Success has many meanings for the Class of '95. It can't be gauged solely by SAT scores or class rankings. For some of this year's area high school graduates, success has meant coping with a foreign culture. For others, it has meant accepting family responsibilities, or balancing extracurricular activities with academic obligations. For others still, it has meant overcoming learning or physical disabilities.
As graduation ceremonies in the Baltimore area wind up this week, students have much to celebrate. A high school graduation is a landmark moment, a successful passage into one's future. The following profiles pay tribute to success in its many forms, and reveal dreams for the future. Here's to the Class of '95.
Tia Melvin, Bel Air High School, Harford County
Her father is a colonel in the Army and a former professor at the U.S. Military Academy, so Tia Melvin knew what to expect when she accepted an appointment to West Point. "I think I need the discipline," she says. Those are surprising words coming from a young woman who was co-captain of Bel Air High's track team, president of the school's Students Against Drunk Driving chapter, student government representative, first clarinet in the school band, and peer instructional aide, all while maintaining a 3.69 grade-point average. Although women cadets make up only about 10 percent of the enrollment at West Point, Tia is confident that she will be able to handle the challenges. After all, attending West Point is something she has wanted to do since she was in fifth grade.
Vinh Nguyen, Oakland Mills High School, Howard County
Vinh Nguyen considers himself lucky just to be alive. At the age of 16, he was facing conscription in the Vietnamese army, which had imprisoned his father for seven years. Rather than accept this fate, Vinh, along with his father, flung himself into a tiny boat packed with 50 other people and cast off in search of freedom. Several people died on the trip, but after three days the boat washed ashore safely in Indonesia. Vinh and his father were held in a refugee camp for three years. They were granted political asylum in the United States two years ago. When he arrived here to live with his aunt in Columbia, Vinh did not speak English. He entered high school at the 11th-grade level and studied in a program for students for whom English was a second language. His English improved to the point where he was mainstreamed this year, and he responded by getting mostly A's. Vinh is working part time as a clerk at Giant Food, saving money so he can study chemical engineering at Howard Community College this fall. His mother, brother and sister are still in Vietnam, and more than anything, Vinh wants them to come to America. "I miss them so much," he says.
Alvin Fields, Forest Park High School, Baltimore
While many high school graduates will be hitting the beach or lounging around the swimming pool this summer, Alvin Fields will be grunting and groaning his way through basic training at an Army base somewhere. He wouldn't have it any other way. Three years ago, Alvin didn't have any idea what he wanted to do with his life. A friend introduced him to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), and since then he has blossomed. Alvin became a committed member of the ROTC drill team at Forest Park, and was in a national competition this spring. His short-term goal is to become a member of the Army Rangers, a specially trained group of soldiers. He eventually wants to become an FBI agent.
Sarah Dyky, Westminster High School, Carroll County
You could say that Sarah Dyky cooked her way through school. She was grand champion in the edible-art category of a 4-H cooking contest last year with a face made of leeks, eggs, ginger, onion and celery. The award was just one of many she has won recently. She also was recently selected as one of Maryland's top youth entrepreneurs by the state Department of Economic and Employment Development. (She operates her own catering business with her sister.) Sarah, who has been baking since she was 3, considers food an art form. She specializes in making creative pastries and desserts, including an award-winning angel food cake. This fall Sarah is headed to Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., to study baking and pastry arts.
Amy Brown, Hereford High School, Harford County
You have to hand it to someone who spends much of her free time kayaking on white-water rivers and still ends up as valedictorian of her graduating class. That's Amy Brown, who also is a pianist, an artist and was supervisor of a recycling program at Hereford. On most weekends, you can find Amy kayaking on the Potomac River below Great Falls, hurtling down white water between huge boulders in a tiny fiberglass boat. Amy also travels around the country to enter races. She currently ranks 15th in the nation, and qualified for the U.S. Junior Kayaking Team, which will tour Europe this fall. Back in the academic world, Amy won a presidential scholarship and will study environmental science at American University in Washington this fall -- partly because it's close to the roaring waters of the Potomac.
