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Meet the Mission's valedictorians and salutatorians

by | Jun 5, 2019 |

It’s graduation week for the seniors at John O’Connell and Mission high schools. And, to mark the occasion, five outstanding students from the Class of 2019 shared their stories with Mission Local as they seek to make the transition to college.

Mission High’s valedictorian and co-salutatorian have much more in common than their high-achieving test scores and grade point averages.

The two young women, Maria Sagum and Lillian Winston, who graduated on Tuesday, have been friends since middle school.

“Lillian is a really good person to have in your life,” said Sagum. “She’s a good listener and someone who is always going to be there for you.”

Winston shared a similar sentiment. “Maria is always excited about what I’m excited about,” she said. “Even if it’s not necessarily impacting her, she’s always happy for me and I appreciate that.”

And while both students declined to deliver speeches at their graduation, a message they would have emphasized is the welcoming community they have have helped to build over four years.

“Coming from our school, knowing that success means something different to everyone, [our classmates] should be proud of whatever they’re doing next year,” said Sagum. “They made it this far.”

Mission Local was unable to reach Aedra Li, co-salutatorian, for an interview, but we wish Li all the best in her future endeavors.

“A lot of people believe that we don’t know what we’re talking about because we’re just kids.”

– Lillian Winston

“The biggest challenge I have ever faced was also the one that I have grown the most from. When I was in 10th grade, my dad passed away from cancer. […] My dad always pushed me to follow my creative side and I saw myself becoming more mentally invested and forming a deeper attachment to courses that also valued this mindset. As a result, I have become more confident in my decision to pursue a career in the creative field. He raised me and was always one of my biggest supporters, it was through this event that I learned that it’s okay to not always feel positive and that talking about it is not a sign of weakness but one of strength that will push me to always do better.”

– Excerpt from Maria Sagum’s UC Berkeley personal insight prompt

When Maria Sagum was notified she was valedictorian, she immediately shared the news with her friends. “I forgot to tell my mom until my friends brought it up,” she said.

As Sagum downplayed her achievement, she recalled her mom “trying to seem chill about it.”

She learned how to rely on others and never felt too stressed about managing her coursework or extracurricular responsibilities. “I feel like they were all things that I enjoyed doing, so it didn’t feel like too much work to have to balance them,” she said.

One of those extracurriculars included Youth Art Exchange, where she helped design vinyl covers for the utility boxes on Ocean Avenue, thanks to a grant.

“We worked on it for a little over a year,” she said. “It’s cool to see our art still there.”

And in her ethnic studies class, discussions on social justice issues were prevalent.

“We talked about the importance of our voices and how what we say matters,” she said. “That’s something that has really stuck with me.”

Sagum quickly discovered her love for media arts and the storytelling aspect of video, and, as a result, is considering studying media at UC Berkeley, where she will matriculate.

“I grew from all of these experiences and they have shaped me to be the leader that I can be today,” she said.

Lillian Winston wasn’t entirely surprised that she had earned the salutatorian achievement.

“I’m competitive with my friends,” she said. “I just never thought it would happen to me or my group of friends.”

She credits Mission High for teaching her grit and perseverance.

Winston and Sagum have been enrolled in classes at City College since their junior years. “We took sign language as far up as you can go,” she said.

In her first class, however, she wasn’t properly enrolled. “That was on me,” she admitted. “But I feel like if Mission [High] didn’t help me with my confidence and help me find my voice and talk to adults in a way that I could get things done, I probably would have just dropped the class.”

Instead, she found herself with the ability to communicate her situation effectively by speaking to the head of the foreign language department and writing a petition to the instructor.

“That experience also helped me with college applications and all these problems that have gone wrong,” she said.

Winston will enter UCLA in the fall as an undeclared major.

“I do want to honor the graduating Class of 2019, but we have to acknowledge what our family has done for us. Without the sacrifices they made, we wouldn’t be here. They helped shape us to who we are, so that we can succeed in America.”

– Victor Louie

It isn’t always lonely at the top, after all.

Two John O’Connell High students shared the valedictorian honors this school year. Gus Bennett and Victor Louie graduated at the head of their class on Monday.

“We’ve literally had almost every single class together for four years, except AP English,” said Louie.

Bennett added, “We both lean on each other a lot for support.”

Louie hopes his peers will remember what they each contributed during their time at O’Connell. “Everyone has a different personality contributing to this community,” he said. “We’re also an extremely small school.”

That’s the benefit of attending O’Connell, said Bennett. “Everyone knows each other. It’s a welcoming community.”

And they also share similar motivations: they’re both family-driven and have sibling rivalries.

Alexis Wallace, surprised by the salutatorian honor, said she will also miss her friends and the community at O’Connell.

As a transfer student from International Studies Academy, she never expected to graduate from O’Connell but will “miss seeing everyone’s faces.” She anticipates “going to a new environment and starting and trying all over again.”

