I decided to really throw myself into learning. I figure why should I waste anyone’s time?

Pivotal moment in your life?

When I was 13 years old, I was temporarily banned from skiing at my home mountain, Mammoth. So, in a fit of rage—and not having anything better to do—I decided to take a test that might get me into college [It did].

Who inspires you?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertrand Russell, David Foster Wallace. I really like people who are brilliant and still manage (or at least try) to be decent.

What drives you?

Time. I want to spend mine well.

Person you feel grateful for?

Anyone who puts up with me long enough to make me notice the world outside myself. My grandfather especially fits that bill.

What’s next?

Competing in the USCSSA Nationals to be held at Lake Placid in March. I’ll represent UCLA as the lone Alpine ski racer.

Darrion Sellman, 13

Opportunities for Learning Charter School

Ballet Dancer

 

Proudest Accomplishment?

Being invited to become a part of the Royal Ballet School International Scholars Programme. It accepts no more than 10 students worldwide per academic year to come to London. I am currently the only male American dancer participating.

Second proudest accomplishment? 

Winning a bronze medal in the Junior Men’s division in the 2017 Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) Finals held in New York.

What drives you?

I love the challenge of ballet—the precision and detail of it. It’s the fine art of making something that is difficult look easy and beautiful.    

What are you grateful for? 

My mom. She’s been there with me every step of the way. And for my training at Los Angeles Ballet Academy. It has opened up doors I never thought possible.

Aspirations? 

To become a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet.

Biggest challenge you’ve faced? 

I started dance at 6, and I was teased a lot. No one wanted to eat with me at lunch, and other boys wouldn’t let me play sports with them because I wasn’t “athletic.”  At one point, I had to make a decision. I could let these kids take my dream away or I could follow it. I think I made the right choice.

Sophia Latessa, 17

Campbell Hall School

Tech Entrepreneur; developed and sold her first app, MemeStream, at age 15

 

Who or what inspires you?

Changemakers—individuals who devote their energy and make it their mission to improve the lives of others.

To what do you attribute your success, thus far?

Campbell Hall. As a student, I’m able to take risks, push boundaries and make my mark in the field of technology. From my dean to all of my teachers, I have an incredible support system that has made the impossible, possible.

Something most people don’t know about you?

Living in a culturally rich environment at home, I am closely connected to my Mexican heritage. My passion for literature, combined with my cultural background, has inspired me to study Mexican contemporary authors. I’m also currently studying Japanese, with the determination to be trilingual.

How do you stay focused?

I am solution-driven. I’m not deterred by failure, but rather failure is a motivator that keeps me driven.

What else should we know about you?

I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant. It’s important to me that I represent dreamers in the DACA program. I am a good representation of why this legislation is so important.

Chloe Kuelbs, 17

Viewpoint School

Engineer; award-winning robot designer

 

Proudest Accomplishment

Starting my school’s “Eco-friendly Club” and growing it into a change-making Environmental Sustainability Council that now includes sixth through 12th graders.

Second proudest accomplishment?

Winning the Vex Robotics Excellence Award at the 2016 Clash in the Canyon Robotics Competition with my novice, all-girl team.

Who or what inspires you?

My aunt Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi filmmaker. She fights cultural barriers to create great films that examine oppression of women and other injustices. 

Person you feel grateful for?

Viewpoint robotics instructor and physics teacher, Mr. Rush, and science teacher, Mr. Yates—both dedicated mentors who’ve taught me about engineering and sustainability.

Biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Walking onto the shop floor as a Controls Engineering Intern at an aerospace company this past summer—as the youngest person there with A LOT to learn.

To what or whom do you attribute your success, thus far?

My parents. They are supportive, but have allowed me to blaze my own path, make mistakes and discover aspirations that are truly my own.

Pivotal moment in your life?

Sophomore year, I attended a science conference at Stanford. Watching students present inventions for aiding amputees and cleaning drinking water inspired me to start inventing.

Aaron Saliman, 18

Milken Community Schools

Writer; three-time gold medal recipient from Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

 

Proudest Accomplishment?

Attending the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio at The University of Iowa [considered the most prestigious writing program for high school students in the country]. I was the first person from Milken to ever get in. Through that experience, I grew as a writer and became more empathetic and mature.

Biggest challenge while attending?

Allowing myself to jump feet first, not hesitating because I feared not being a good enough writer or the new social environment.

Second proudest accomplishment?

Running my school’s literary magazine as editor in chief.

Who or what inspires you?

Nature and its grandeur, its beauty. I’m reminded of how big this world is and how much I still have to experience.

Aspirations?

Working for a nonprofit that educates about climate change. One of the biggest problems facing environmental groups is the public’s general lack of knowledge, which leads to apathy. Writing builds empathy like no other method of communication. I believe that if I can communicate effectively the plight of our Earth, I’ll be able to help galvanize action that will pressure leaders to focus more time, money and energy on the fight for a healthy planet. 

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