How they did it: Gwinnett valedictorians share keys to their success

They came to their high schools four years ago, searching for their lockers and trying to figure out how to navigate the maze-like hallways of their campuses.

Later this month, several thousand Gwinnett County Public Schools students will graduate and embark on the next chapter of their lives.

Here are the stories of some Gwinnett County students who excelled in the classroom, earning the title as their school’s valedictorian. Some of the responses were edited for brevity.

Karen Cranston

High School: Gwinnett Online Campus

Extracurricular Activities: Drama, Environmental Club, Student Leadership Council, Member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

College: University of Georgia

Planned Major: Communications with a minor in creative writing

Best advice about succeeding:

Always ask questions from the beginning. If you're confused about a concept you're learning in school, it is best to ask as soon as possible in order to avoid further confusion.

Advice for freshmen:

I would strongly advise a freshman to do dual enrollment during their junior and senior year of high school. You get to attend college for free, while earning college credit. If you do dual enrollment, it will literally save you thousands of dollars later on. Additionally, you will have a much better understanding of what college is like.

Santiago Escobar

High School: Mountain View

Extracurricular Activities: National Honors Society, Member and Corresponding Secretary; Gwinnett County Comprehensive Transportation Plan Community Stakeholder Advisory Group, Student Representative; Gwinnett Student Leadership Team; Key Club, Membership Development Chair; Organ Donor Awareness Club; elementary school volunteer; Hispanic Organization Promoting Education member; Mu Alpha Theta; math tutor.

College: Georgia Tech

Planned Major: civil engineering

Best advice about succeeding:

Success can only be achieved when you are willing to push yourself to new levels of greatness every day. It is the result of dedication, diligence, and perseverance. Whether it is pushing yourself to step out of your comfort zone or pushing yourself to excel in academics, success is only achieved when you conquer the limits that you place on yourself.

Advice to freshmen:

Many times as freshmen we fail to realize that our high school careers start on day one. This means that our GPA starts the first day of freshman year...Additionally, the opportunities to get involved in your school and community start on day one of freshmen year. You have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and get involved in different clubs, organizations, and sports.

Victoria Fonzi

High School: North Gwinnett

Extracurricular Activities: UNICEF Club, UNICEF High School National Council, Science Olympiad Team, Mu Alpha Theta, Freshman Mentor & Peer Tutor, Science National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Beta Club, Emory Winship Cancer Research Summer Scholar, volunteer at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

College: University of Georgia

Planned studies: Goal to attend medical school.

Best advise about succeeding:

Sleep. While my mother inspires me to work hard, she also reminds me that I need to rest sometimes, too. No one can be successful without setting aside time for what really matters: health, family, and gratitude.

Advice to freshmen:

High school is a big transition, so don't be afraid to ask for help from others. From the senior who showed me how to open my locker on the first day to my closest mentors who guided me in my college decision, my high school career would not have been possible without the people who gave me great advice.

Camden Jones

School: Collins Hill

Extracurricular Activities: baseball, basketball, stock trading, private tutoring.

College: Georgia Tech

Planned studies: computer science

Best advice about succeeding:

The biggest thing that helped me succeed was convincing myself not to fear failure, but instead be scared to stop failing, because that would mean I had given up and settled for mediocrity.

Advice to freshman: 

Stop caring so much about what people think and do your own thing.

Diana Kalima

High School: South Gwinnett

Extracurricular Activities: National Honor Society, Beta Club, DECA, Art Club, Spoken Word Poetry Club and Music.

College: University of Chicago

Planned studies: Music and applied math

Best advice about succeeding:

Hustle beats talent when talent doesn’t hustle. Don’t worry so much about where other people are in their skill levels or journeys. You can use that as motivation. However, stay focused on what you are doing and keep working on improving yourself.

Advice to freshmen:

Make sure you do your work but also leave some time for fun! Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Join a new club or talk to someone randomly in the hallways. You never know; you just might find a new passion or make a new friend.

Mehul Mehra

High School: Shiloh

Extracurricular Activities: Science Technology Engineering Math Academy, Georgia Hospital Association youth volunteer, volunteer and teaching assistant in Hindi language instruction at Bal Vihar Hindi School, volunteer at Pruitt Nursing Home, volunteer at Shiv Temple of Atlanta, varsity tennis player, president of the Technology Student Association, Shiloh Student Leadership team

College: Augusta University/Medical College of Georgia's 7-year Guaranteed Medical School program

Planned studies: Cell and Molecular Biology

Best advice about succeeding: 

Regardless of the challenges you face or the obstacles in your path, always strive for personal excellence and success will follow.

Advice to freshmen: 

Once you have focused on a goal, acquire as much advice and assistance as possible from those around you. Ensure that you are always doing something that will assist you in actualizing you aspiration and helping those in your community.

Danny Nguyen

High School: Lanier High School

Extracurricular Activities: Beta Club, Environmental Club, Mu Alpha Theta, Science National Honor Society, Spanish Club

College: Georgia Tech

Planned major: mechanical engineering

Best advice about succeeding:

Get involved! Almost all of my teachers and mentors told our class this, and while it might be cliche, it's also true. Joining a club or sport allows you to experience so much more of what school has to offer. Just be careful not to overextend yourself to where your schoolwork or quality of life suffers.

Advice to freshmen:

Take freshman year seriously. It might be the easiest year of high school, but if you don't pay attention in class and take care of your assignments, it'll hurt your GPA and stick with you for the rest of high school.