Not only does Louie excel in the classroom, he’s also a student-athlete on the cross country, basketball and badminton teams. While his challenging schedule was packed throughout the year, he persevered. “I still managed the ‘student’ before ‘athlete,’” he said. “I made sure my academics were in check before I went further in my sports.”

“Going to a small school, it was always challenging to pursue my passion due to a lack of opportunities offered. Unlike larger schools, there was less funding and no guaranteed clubs or sports. This required me to become driven to want to create change if I wanted to further pursue my passion. During my freshman year, I was deeply motivated to play badminton. However, my school had no team; therefore I could not participate. So the year after, I took the initiative to promote badminton around school. Because of my efforts, I founded my school’s first badminton team and took upon the responsibilities of team captain. As captain, I created an inclusive environment where everyone had a positive experience while playing.”

– Excerpt from Victor Louie’s UC Berkeley personal insight prompt

Victor Louie plans to attend UC Berkeley in the fall, like his sister, who was salutatorian last school year. “She was happy for me, but I knew deep down, she’s thinking, ‘He’s catching up!” he said with a laugh.

It was during spring break when Louie discovered he was admitted to Berkeley, where he will to study economics and finance.

“I was watching Captain Marvel with my girlfriend,” he said. “Meanwhile, my sister and my mom were blowing up my phone to check whether I got accepted or not.”

And almost immediately, he started celebrating in the quiet movie theater. “It was a great moment,” he said.

While he admits he’s following in the footsteps of his sister, he’s appreciative of “the path she’s created for me and how she influenced my life.”

By achieving valedictorian, Louie said it’s another way of expressing his love and gratitude to his family for the sacrifices they have made.

Aside from that, he said, “it’s a great honor being recognized because nothing comes easy and it feels nice that our hard work and determination is appreciated.”

For Gus Bennett, whose older brother went to Lowell High, he appreciates “being recognized by a smaller [school] community” in comparison.

Originally intent on attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he ultimately chose UC Riverside, where he will study electrical engineering.

“At the very last minute, I really thought about it more deeply,” he said. “I figured that might be a school where I would just get swept under with both the workload and the competition.”

In middle school, Bennett said he didn’t feel he was the most high-achieving student.

That changed when his parents sat him down at the start of high school.

“They said, ‘Look, this is what people are going to really start looking at you for,’” he recalled. “‘You need to be as driven and hardworking as you possibly can.’”

Now, ready for the next chapter after O’Connell, he looks forward to the personal independence he will experience in college.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “At the same time, it’s kind of scary. It’s easy to follow a super set schedule, but then you start college and I’m a little scared of getting slapped in the face with it.”

Bennett also dedicated two days a week to practice piano and guitar, a hobby he has continued since he was 6- and 13-years-old, respectively.

He also completed an internship with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, as part of a requirement for the construction and environmental technology pathway. “I got to work in infrastructure to get my foot in the door and get my hands wet a little,” he said. “It was really interesting. I didn’t really have a huge grasp on what a degree would be doing prior to them and now I’m looking at some things I could possible be doing out of college.”

“Working with animals has helped me to improve my community for multiple reasons. I helped by fostering dogs to help them adjust to a home environment before adoption. I helped families find not just a dog, but a companion for life. Most importantly, I was able to advocate about adoption to prospective owners and to educate them how puppy mills contribute to health defects and overpopulation of dogs. That’s what I want to be a veterinarian and maybe have my own veterinary hospital, so I could give back to the people in my community and keep their pets healthy.”

– Excerpt from Alexis Wallace’s UC Davis personal insight prompt

After Wallace shared the news of her salutatorian honor with her parents, she recalled, “My mom was like, ‘Congratulations! You’re going to give a speech. Ask them what you need to include.’”

Her mom then proceeded to send her a text message with a screenshot picture of what a salutatorian speech should include.

It was toward the end of third period, right before lunch, just a few weeks ago, when Alexis Wallace discovered she was salutatorian.

She didn’t expect the honor.

“I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to give a speech,” said the self-described shy student.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

As a student, she said, her biggest struggle was speaking up in class and asking for help, especially when it came to math. “I would just sit there, not understanding,” said Wallace. “I wouldn’t ask questions.”

She recalled a parent-teacher conference when her teachers would relay this information to her parents. “That was always their feedback to me: ‘She needs to speak up. She needs to ask more questions. You need to participate more in class.’”

After International Studies Academy merged with O’Connell High due to low enrollment, Wallace entered her new school in tenth grade.

“I really started speaking out more when I got here to O’Connell because I really just did not want to fall behind,” she explained.

And in her junior year, she was recruited by a former ISA teacher to manage the girls’ basketball team, where she learned how “not to be nervous because I had to pay attention and communicate with the team.”

In the fall, she will study animal science at UC Davis.

“Our generation is very aware of how things are impacting us and how we need to be heard about these issues.”

Maria Sagum

Congratulations, Class of 2019!