What it takes: metro Atlanta valedictorians share secrets to success


Now that high school seniors are graduating, the class of 2019 is ready for college. Some are headed to Harvard, MIT and other prestigious institutions out of state. Others are staying closer to home, attending Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, among others. These graduates featured here have worked hard to achieve academic success. Here they share some advice. (In some cases, responses were edited for length)


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Jingwei Li 

High School: South Gwinnett High School

 Extracurriculars: Vice President of Future Business Leaders of America, Co-President of National Honor Society, and National Beta Club

College: Louisiana State University

Intended Major: Infectious Disease

Advice for succeeding: One of my teachers had a quote that essentially said that talent is nothing without hard work. You have to put in the effort to use your talent to its greatest potential. Do not be discouraged. Keep putting in the work, and you will achieve wonders.

Advice for freshmen:  Sometimes you may feel that all you want to do is go home, sit in bed, and stay on your phone, but my advice is to go out and try something that is outside your comfort zone. Four years seems like a long time, but it will fly by. Take these few years to gain more experiences and meet new people to hopefully broaden your view on the world.


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Jared Smith 

High School: Archer High School

Extracurriculars: Spanish club, Spanish Honors Society, English Honors Society, Beta Club, AP Club

College: University of Georgia

Intended Major: Actuarial Science

Advice for succeeding: Don’t focus on being successful or reaching a goal in the future. Work hard now at whatever you do and success will come naturally in response to your efforts.

Advice for freshmen: Start building your résumé early by joining clubs and taking challenging classes. Find a balance between school, work, and family so you can put yourself in a position to succeed while enjoying life.

MORE: Morehouse commencement speaker to pay off Class of 2019's student loans


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Amy Tin 

High School: Discovery High School

 Extracurriculars: Hispanic Organization Promoting Education (VP of Development), Emory Math Circle, volunteering as a tutor at a Gwinnett County Public Library, National Art Honor Society

College: Georgia Institute of Technology

Intended Major: Applied Mathematics or Engineering

Advice for succeeding: Succeed in silence.

Advice for freshmen: Extend your comfort zone and be engaged.


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Julius Tao 

High School: Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GSMST)

Extracurriculars: Math Team President, Science Bowl Captain, Mu Alpha Theta President, Head Organizer of GSMST's 1st and 2nd Statewide Math Tournament, 1st Statewide Science Bowl Tournament, and Annual Students vs. Teachers Quiz Bowl, Computer Vision Intern at Flock Safety

College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Intended Major: Computer Science (focusing on Machine Learning)

Advice for succeeding: Setting success as the ultimate goal is an easy trap to fall into. What happens if you don't "succeed"? All your efforts will have been wasted. By instead working hard at what you enjoy and what you find interesting, regardless of whether you earn recognition or not, you will have succeeded in expanding your horizons and growing as a human being.

Advice for freshmen: Explore all kinds of subjects that could become your new passion, but choose a few activities that spark your curiosity and dive deeper. Stop comparing yourself to others. Their life is theirs, your life is yours, so move from beating yourself up to being a better person than who you were yesterday. Finally, after working hard, relax and have fun!


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Camryn Banks 

School system: Fulton County Schools

High school: Tri-Cities High School

Extracurriculars: VPA Magnet Program (Theatre), National Honor Society, National Beta Club, Student Government Association, Yearbook Club

College: University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Intended Major: Design and Production, with a concentration in Lighting Design and Technology

Advice for succeeding: My gymnastics coach, Reggie, taught me a really valuable lesson a few years ago. I was at the gym … and we were both getting frustrated with how I was performing. He pulled me aside and gave me this long lecture, during which he said, "trying is just honest failure," and it just stuck with me. It has been something that I live by nowadays because I realized that it's completely true.

Advice for freshmen: You either do or you don't. If you want something, go get it, and if you're not willing to go get it then maybe you didn't truly want it in the first place. You have to make sure you sit down and reflect on what it is that you really want in life, and whether you want to do something simply because others are doing it or you want to do something out of your own pure desire to do it. Once you figure out the motivation behind your actions, you can start more efficiently navigating your path toward success.

MORE: Atlanta's Tracey Pendley named 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year


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Amanda Izuchukwu

School system: Fulton County

High school: Creekside High School

Extracurriculars: Golf Captain, Academic Team, STEM Club

College: New York University

Intended major: Finance

Advice for success: Find your passion. Find your why: the thing that motivates you to wake up every morning. And once you've found it, pursue it with relentless conviction and dedication.