Mike Wiener, Liberty High School, Carroll County
Getting his diploma was the main reason, of course, that Mike Wiener looked forward to his graduation. But he had another important reason for being happy about coming out of high school. From the age of 6, Mike has been fascinated by motorcycles and wanted nothing more than to go on a long motorcycle trip. After Mike had pestered his family repeatedly, his father promised that when Mike graduated from high school the two of them would take a trip. Ten years after that promise was made, Mike is going to realize his dream. He and his father are borrowing a pair of Suzukis and taking a 900-mile trip to Florida this summer to visit Mike's grandmother. To prepare for the trip, the two took a motorcycle-safety course together, and rented the film "Easy Rider." Soon, it will be time to get their motors running. "This is my dream," says Mike, who figures he was born to be wild. This fall, he will pursue another dream and study computer science at Frostburg State University.
Chris and Megan Kennedy, Atholton High School, Howard County
Chris and Megan Kennedy went to the same high school and live in the same house. But they are not brother and sister, they are husband and wife. And they have an 8-month old daughter, Paige. When Megan became pregnant, some of her schoolmates thought she should have an abortion. When she and Chris, both 18, announced instead that they were getting married, she heard grumblings that they wouldn't make it. But thanks to support from both sets of parents, the Kennedys have managed to juggle the complex responsibilities of marriage and parenthood, while completing their high-school education and working part time. Both Megan and Chris plan to study at Howard Community College. She expects to study nursing and he will be taking business courses there this fall.
Brandi Gaudet, Friends School, Baltimore
A radio advertisement changed Brandi Gaudet's life. She heard an ad for a modeling audition in Washington. Although she was already busy with soccer, drama club and studio art at Friends School, she decided to give modeling a shot, purely on a whim. That was two years ago. She's since appeared in several magazines, including Self and Bride's, and has been contacted by agencies from around the world. She has post-graduation trips planned to Tokyo, Milan, Italy; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Paris. Brandi finds all the attention flattering and exciting, but has no illusions about the modeling industry. "If you get a pimple, it's the end of the world," she says. She wants to model to make quick money and to see the world, but her real passion lies in environmental science, which she will study at New York University this fall.
Erica Johnson, Western High School, Baltimore
Erica Johnson's resume is already getting crowded: vice president of the National Honor Society, editor of her school's newspaper, yearbook and literary magazine, member of the "It's Academic" team, top-seeded singles tennis player, accomplished pianist, recipient of a full scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Virginia this fall. Erica also worked on a book that will commemorate the 150th anniversary of Western High School. With all that going on, what will she do this summer? Find a part-time job to save money for college, of course.
Ginamarie Best, Howard High School, Howard County
Ginamarie Best dropped out of school in the ninth grade and was drifting aimlessly through life, mostly hanging out at malls. Then she became pregnant and she had to face the responsibility of raising Taylor, her daughter. With the help of Taylor's paternal grandmother, with whom she lives, she was able to get her life straightened out. She completed four years of high school in just two years by attending classes from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. Ginamarie works part time at a store in Columbia and plans to study fashion merchandising and business. One day, instead of hanging out in the mall, Ginamarie Best hopes to be managing her own clothing store in one. "I've come a long way," she says.
Nakeesha Johnson, Annapolis High School, Anne Arundel County
Societal problems can be addressed through art, Nakeesha Johnson believes. She has seen at close range the problems facing many teens, and devotes much of her energy to addressing these issues through her work on stage and in film. She was in a play this year called "Fantasy," which shows how drugs can take over a person's life, and she recently completed a short film called "Mentality," which examines 13 teens and their apathy toward society. Apathy is not a part of Nakeesha's life. She was senior class president at Annapolis High, a member of the drama club and a peer counselor in a school-based support group called Committed Black Women. Nakeesha has been awarded a full scholarship to Howard University to study communications. She plans a career as a documentary filmmaker.