Obumneme Osele

High School: Discovery

Extracurricular Activities: National Honor Society, Beta Club, Football, Wrestling, Student Council, Georgia Secretary of State Student, Titan Leadership Team

College: Northwestern University

Planned studies: Biomedical Engineering

Best advice about succeeding:

If you have a strong purpose in life, you don't have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there. Challenge yourself to find your purpose.

Advice to freshmen:

The great pyramids still start from the base. Build a strong base with your freshman year and you will reach great heights.

Thandiwe Persaud

High School: Dacula High School

Extracurricular Activities: Varsity Football Cheerleader, President of Mu Alpha Theta, Senior Executive Representative of Student Council, Peer Mentor, African Caribbean Student Association, Beta Club, Treasurer of National Honor Society, National English Honor Society, President's Council, National Spanish Honor Society, Dacula Leadership Team, Mock Trial Club, Chamber Orchestra

College: University of Pennsylvania

Planned studies: Economics with a concentration in accounting

Best advice about succeeding:

Never give up on myself. The road to success won’t be easy, but as long as I always gave my best effort it will pay off in the end.

Advice to freshman:

Stay true to yourself and make the most of the opportunities provided.

Tanish Pradhan

High School: Parkview High School

Extracurricular Activities: Technology Student Association Secretary and Chapter Officer; National Honor Society President; National Spanish Honor Society; Beta Club; Mu Alpha Theta; Science National Honor Society and Parkview Student Leadership Team

College: Georgia Tech

Planned studies: Biomedical engineering

Best advice about succeeding:

Succeed as a community, not as an individual. It is crucial to share one’s knowledge and talent with others and to use your skills to help others. Do well unto others, and good things are bound to happen to you.

Advice to freshmen:

Understand the importance that the next four years will have on the rest of your life. It’s a time to enjoy life with friends and family and to pursue one’s hobbies, but the impact you make today will help determine your future leading into graduation, college, and beyond. So play hard, study harder, and use the high school experience to develop yourself as a student and a person.

Mohamad-Baasim Rehan

High School: Mill Creek

Extracurricular Activities: Founder and Captain of Mill Creek Cricket Club, Member of Beta Club, Captain of Science Olympiad, President of Spanish National Honors Society, Intern at electrical engineering firm EDEC Inc., Member of National Honors Society

College: Georgia Tech

Planned studies: Electrical Engineering

Best advice about succeeding:

Having a good work ethic is the most important thing for trying to be successful in anything you want to achieve. This involves studying if you want to get good grades, working hard at your job to get promoted, or practicing often to be the best player on your team.

Advice to freshmen:

Get involved in your school and find one activity that you have a passion for and want to do for the rest of your high school years. This will keep you relaxed, help you create lasting friendships, and overall, make high school much more fun.

Suk Joon Na

High School: Duluth High School

Extracurricular Activities: orchestra (violin), Science Olympiad, National Honors Society and Duluth Student LEAD

College: Georgia Tech (Stamps Presidential Scholar)

Planned Studies: Engineering
Best advice about succeeding:

If you focus too much on the far future, you'll miss the smaller, more immediate steps that are needed to get there.

Advice to freshmen:

Never pass on opportunities. Seize them—they don't come by everyday.

Alice Peng

School: Norcross High School

Extracurricular Activities: National Art Honor Society, French Honor Society

College: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Planned studies: art history and pre-med

Best advice about succeeding:

Success is a consequence of hard work, not a goal to work towards. Instead, work harder to be a little bit better everyday.

Advice to freshmen:

Be open to new experiences and people, you never know what the future holds. Also, remember that everything is less important than it seems in the moment!

Sabarish Sainathan

High School: Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology

Extracurricular activities: Math Team, Technology Student Association, Science Olympiad, Science Bowl, National Honor Society, Beta Club, Boy Scouts of America

College: Princeton University

Planned studies: computer science

Best advice about succeeding:

My mom often tells me that money, fame, and success don’t last forever.

Education does. She instilled in me the belief that hard work and learning pay dividends that last throughout a person’s life.

Advice to freshmen:

Embrace every opportunity, every friendship, every second of high school. We’re lucky to be amidst funny, friendly classmates and hardworking, dedicated teachers committed to our success. So when you have the chance to learn something new, build something cool, or explore something interesting, take it. Embrace it. After all, high school doesn’t last forever.

Mirela Vojnikovic

High School: Grayson High School

Extracurricular Activities: Beta Club, National Honor Society, Science National Honor Society, Varsity Soccer, Club Soccer

College: Georgia Tech

Planned major: Biomedical Engineering

Best advice about succeeding:

Success is that feeling you have when you go to bed exhausted but still have a smile on your face because you gave the world everything you had to give that day.

Advice to freshmen:

My advice to a freshman would be to live it up because these 4 years go by in a flash. Put yourself out there, meet new people, stay true to yourself, and above all make mistakes. High school is a time to be young not perfect.

Eric Yan

High School: Peachtree Ridge

Extracurricular Activities: National Honor Society president, frisbee team, Mu Alpha Theta vice president, Georgia State University intern

College: Georgia Tech

Planned studies: chemical engineering/biomolecular engineering

Best advice about succeeding: Don't take yourself too seriously and let yourself have fun. To do anything well, you really need to feel passion for it and the only way you feel passion is by being genuine in your actions and pursuits.

Advice for freshmen: Don't confine yourself to a set of expectations or requirements that you need to check off for your college resume. Instead, the best way to differentiate yourself is not to try so hard at it. Being unique comes naturally. It isn't forced.