Advice for freshmen: Freshmen, you guys have probably heard this a million times before, but prioritize getting good grades. Do not slack off. Take your academic career seriously. Your future 12th-grade self will thank you for it. And another word of advice: Don't worry if you don't have all the answers right now, if you don't yet know what you want to be or study after high school. Take it from me, you will probably change your mind a thousand times before you finally decide who you want to be once high school is over with.

MORE: After a lifetime of learning, Atlanta woman earns college degree at 93


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JaMia Aivera Craft 

School system: DeKalb County School System

High school: Southwest DeKalb High School

Extracurricular activities: Band, Varsity Tennis player, National Honor Society, Beta Club, and National French Society.

College: The University of Georgia

Intended major: Psychology

Advice for succeeding: "Being successful isn't about being perfect; it's about effort. When you bring that effort every single day, that's where transformation comes. That's how change occurs" — Jillian Michael

Advice for freshmen: Freshman year is your foundation to a great four years. Start your high school journey off the right way because you are not guaranteed a second chance. The worst place to be in school or life is behind, so always put your best foot forward.


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Ololade Abdulai 

School system: Clayton County Public Schools

High school: Elite Scholars Academy

College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Intended major: Chemical Engineering

Extracurriculars: Founder of Student Leaders Club at Clayton State University; National Honor Society; Science National Honor Society; Math Honor Society; Calculus and Chemistry Tutor at Clayton State University.

Advice for succeeding: You are not required to be the best at anything to lead a successful life, so focus on getting involved in things that interest and excite you. Always strive to do your best and accomplish things not for any sense of others' approval but for your own benefit and personal satisfaction.

Advice for freshmen: It's never too early to start picking out a dream school. Start planning now, and ensure you're on track to meet the entry requirements of a couple of universities that you'd like to attend. Participate in activities and events that align with your interests, and remember to make some friends along the way.


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Kylee Rahm 

School system: Fulton County

High School: Alpharetta

College: (Hopefully, she said) Brigham Young University

Intended major: Molecular Biology

Extracurriculars: 2017: FBLA state qualifier/ region winner (Intro to Business Communications); 2018: FBLA state qualifier/ region winner (Management and Decision making); 2018: Georgia Certificate of Merit; 2015: Selected to represent French 2H class at annual Fulton Forum language competition; 2015: National laureate for The National French Contest, ranking 10th in the state receiving silver medal and 12th in the nation; AHS women's varsity lacrosse team.

 Advice for succeeding: The best advice I've been given about succeeding is to always do the best you can and push through. You never want to look back with regret or thinking you "could have" done more, so give it all you've got.

Advice for freshmen: I would tell freshman to focus on the present. Don't be so hyper-focused on where you'll be in 4 years that you're super stressed out all the time and aren't enjoying your life now. Do what you're interested and do your best in all you do, so you can be comfortable knowing you've done your best.


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Zerian Hood 

School system: Fulton County

School: Banneker

College: University Of Georgia

Intended major: Sports Medicine Minor: Pre-Med

Extracurriculars: Varsity football, varsity track & field, governor honors, FCA(Fellowship Of Christian Athletes), project destined(real estate development program), National Society of High School Scholars, and urban League of Greater Atlanta

Advice for succeeding: Exceed all expectations. As a wise man once said, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

Advice for freshmen: Build your foundation because freshman year is the most critical time in your high school career.


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Caroline Reddick 

School system: Fulton County

School: Cambridge

College: Davidson College or Vanderbilt University

Intended major: Neuroscience and Psychology

 Extracurriculars: Past Candidate and Current Board Member on the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's (LLS), Emory Winship Cancer Institute's Summer Scholars Research Program, National Merit Finalist, piano for 10 years, customer service rep at Scottsdale Farms

Advice for succeeding: "Your greatest fear should not be failure but succeeding at things in life that don't really matter. " — Francis Chan

Advice for freshmen: Do your best and know that your best is enough. Find your balance with school and friendships.


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Rayna Wynn 

High school: Langston Hughes

College: Hampton University

Intended major: Computer Science and Information

Extracurriculars: Spivey Hall Children's Choir; Marching & Concert Band; National Honors Society; Tennis; Future Business Leaders of America.

Advice for succeeding: The best advice I got about succeeding was to be true to yourself and to never conform to what other people wanted you to be. That people and their opinions are going to come and go but you have to live with how you see and feel about yourself forever, so don't waste all your time trying to please others.

Advice for freshmen: I would tell a freshman not to overload themselves. That they need to pace themselves and not try to do everything at once. Be great at what you are good at, don't try to be the best at everything. Perfection is unattainable.