Raju Shah, Meade High School, Anne Arundel County
As the son of first-generation immigrants, Raju Shah encountered prejudice growing up in Anne Arundel County. He heard racist remarks hurled at himself and other people of Indian descent, and he sometimes got into fistfights as a result. But lately he has made nonviolence a primary focus of his extremely busy life. He and his family are involved in Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that includes the principle of ahisma, or nonviolence. A Maryland Distinguished Scholar Finalist who ranked first in his graduating class, Raju won a scholarship to attend Yale University, where he will study computer science, math and pre-law. He wants eventually to work on the Internet computer system to create links between countries -- as a way of promoting cultural understanding and combating prejudice.
Erin Fitzgerald, Harford Technical High School, Harford County
Like many high school graduates, Erin Fitzgerald wants to see the world. Her way of seeing it, however, will be anything but typical. Erin will be one of only a handful of females on the crew of a freighter. She was recently accepted into the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, where fewer than 5 percent of the students are women. "I don't expect any problems," she says. Erin is interested in drafting and mechanical engineering, and as part of her senior research project at Harford Tech, she designed a handicap-access ramp for the school. She'd eventually like to design ships.
Fred Wallace, Mount St. Joseph High School, Baltimore
When Fred Wallace's family moved from Edmondson Village to Woodlawn after he finished the eighth grade, he not only changed from a city environment to a suburban one but switched from a public to a parochial school as well, Mount St. Joseph High School. The change from city to suburbs was difficult for him, and he also had to struggle initially to keep up with the college-preparatory pace at Mount St. Joseph. On top of those problems, he found it unsettling going from a predominantly African-African school to a predominantly white one. That led him to become co-president of Mount St. Joseph's Cultural Awareness Club, which promotes racial harmony among students. In time, things fell into place for Fred. Now he's ready to tackle new challenges. He plans to attend college in the fall and study business. His career goal? To manage his own limousine or tour bus service. His plans for this summer are much simpler: He just wants to go hang gliding.
Cheyenne Ward, Harbor City Learning Center, Baltimore
The hardest thing Cheyenne Ward ever had to do was make a call to the Department of Social Services and report her mother. Two years ago, Cheyenne felt that her mother was not taking adequate care of her two youngest children. A judge agreed, and granted Cheyenne custody of her sisters, ages 7 and 11. At age 18, Cheyenne Ward instantly grew up. Every morning, she got herself ready for school and then took care of her sisters. After school, Cheyenne met them back at her apartment and cared for them during the evening, while also doing her homework. Now that she has graduated from Harbor City Learning Center, an alternative school for at-risk students, Cheyenne plans to go to college this fall. She hopes to become a social worker, she says, so she can help others as a social worker once helped her.
Tameika Lunn, Bryn Mawr School, Baltimore
Perhaps music is in Tameika Lunn's blood: Her grandfather was in a jazz group and her father likes to sing. Tameika has performed with Dayseye, an a cappella group at Bryn Mawr, and sings in the choir at St. James' Episcopal Church. Her other love is politics -- she was student government president at Bryn Mawr. This fall, she'll study both music and politics, attending the Peabody Conservatory and Johns Hopkins University in a five-year dual-degree program. As for her singing, she wants to continue to perform. "It's very spiritual to me," she explains. "Singing allows me to express every feeling I have."
Vivian Curry, South River High School, Anne Arundel County
Instead of cruising the mall like many teen-agers, Vivian Curry cruised the corridors of power in Annapolis during her high-school years. As a lobbyist for the state Student Government Association, Vivian talked with legislators and testified before committees on a regular basis, giving a student's perspective on pending legislation. Next up: Washington. Vivian wants to get a summer internship on Capitol Hill. She'll attend the University of Maryland College Park in the fall and eventually would like to get a law degree.
