During Saturday’s virtual graduation commencement, North Oconee High School valedictorian Celina Zhao challenged her graduating peers to make a positive impact on others, even amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
“Lead in the advent of new technologies. Lead in the education of others, and lead in being a new community member,” Zhao said. “Let’s pass on our optimism, our success, our dreams and our kindness to the people we meet and watch the ripple effect spread out.”
North Oconee named Zhao as its valedictorian and Ryan Yang as its salutatorian. Oconee County High School named Evan Brigman as its valedictorian and Maggie Clutter as its salutatorian.
Zhao has earned a variety of STEM-related accolades, including a spot in MIT’s Women’s Technology Program last summer and an April article published in The New York Times. Her essay about ant-like robots was one of eight out of 1,600+ total entries to win the Times’ STEM Writing Contest.
She earned a National Merit Scholarship after being named a finalist. At the Science Olympiad Regional Tournament, she won gold in ornithology (the study of birds) and fourth in protein modeling.
Zhao’s rhetorical essay also won at the Regional Literary Competition, and she was a member of the National Honors Society. She also wrote as a Young Scholar for The Enterprise this school year. Outside of school, she competitively plays piano.
Her club involvement included being the president of both the Science Olympiad chapter at NOHS and the Leo Club, a service-based organization associated with the Oconee Lions Club. She also founded the Humans of Oconee club, a local effort based off of efforts like Humans of New York.
Some of her volunteering efforts included collecting over 500 donated books for the Books for Kids organization via Leo Club and setting up several stations at the STEM nights for Malcom Bridge and Rocky Branch elementary schools.
Zhao will attend MIT. She plans to major in biomedical engineering, with a minor in writing.
She elaborated that biomedical engineering is necessary for public health areas like early cancer detection or testing for COVID-19.
“One team at MIT is developing a new COVID-19 testing tool called STOP (SHERLOCK Testing in One Pot) that can diagnose cases in one hour,” said Zhao, “which could greatly alleviate current testing bottlenecks once further developed.”
Per her interest in scientific journalism, Zhao said she hopes to bridge the divide between the scientific community and the general public.
Yang participated in the Young Leaders Summit Program at The University of Chicago. He was a member of the Technology Student Association.
In sports, he participated in the varsity swim and dive team, and he volunteered with his local food bank.
Yang will attend MIT, and he plans to study computer science and electrical engineering. He said he chose this major as a way to share and grow his creativity.
At seniors’ honors night, Brigman earned awards for excellence in AP Macroeconomics, AP Psychology, Oceanography, Environmental Science and AP European History.
He also participated in Academic Bowl and placed second place overall in the state and seventh place in the business communication category. OCHS’S High-Q academic bowl team, which had previously taken part in televised competitions out of Atlanta, made it to the final four before the competition was suspended.
As well, he continued tutoring fellow students through senior year. Brigman will attend the University of Georgia and will major in math.
“I chose this major because I had several wonderful math teachers who inspired me to pursue the subject,” he said.
Clutter was the Rotary Student of the Semester for Fall 2019. She participated in the Young Dawgs Program both semesters, where she conducted research in the Biomembranes Engineering laboratory at UGA.
She was a member of the National Honor Society as well as Beta Club, where she served as an officer. She also tutored students and volunteered with Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission and her church, The Catholic Center at UGA.
As for athletic endeavors, Clutter ran varsity cross country for the high school.
She will attend Georgia Tech and major in environmental engineering and minor in computational data analysis.
“I want to study Environmental Engineering because I am passionate about safeguarding the world's natural resources for generations to come,” Clutter said. “I hope to one day find inexpensive, readily implemented solutions for urban dwellers to purchase to help specifically promote urban sustainability.”