The 2009 class of Brainiacs
Get to know this year's class of outstanding high school graduates.
Another year, another breed of Brainiacs. Unfortunately (or fortunately), choosing this year’s slate of outstanding high school graduates didn’t get any easier. Selecting from the list of impressive and outstanding high school seniors in the Tulsa area was like trimming down a roster filled with nothing but all-stars. But after careful consideration, we chose these six students as representatives of the class of 2009. Read on for a look at local graduates who have earned straight “A’s,” excelling in academics, athletics, arts and activism. Facebook friend-worthy? We think so.
School: Edison Preparatory High School.
Noted for: National Merit Finalist, drum major, homecoming queen, 2009 Oklahoma Academic Scholar, named “Miss Edison.”
Involved in: Class board, band, theater, First Presbyterian youth group.
Hobbies: Frisbee, watching “Lost” with friends.
Describes self as: Friendly, confident, outgoing, joyful.
Plans to attend: Washington University (St. Louis).
Favorite senior memory: Playing a role in Edison’s production of “Eleemosynary” alongside her two best friends.
Favorite thing about Tulsa: “It was a really great place to grow up.”
Passion: Performing, interacting with people.
Bad habit: Procrastination.
Goal in life: “To be joyful and let that spill over to other people.”
Bad habit: “I’m hoping to turn over a new leaf in college and keep my room clean!”
Advice to peers: “Don’t be afraid to try new things. High school is a great time to learn what you like to do and to explore.”
“So much of life is performance and how you present yourself,” says Phoebe Richards, recent Edison Preparatory High School graduate. That’s one lesson Richards has learned not only on the stage of life but also in her drama classroom, the backdrop of many of Richards’ significant high school memories.
It all started Richards’ freshman year with an intimidating audition for an Edison production of “Annie,” for which she received a part. And, as they say, the rest was history.
Richards became a key figure in Edison’s performing arts during her years as an Eagle and won numerous choral, theater and band awards. Richards served as drum major her junior and senior years; excelled at playing the trumpet and piano; and performed in more than 10 plays and musicals during her high school career, including roles in Edison’s productions of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“We take a lot of pride in our theater department,” Richards says. “We feel really good about our skills as actors and work really hard.”
Richards exercised her leadership skills and creative flair when co-producing “Thursday Night Live” — a student-run comedy show inspired by “Saturday Night Live” and produced annually by Edison’s theater department — her senior year. Over the course of three months, Richards played a direct, hands-on role in the writing, casting, rehearsing and implementation of the show.
Richards says extracurricular involvement, whether in the arts or elsewhere, is vital to a successful high school career and cites the opportunities to make friends, fill free time and learn about yourself as reasons for getting involved.
A member of Washington University’s incoming freshman class, Richards currently plans to concentrate on an engineering degree. While excited to embark on her collegiate adventure, she unhesitatingly admits her attachment to and love of her hometown.
Tulsa “was a really great place to grow up,” she says. “I’ll really miss my house, family, church and high school.”
And considering Richards’ undeniable talent, infectious joy and strong work ethic, Tulsa’s sure to miss her, too.
School: Nathan Hale High School.
Noted for: Varsity football captain, homecoming king, French club president.
Involved in: Varsity football and golf, key club, concert choir, show choir, extensive service work.
Hobbies: Recreational sports.
Describes self as: Fun-loving, outgoing, competitive, hard-working.
Attributes academic success to: “My mom; she always pushes me to be the best I can be.”
Plans to attend: University of Central Oklahoma.
Major: Physical education, English minor.
Wants to be a: Football coach and high school principal.
Favorite senior memory: Being chosen as homecoming king and receiving the football from the winning game.
One thing to take to college: “My new car!” Favorite movie: “Grumpy Old Men.”
Whether on the field, in the classroom or on the stage, Blake Duncan spent his four years at Nathan Hale High School establishing a legacy of excellence.
Interestingly, high personal achievement and excellence seem to run in the Duncan family; his elder brother, Billy, was chosen as a TulsaPeople Brainiac in 2007.
When asked what advice he would give to incoming and current high school students, Duncan says, “Do all your work, study and try to have a little bit of fun.”
And Duncan sure walks his talk. A goal-oriented, natural-born leader in a variety of athletic, academic and extracurricular areas, Duncan embodies the diversity and well roundedness of a modern-day Renaissance man. Serving as president of the French club and co-president of his senior class, Duncan also shined in his involvement with varsity football and golf, choir, community theater and service work.