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Kayleigh Monahan 

High school: Milton

College: University of Notre Dame

Intended major: Mathematics

Extracurriculars: National Honor's Society President; Mu Alpha Theta (Math Honor Society) Vice President (11th), President (12th); Parish School of Religion Teen Aide; All State Orchestra; Beethoven Chamber Orchestra, Principal Bassist; Instructor at Mathnasium.

Advice for succeeding: My dad always taught me that being successful means knowing that there will never be a point where you will stop learning and growing. He also taught be that being successful comes from doing what you love.

Advice for freshmen: My advice to freshmen would be don't sweat the small stuff. Also, always challenge yourself but make sure you're still having fun! Another piece of advice that my dad always tells me is that happiness is a choice.


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Lindsey Nicholas 

High school: North Springs

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Computer Science with a minor in Business

Extracurriculars: Future Business Leaders of America; UNICEF; Mathnasium Lead Instructor; Yearbook Editor; Young Life Leader; Science Olympiad

Advice for succeeding: Nothing is going to be simply handed to you. You have to earn it. You have to put in the work in order to get results, but in the end, that hard work will pay off.

Advice for freshmen: Time management is the key to success. It may be difficult at first, but staying organized and maintaining an accurate and detailed agenda, calendar, and notes will help you manage school, work, extracurriculars, and any other aspects of your life.


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Michelle Stanek 

High school: Riverwood

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Chemical Engineering

Extracurriculars: National Honor Society; Black Belt in Taekwondo; Thespian; Beta Club; Chemistry Club; Science National Honor Society

Advice for succeeding: Act so future you doesn't hate present you. Short-term gratification is a big vice for me, as I'm sure it is for many teenagers, but I just do the best I can to make sure the Michelle of tomorrow isn't screwed.

Advice for freshmen: Keep your head down and your chin up. You're going to have to jump through a lot of hoops in the next four years, but you'll change and learn a lot. Don't burn yourself out too early and try to have as much fun as you can along the way.


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Marianne Lamarche

High school: Centennial

College: UGA

Intended major: Foundation Fellowship to study intersection of child development, language acquisition and education methodology

Extracurriculars: President of Roswell-Alpharetta's National Charity League chapter; CHS Thespian Troupe; National Spanish Honor Society. Proudest of the tutoring and mentorship program she has established for elementary school ESOL students, as she moved from Quebec at the age of 5 not speaking a word of English herself.

Advice for succeeding: As a sophomore, I read a book about overachiever culture that encouraged me not to waste time doing things I didn't enjoy just for the sake of success. I think that was a really important realization for me: just because I had the potential to be good at something, it didn't mean I needed to devote energy to it if it left me unfulfilled. To me, success now means more than just achievement. This helped me in deciding future career paths, as well! I realized that our time is short and I want to spend it on extracurriculars, classes, majors, and careers that I love.

Advice for freshmen: Don't be afraid to be "extra." Dress up for all the spirit days without caring if other people do. Do that extra-credit assignment if you want, even if you didn't truly need it. Work hard, even if it's not cool. Go to Homecoming and don't be afraid to do your crazy dance moves. Be friends with everyone. Ask lots of questions in class. Join every club you want. High school flies by — it's too short not to do the things you love and be unabashedly yourself, even if that means breaking the norm!


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Andy Luo

High school: Chattahoochee

College: Brown University

Intended major: Biology or Economics

Extracurriculars: Quiz Bowl; Atlanta Youth Wind Symphony; wind ensemble; All State band; Beta Club; vice president and webmaster of the Science National Honor Society; National Honor Society.

Advice given for succeeding: If you commit to doing what you love, the material reward will come in time.

Advice for freshmen: I would tell freshmen to try anything they think they might be interested in (however strange it may seem) during their first couple years in high school. However, once they find the few activities they are passionate about, they should prioritize and devote their time to them. I believe putting your effort into the things you are truly passionate about will pay off much more in the long run compared to doing what you think you are supposed to do or pressured to do by others.


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Tyer Beirfreund (valedictorian)

High school: Johns Creek

College: Georgia Tech

Intended major: Electrical Engineering

Extracurriculars: National Merit finalist; Latin; Orchestra.

Advice for succeeding: Success is all about capitalizing on opportunities. Prepare yourself as well as you can for those opportunities and you will be successful.

Advice for freshmen: High school is a time to explore. Find what you love and do as much of it as you can.


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Samuel Song (salutatorian) 

High school: Johns Creek

College: MIT

Intended major: Undecided

Extracurriculars: Varsity swimming; GMEA All-State Orchestra; Chamber Orchestra.

Advice for succeeding: Stop overthinking it.

Advice you'd give to freshmen: Do NOT, under any circumstance, use erasable pen on a test.

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Return for updates and for more top students featured. 

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