Looking Back on the School Year: La Jolla High's graduating class of 2016 touts diverse experiences, trying new things

In addition to sharing an (around) 4.8 Grade Point Average, La Jolla High School’s three 2016 Valedictorians have something else in common — they all used their time in high school to explore their interests.

With more than 90 clubs/electives, nearly 30 different sports, and dozens of Advance Placement classes, they agreed that La Jolla High provided them with many opportunities to discover their passions.

Valedictorians Sophia Eliopulos, Madeline Gates, Jack Mann and Salutatorian Clay Halbert will join 360 other Vikings on June 21 at the Class of 2016’s graduation ceremony at UC San Diego. (With Edwards Stadium and the athletic fields under construction, graduation was moved to UCSD this year.) Of this year’s graduates 176 are boys, and 184 are girls. About 95 percent have committed to higher education.

When speaking with La Jolla Light, they credited their success in high school to being able to study what they had an interest in, and try new things, as well. They each noted that club or sports participation was a factor to a well-rounded high school experience.

“We have a really wide course offering, so taking classes in things I was interested in was not a problem here, at all,” National Merit Scholar Mann said. “Plus, La Jolla High puts a lot of emphasis on letting the students do their own thing. There is not a sense of ‘you have to do this’ or ‘you can’t do that,’ and I think that’s important because I’ve been able to explore and develop new skills.”

Looking back on her last four years, Eliopulos said she wished she had taken better advantage of the course diversity. “I would have I had taken more classes that I found interesting rather than ones I thought I had to take,” she said. “During your freshman year, you don’t have a lot of flexibility with that, but as you go on, you definitely have more options.

“This year, I took marine sciences, which was interesting, but I wish I did something else that I really wanted to do.” The avid athlete, who played varsity volleyball and swam, added, “I also wish I tried more sports because nowadays you have to pick a sport and stay with it to stay competitive, but I would have tried a different sport every season.”

However, Eliopulos said she was able to diversify through club activities. Her volunteer resume includes Red Cross Club, Link Crew and the California Scholarship Federation. “A friend of mine and I founded a group called For the Earth Club, which focuses on trying to educate our school on what we can do to limit our carbon footprint and become a greener campus. We worked on getting electronic water bottle filling stations for the school and getting reusable water bottles,” she said.

Similarly, Salutatorian Halbert said he developed a sense of enthusiasm from participation in — and watching friends in — different clubs. Through activities such as Speech and Debate Club and the Mock Trial team, Halbert said he wanted to both broaden his horizons and find a place for his love of “arguing with people” during high school. “I wanted to learn as many things as I could,” he said. “Plus, I made friends with people who are so enthusiastic about the things they love. I have one friend who loves Quiz Bowl (sincerely) which is nice to see.”

When it comes to finding those activities that students may come to love, Gates advice is to “try everything.”

She explained, “I wish I knew as a freshman that time goes by really quickly and you must make the most of your four years. If you think you might be interested in a club, sport or class, try it out, otherwise you’ll miss out on something you might have really enjoyed.”

A solid foundation

With the chance to find their area of interest in high school and create a knowledge base ahead of college, the students are confident as they head toward the next phase of their education. With years of art-based club experience and challenging math courses, Gates said she is planning to study mechanical engineering at UCLA come fall.

“Math was one of my favorite subjects through high school … with math, there is always an end goal, an answer to get to. So when I looked at things to study, I was looking at what uses math, and art, which I also enjoy; mechanical engineering involves design elements,” she said. “Technology is one of those things that is going to keep improving, so that’s where I want to be.”

Berkley-bound to study physics, Halbert said a longtime STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) was beneficial, noting he read works by Albert Einstein before he even started high school. “Science in our culture is going to become more common. Young people today have more opportunities to be introduced and get interested in science, which I’ve noticed just based on my education and those around me.”

Also planning to go into a scientific field, Eliopulos will attend UCLA as a pre-med student. “I’m really interested in the brain, so I’ve spoken to people about studying psycho-biology, neuro-science or physiological science,” she said. On a personal level, she added her interest in medicine started at home.

“My dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis the year before I was born, which is a degenerative disease of the nervous system … Slowly over time, it’s been hard for him to walk or write. He’s in a wheelchair now and has been for a while,” she said. “Growing up with that, I asked myself why does this happen? And how does this happen? Is there anything I can do to make this not happen? That’s why I want to be a doctor and help people for the rest of my life.”

Mann, who calls himself a “social sciences guy rather than a hard sciences guy,” said he will study finance at Arizona State because economics has always interested him. He took advanced courses, particularly in math, to establish a solid base.

But that’s not to say there weren’t a few bumps along the way, which he said (looking back) is OK. “Lots of younger students take things really seriously and make big things out of small things,” he said. “If you didn’t do well on a test or if you got a B in a certain class, it’s not a big deal. It’s OK to have some of those.”

District-wide diversity

Although prominent in La Jolla, students district-wide are being commended this year for the diversity of study in which they engaged. According to press material from the San Diego Unified School District, 92 percent of all San Diego Unified seniors are on track to graduate this year — a 2 percent rise from previous years. Further, “San Diego Unified students speak more than 60 different languages and come from over 170 different nations. … As individuals, the Class of 2016 has had the chance to pursue their special talents in the arts, music and athletics,” the disctrict stated.

Superintendent Cindy Merten said, “I have no doubts about the bright future awaiting the Class of 2016. Not only are they better prepared academically, they also understand how to follow their individual passions in an increasingly diverse society.”

Bird Rock Elementary

Fifth-graders being promoted: 109

Girls: 41 ▪

Boys: 68

Going to Muirlands Middle School: About 100

Notable grads: Audrey DeMerchant, Eve Paris and Ella Stevens, recipients of the HOPE of America award from the Kiwanis Club.

Torrey Pines Elementary

Fifth-graders being promoted: 74

Girls: 36 ▪

Boys: 38

Going to Muirlands Middle School: About 60

Notable grads: Kate Wiczynski, Sasha Berger and Rini Ampelas recipients of the HOPE of America award from the Kiwanis Club; and Math Olympiad winner Arianna Roberts.

La Jolla Elementary School

Fifth-graders being promoted: 111

Girls: 53 ▪

Boys: 58

Going to Muirlands Middle School: About 100

Notable grads: None provided

Muirlands Middle School

Eighth-graders being promoted: 343

Girls: 160 ▪

Boys: 183

Going to La Jolla High: Unknown at this time

Notable grads: None provided

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