Duncan showcased his vocal and theatrical talents outside of the Nathan Hale walls when gracing the public stage with a role in the Broken Arrow Community Theater’s production of “Copacabana.”
In the fall, Duncan plans to attend the University of Central Oklahoma, where he will play football and participate in the school’s President’s Leadership Council, the most prestigious scholarship program offered by the university. A prospective physical education major and English minor, Duncan hopes to pursue a career as a football coach and high school principal, ideally in Tulsa.
While the future holds countless possibilities for Duncan, one thing is certain: From his competitive nature on the field to his fun-loving and outgoing charisma in person, Duncan never settles for second-best and is sure to go far, well past any goal line.
School: Bishop Kelley High School.
Noted for: National Merit Finalist; named “Miss Kelley”; voted “Most Likely to Brighten Your Day” by senior class; Regional Championship Comet volleyball team captain; named “Super Comet Fan.”
Involved in: Brother Bernadine Scholars, student council, varsity volleyball, Women’s Forum.
Hobbies: Swimming, tennis.
Describes self as: Outgoing, optimistic, dependable, eager, athletic.
Attributes academic success to: Parents and elder siblings.
Plans to attend: Wittenberg University (Springfield, Ohio).
Major: Biology, math minor.
Wants to be a: Pediatric nurse.
Favorite quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Favorite thing about Tulsa: Not too big, but not too small; great community feel.
Passion: Playing the violin.
One thing to take to college: A rosary and a family picture “to bring a piece of home with me.”
Goal in life: To be a mom and a pediatric nurse.
Bad habit: Procrastination and taking on too many things at once.
Hopes high school classmates remember her as: Dependable, reliable, trustworthy.
While Hillary Hassink, a Bishop Kelley High School graduate, would like her fellow classmates to remember her as “the girl that was always smiling, offering a hug and there any time you needed her,” it seems her reputation precedes her hopes.
Hassink was voted “Most Likely to Brighten Your Day” by her senior class and named “Miss Kelley” by the faculty and student body. With a goal set her freshman year of knowing every member of her grade by name, Hassink wasted no time in getting involved in the Bishop Kelley community.
“I was encouraged by older BK students to get involved right away and start meeting new people,” she says.
With an uncompromising commitment to academic, athletic, social and spiritual spheres, Hassink devoted her extracurricular time toward the Brother Bernadine Scholars Program, student council, varsity volleyball team and Women’s Forum.
Hassink pursues the highest quality of work possible, whether in or out of the classroom, she says. When not in meetings or practices, she could be found interning for Saint Francis or St. John hospitals, swimming, playing tennis with one of her five siblings or having movie nights with friends. Hassink is on the fast track to a bright future and successful career. However, she’s not forgetting to make time for her hobbies and passions.
And this is sure to be no different throughout Hassink’s collegiate career. Come fall, she will attend Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, to play volleyball and major in biology. With hopes of ultimately furthering her studies at Johns Hopkins University or Case Western Reserve University, Hassink plans on becoming a pediatric nurse.
When it comes to beginning her freshman year, Hassink is most excited about having “a new experience and opening a whole new chapter of life,” she says. “I’m looking forward to a change and getting out of my comfort zone.”
To her peers who have yet to complete their high school career, Hassink advises them to “really challenge yourself in your courses. Those hard classes will prove worth it.”
To her alma mater community, Hassink’s success is proof enough.
School: Cascia Hall Preparatory School.
Noted for: National Merit finalist; received top academic scholarships to three private colleges; voted most talented male in senior class; classical piano honors; used piano improvisation talents for community service; state champion soccer player.
Involved in: Varsity and club soccer, Spanish Club president, National Honor Society president, Academic Bowl varsity team captain, piano improv and classical piano, peer tutoring.
Describes self as: “Pretty likable guy” and “decently outgoing.”
Attributes academic success to: “My parents. They pushed me when I didn’t want to push myself.”
Plans to attend: St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
Favorite quote: “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” — Bernard Baruch
Favorite thing about Tulsa: “I’m a fan of the new BOK Center.” In fact, he’s seen three concerts there: Neil Diamond, The Eagles and Billy Joel with Elton John.
One thing to take to college: Memory foam pillow. “It’s like your head’s on a cloud.”