Sean Harrison, Severna Park High School, Anne Arundel County
For much of Sean Harrison's younger years, a severe speech problem made it difficult for him to express himself. He was held back in second grade and had to undergo speech therapy from then until the 10th grade. Sean eventually overcame his speech disability, and served as the student representative to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education for the past two years. This summer, he hopes to get an internship with the Board of Education and continue his work on curriculum development. In the fall, he will study biology at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., in preparation for a career as a biological researcher or doctor.
Ted Lord, Gilman School, Baltimore
Ted Lord once spent four days alone in the woods during a snowstorm, living under a plastic tarp. "I read books; it sort of appealed to me," he says. This summer Ted, who was president of his class at Gilman, is looking forward to similarly grueling, but enriching, experiences in the Outward Bound program, a course that teaches leadership and mountaineering skills. But before he heads for the mountains of Washington state and Outward Bound, Ted will be off to a friend's cattle ranch Arizona. Then he'll have an internship as a nurse's assistant at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. This fall, he will be headed for the University of North Carolina on a scholarship. Ted, who eventually wants to study medicine, enjoys the frenetic pace of his life -- he was also a champion cross-country and indoor-track runner at Gilman.
Sarah Burns, St. Paul's School for Girls, Baltimore County
This summer, Sarah Burns is going on a mission. She and a group of people from Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church will build a soccer field in a tiny refugee village in El Salvador. They will also distribute to the villagers much-needed used eyeglasses that they collected in Maryland. Sarah is looking forward to meeting people from a different culture and trying to communicate with them. Communication is a passion of hers; she will study it at Clemson University in the fall. Her other passion is the environment. As a member of St. Paul's environmental club, she helped to organize projects that monitored water quality and tested product safety.
Samantha Smithwick, Woodlawn High School, Baltimore County
From the time she was a little girl and watched ballet dancers on television, Samantha Smithwick wanted to be a dancer. For the past 11 years, she has danced with the Sharon Colston Dance Troupe. This summer, she will attend a dance camp at Towson State University and work part time as a secretary. In the fall, she's off to the University of Maryland College Park to study accounting so she can one day realize her dream of owning a dance school. Samantha wants to help other children pursue their own dreams of dancing. Helping youth is a common theme in her life. At Woodlawn High, she helped raise funds for the school's One Hundred Strong Female Role Models group.
Nia Gantt, Wilde Lake High School, Howard County
Nia Gantt used to love to play sports. She made Wilde Lake's varsity lacrosse team as a sophomore, but suddenly she had to drop out of school. Nia was diagnosed with bone cancer in her leg and underwent surgery and a yearlong regimen of chemotherapy. For six months she couldn't even bend her knee. During Nia's entire junior year, tutors came to her house and teachers sent work to her. In her senior year, she returned to school, where she was extremely active once again. This time, it wasn't the lacrosse team but the National Honor Society and the senior class council that Nia devoted her energies to. She will attend Howard University to study physical therapy in the fall. She made that decision because a physical therapist helped her walk again. "I don't take little things for granted anymore," says Nia.
James Nealy, North Harford High School, Harford County
The college that James Nealy wants to attend has a rigorous, and unusual, application process. After a long interview with college officials, James had to paint his face, act silly and make the officials laugh. After all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Clown College doesn't take just any clown off the street. James is a self-described high-school class clown who wants to go pro. If he's accepted to Clown College, he must complete an eight-week course before hitting the road, traveling across the country in a 5-by-7 foot train compartment 340 days a year. "People think I'm nuts," he says. "But in what other job can you smash a pie into your boss' face and not get fired, but promoted?"
Alex Padgett, Friends School, Baltimore
When inspiration comes to Alex Padgett, he grabs his guitar and writes a song. Alex is bass player in a band called Erebus, a tech-metal group whose sound he calls "tough." Although he also played on Friends' tennis team, music is his consuming passion. He played bass in the pit orchestra for the school's production of "Oklahoma!" and for his senior project, he designed and built speaker cabinets. Alex hopes to expand his musical interests by studying acoustical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He'd like to design speakers and concert halls eventually.
PHILIP HOSMER is a free-lance writer living in Harford County.