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La Jolla High Class of 2019: Balance, best practices lead to success for valedictorian, salutatorians

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La Jolla top grads Athena Tsai, Monica Liu, Ian Dickinson and Jackson Rickards
Ashley Mackin-Solomon

To reach their impressive academic standings, La Jolla High School’s Class of 2019 valedictorian and three salutatorians took diverse paths. For some, it meant good old-fashioned, nose-to-the-grindstone hard work and mental discipline; for others, it meant finding the way they learned best and making good use of their time.

But all four agree on the importance of variety and balance for a well-rounded high school experience.

Valedictorian Ian Dickinson boasts a 4.91 GPA; and salutatorians Monica Liu, Jackson Rickards and Athena Tsai each have a noteworthy 4.89 GPA.

At UCLA this fall, Dickinson said he will study “something math- or economics-related” and feels prepared for the “real world” because of his high school career. To get to the highest academic ranking, he said: “A lot of the time, you have to be willing to study. People get distracted really easily, but staying focused is really important. For me, it was a combination of staying focused with mental discipline, and enjoying what I was doing.”

Dickinson also took the approach of finding a benefit from every class he took. For example, taking English encouraged him to read more, which in turn was helpful when he was taking history with all the reading it requires. Further, these classes provided a small break from the math and math-related classes.

Similarly, Duke-bound Tsai has been taking “challenging” AP and Honors classes since freshman year. “I have an older sister a grade ahead of me, and that really helped,” she said. “I was able to take courses she took, knowing she was successful in them, and other ones that she found challenging and good learning experiences.”

Tsai, too, said she benefited from variety in her curriculum. “I liked AP Psychology and AP Art History, which I’m taking this year,” she said. “I never thought I’d like art, but I’ve learned a lot of new and interesting things.”

Alternatively, the two other salutatorians credit figuring out how they best study for achieving their success.

“There was a lot of learning how to study effectively to balance my course-load with a life outside the classroom, which I think is important,” said Liu, a future MIT student. “For me, when I used to study for a history test, I’d take notes on every single chapter and do the study guide. But then, I’d get the same test score by just reading and highlighting and reviewing terms in my head. That saved time and allowed me to focus on other classes and extra-curricular activities.”

Similarly, Rickards — who will attend Duke University this fall — said: “I have a photographic memory, so better than taking notes, I need to look at the textbook. That way, when I see a question on the test, I can remember the image of the answer in my head. In history classes, that’s a hard one for people — especially in AP U.S. History, which means a lot of material at once.”

Time management was also crucial to them. “When you have that under your belt, it saves a lot of time,” Rickards said. “I think a lot of people never truly learn how they study and what works for them. If you figure that out, it can help you in the long run.”

Finding Balance

In addition to hitting the books, the top students all made time for other activities to maintain their sanity.

“I’m glad I got to take the classes I wanted to take, because it’s a lot harder to motivate yourself when you don’t like the class,” Liu opined. “It’s important to be happy in high school and not (over-stress) yourself. You need both people skills and academic skills to be successful in life.”

Tsai added: “I had to dedicate time to school, but I also made time for other things I enjoy. I was on the varsity field hockey team, ran varsity track and field, and played the flute with the San Diego Youth Symphony.”

For Rickards, incorporating volunteer efforts and music provided the much-needed balance. “I’m a songwriter and singer,” he said. “An important thing for me is to keep that and not just have the mindset of ‘do this so you get into college,’ because you still have to enjoy your high school experience no matter what. So beyond academics, I always had music in my life and it made me really happy.

“I incorporated music into other aspects of my life — volunteering with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and helping with a music therapy camp. I wanted to make sure I pursued my passion rather than just doing things that look good on a resume or an application.”

Dickinson said his balance came from athletics. He was on the swim team and the cross-country team throughout his high school years.

Advice to Freshmen

Reflecting on their past four years, the students had some thoughts for freshmen.

Dickinson: “Read as much as you can. I studied hard and took challenging classes, so I think I did what I wanted to do with my time, and I feel good about that.”

Liu: “I wish I knew that the order of classes I took didn’t matter. I took psychology and computer sciences, which were hard classes, my junior year. At first I didn’t think I’d get the concepts, but I pushed myself and by that point, I knew how I studied most effectively, so I started getting better.”

Tsai: “Challenge yourself to take some courses you might not think you’ll be able to get through. You’ll find in some cases, being in a new environment, you can get through it.”

Rickards: “The biggest thing, and it’s easier said than done, is don’t stress out too much. In the end, you never know what’s going to make the difference in college applications — or life in general. It’s not worth figuring out every outcome and losing the things you enjoy in life.

“I’m grateful to be going to such an awesome college, but I know there is luck in the process. There are so many qualified students these days, great schools could fill their classes multiple times over. You can’t blame yourself if things don’t work out, just put your best foot forward.”

Graduation 2019

La Jolla High Commencement: 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, on the atheltic field, 750 Nautilus St.

No. of Graduates: 323

Bishop’s School Commencement: Noon, Friday, May 31 at the school, 7607 La Jolla Blvd.

No. of Graduates: 125

La Jolla Country Day Commencement: Friday, May 24 at the school’s amphitheater, 9490 Genesee Ave.

No. of Graduates: 103

Last day of 2018-2019 Academic Year: Tuesday, June 11

Classes resume for 2019-2020 Academic Year: Monday, Aug. 26