Goal in life: “Do something in life that I enjoy.”
Bad habit: “I’m really incredibly messy.”
Favorite movie: “Casablanca.” “It’s just a solid movie with a solid plot and 15 of the greatest movie quotes of all time.”
Best lesson learned in high school: Time management. “It wasn’t until high school that I took classes that challenged me.”
Advice to incoming freshmen and high school students: “Start early” on college preparation, but most of all, “enjoy it.”
In five years: Graduate school.
Most excited about when it comes to college: “The freedom.”
Roland Brown is a lot things —Cascia Hall alumnus, skilled pianist, champion soccer player, National Merit finalist, community volunteer, linguist (he speaks Spanish and Mandarin Chinese proficiently) and world traveler, having visited everywhere from China (twice) to New Zealand to 40 of 50 United States and a slew of other countries.
One thing he is not: an inside-of-the-box kind of guy. From birth, he broke the mold. Brown has a mixed cultural background; his father is from Tulsa and his mother is from China.
He also loves soccer, a game free from the limitations of strict playbooks, timeouts and player hierarchies.
“It’s a team game,” he says. “Soccer, to me, is more about creativity. The coach’s job is done when the game starts.”
This flexibility is also why he prefers piano improvisation over his classical piano training. He relishes the opportunity to create and innovate. And when he finds such opportunities, he sticks with them.
Brown has played soccer since he was 4 years old. He started playing piano a year or two later. He has been successful with both hobbies. Between club and varsity soccer teams, Brown has played in 10 state championships, winning seven of them. And in 2008, he received the highest rating in the Oklahoma Music Teachers’ Association’s Achievement Audition for classical piano. Not to mention he can play 350 songs by ear.
Such dedication to a passion is characteristic of Brown. Subdued and self-deprecating, he’s not overly talkative when it comes to discussing himself. But hit on a subject of interest to him, whether it’s his favorite animal (rock wallaby), his experiences with speaking Spanish in Costa Rica, the hypnotist at Cascia Hall’s graduation party or stories about his 97-year-old grandmother, and he becomes a fount of interesting facts, trivia and anecdotes.
Luckily, he uses his powers for good. Charitable as he is remarkable, Brown uses his piano improv skills to entertain at retirement centers, fund-raisers and school events. It’s just his way of sharing all the abilities he has been given.
“I got too many talents for my own good … way more than I deserve,” he says.
School: Holland Hall.
Noted for: Created jewelry line Purple Soup and donated 5 percent of sales to charities; founded Fellowship of Jewish Athletes; established Art from the Heart, a free summer arts instruction program for under-resourced middle school students; 2008 Stephanie Jackson Outstanding Young Artist Award; 2008 Mayfest Young Artists Award.
Involved in: Editor-in-chief of Hallway school newspaper, president of Fellowship of Jewish Athletes, varsity cross-country team, volunteer tutor at Eugene Field Elementary School.
Describes self as: Outgoing, creative and driven.
Plans to attend: Stanford University.
Favorite quote: “No one thing defines you, not even two.” — Michele Cruncleton, former teacher
Wants to: “Do something that’s community-oriented. I want to do something that helps other people.”
Role model: Her parents and her older sister for setting “good examples.”
Passion: “Anything creative. Art, volunteer work. Anything that’s as rewarding to others as it is to you.”
Goal in life: “I’ve always wanted to look at the things I’ve done and think I’ve done my best.”
Bad habit: Biting her fingernails out of nervousness.
Best lesson learned in high school: “Never give up.”
Advice to incoming freshmen and high school students: “To not be afraid and to work hard. Take all the opportunities you have.”
Most excited about when it comes to college: “I’m really excited to meet new people and really discover what my passion is.”
Look up “ambition” in the dictionary and you’re likely to find Rachel Zarrow’s picture. The Holland Hall grad has never been one to shy away from a challenge, much less let an opportunity pass her by.
“If there’s something I really want to do, I’ll try my hardest to achieve it,” she says.
At 18, she has accomplished more than some people twice her age. In ninth grade, she started her own handcrafted jewelry business, Purple Soup, which includes lines of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings and Judaica. In its first 18 months, revenues exceeded $20,000, 5 percent of which she donated to charities for children.
In 10th grade, Zarrow founded a free weeklong summer arts instruction program for middle school students from under-resourced minority communities. Art from the Heart, which has since expanded to two weeks, provides instruction from Holland Hall teachers and students in drawing, painting, dance, creative writing and acting.
Not surprisingly, Zarrow says she’s interested in “all kinds of art.” Behind that love of art, however, is a compassionate teenager who likes to use her talents to lend a hand, a trait instilled in her by her parents, who have been active in community service.
“Ever since I was little, I just liked helping people out,” she says.
This desire has led Zarrow to volunteer her time as a tutor at Eugene Field Elementary School and as a Spanish translator at Educare, an early-childhood education program for low-income families.
When asked about her favorite memory from senior year, she’s quick to offer one related to the children she has helped. The last day of Art from the Heart is the day the campers perform or present the projects they’ve been working on. This year, the students and volunteers took the opportunity to thank Zarrow for her efforts.
“I felt like that was my greatest accomplishment,” she says.
Despite her academic successes —making the Headmaster’s Honor Roll repeatedly, among other honors —Zarrow is still proudest of her outside-the-classroom achievements. After all, she says good grades don’t always equate to good people.
“My parents have always told me, ‘You’re not your test score,’” she says. “It doesn’t make you superhuman if you make good grades. You aren’t a number, whether it’s good or awful.”
School: Booker T. Washington High School.
Noted for: Recruited to play football for The University of Tulsa, community volunteer, captain of state champion varsity football team, four-year letter winner in football and track and field.
Involved in: National Honor Society executive board, Spanish Club, Paradise Baptist Church Youth Usher Board, church youth group, varsity football team captain, varsity track and field.
Describes self as: “I consider myself to be funny. I’m fun to be around, or so I’ve been told. I’m helpful. I like to give advice. I’m outgoing. I love to try new things. I love going to church. I’m a big family person.”
Attributes academic success to: “God first. Then my parents.”
Plans to attend: The University of Tulsa.
Major: Energy management.
Wants to be a: “High executive in a business.”
Favorite senior memory: Winning the football state championship and being crowned homecoming king (“Mr. Hornet”).
Passion: “Going to church and learning about the Bible. Of course, football, too.”
One thing to take to college: His iPhone. “I can’t go anywhere without it.”
Goal in life: “To become a good Christian husband and father. That’s the main thing. And be successful as far as my business endeavors.”
Best lesson learned in high school career: “Hard work pays off.”
Best advice you’ve been given and by whom: His family, particularly his grandmothers and great-grandmother, have always told him to “keep God first.”
Advice to incoming freshmen and high school students: “Keep working hard and don’t allow things to discourage them or get them down.”
In five years: “I’ll probably have my first real job, and I’m pretty sure I’ll still be in Tulsa because of the family influence.”
Most excited about when it comes to college: “The challenge.”
It takes a secure man to admit he can quote episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Then again, what does Justin Skillens have to be insecure about?
The 18-year-old graduated from Booker T. Washington High School with a 3.91 GPA, was captain of the state champion varsity football team, served on the executive board of the National Honor Society and was a four-year letter winner in both football and track and field. And in the fall, he’ll be one of the newest members of the Golden Hurricane football team at The University of Tulsa.
Polite and humble, Skillens gives much of the credit for his successes to a tight-knit family. He is one of three siblings (he has a 7-year-old brother and a 4-year-old sister), and even his extended family is close, with his grandparents and great-grandmother all living within two miles of his home.
“We’re a very close-knit family,” he says. “We do a lot of things together.”
For instance, the Skillenses have a family night at least once a month. They play board games, watch movies or just hang out. In addition, the family always goes to church together, he says.
Even football has been a family affair. Skillens began playing in first grade introduced to the game by his father, a former high school All-American.
“Coincidentally, I fell in love with football like him,” he says.
Since then, Skillens’ dad has coached him in some capacity for most all of his years on the field.
He’s naturally talented, but that alone is not what makes him stand out. It’s Skillens’ determination and work ethic that make him exceptional.
After three years of being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the playoffs, Skillens, as captain, made it his mission to lead the varsity football team to a state championship. He did. Everyone on the team just came together, he says.
It was that same drive and ambition that motivated him to overcome earning a C in geometry, his first and only C, his freshman year.
“It drove me to work harder,” Skillens says.
Soon, he’ll take that same attitude and apply it to the challenges of college classes and no-huddle football.
So this fall, tune in to TU’s 10 nationally televised football games and keep your eye on No. 10 — he’s going places.