10 Teens to Watch
If you have ever been tempted to dismiss the young, prepare yourself for a refreshing change of perspective. These Fairfield teens are impressive for many reasons, and not just because they’ve discovered and honed natural talents at a young age.
Photographs by William Taufic
1. Katherine Mahder
Fairfield Ludlowe High School
As an accomplished scholar-athlete, Katherine Mahder always appreciated the roar of the crowd. “I know what it’s like to be on that field and how motivating it can be to hear those cheers,” she says.
When an injury sidelined her during the fall of her senior year, the former cocaptain of Fairfield Ludlowe High School’s girls’ soccer and basketball teams put her recovery time to good use: She founded Ludlowe’s Spirit Club, to boost lackluster attendance at Falcons’ sporting events.
“It bothered me when I would go to football games and no one was there. I wanted us to have that sense of community,” she says. Katherine got the spirit ball rolling with efforts that included a successful Facebook campaign. “It was something everyone in the school could be part of. They realized they didn’t have to be an athlete to come out and cheer.”
Katherine’s infectious school spirit continues now at Providence College, where she hopes to combine her love of history and children with her education studies. Katherine has already worked exclusively with kids as a mentor at McKinley Elementary School, a summer camp counselor at local country clubs, and as a student intern at Riverfield Elementary. In June, she was named Keystoner of the Year for her volunteer service at the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club.
A “dream job” would be teaching history at her alma mater or perhaps inspiring the younger set in one of Fairfield’s public elementary schools. “I love this town,” she says.
2. Alex Beyer
Fairfield Warde High School
Alex Beyer could have been starting classes at Harvard University this fall, but this extraordinarily talented classical pianist deferred his Ivy League admission for a gap year to explore his abundant musical gifts. After graduating from Fairfield Warde High School in June, Alex planned to showcase the musicianship that led to his selection as an elite 2012 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, in a series of international competitions.
He accepted a fellowship this summer at the acclaimed Folger Music Festival in New Jersey (full scholarship, of course) and plans to intern at the Stamford Symphony under its innovative conductor, Eckart Preu. In the spring, he’s headed to
Germany to study.
At just eighteen and a graduate of a Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program, Alex has already had an extraordinary career. He’s tickled the ivories in front of symphony audiences in Milwaukee, Hartford, Charlotte, North Carolina, and closer to home in Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury. “I love the overlay of the orchestra with the piano. It adds a richness and texture I don’t experience otherwise,” he says.
Alex was a top-ranked boys’ tennis player until the piano became an all-consuming passion. “I practice six, sometimes eight, hours a day. There’s no time for anything else,” he says.
Yet such singular devotion didn’t keep Alex from achieving academic brilliance. His favorite Warde class was AP environmental science and he plans to major in earth and planetary science at Harvard. “I like a strong academic perspective,” he explains.
3. Meredith Stuhlman
Fairfield Ludlowe High School
Seventeen-year-old Meredith Stuhlman possesses a healthy perspective. This past summer the Fairfield Ludlowe senior was involved in medical research as part of Discovery to Cure, an elite Yale University School of Medicine internship that brings together a select group of international high school students to work with researchers combating women's reproductive cancers, including ovarian cancer. And in summer 2011 she interned alongside University of Connecticut medical students to bring basic health care to migrant berry and tobacco farm workers. UConn’s Center for Public Health and Health Policy and the Connecticut Area Health Education Center’s Migrant Farm Workers’ Clinics provide primary care and oral health screenings for up to 600 farm workers annually.
“Some of these men had very serious medical conditions—diabetes, dangerously high blood pressure—and yet they had no access to preventive health care or medicine,” she explains. “They were so disenfranchised; even getting a routine prescription to control their symptoms was daunting for them.”
While contemplating a career in the health sciences, this well-rounded student—who also plays the violin in Ludlowe’s Chamber Orchestra—is not necessarily seeking M.D. credentials. “I am interested in a more holistic career where you are attending to people’s physical and emotional needs. I like the idea of nursing or becoming a physician’s assistant.”
4. Mark Whittaker
Greens Farms Academy
Twelve-hour school days at Greens Farms Academy (GFA) are not unusual for Mark Whittaker, whose curiosity for just about everything seems insatiable. “My attitude about high school is, now’s the time to explore and figure out your passions.”
So far, the list of good fits is pretty long for affable Mark. He speaks Chinese and French, plays varsity golf, runs cross-country and represents GFA as a competitor on The Challenge team that matches wits against other local schools on Cablevision’s News 12. (Math and European history are his strong suits in those intellectual sparring contests.)
Also, last year Mark founded GFA’s chapter of the Congressional Awards Club. He says he was drawn to the national program’s emphasis on public service through volunteerism. Speaking of community service, Mark practices that near and far—he’s worked in impoverished villages in Ecuador and Nicaragua for Builders Beyond Borders and on campus for GFA’s Horizons mentoring program.
Even though he keeps a schedule that would have most adults hitting the snooze button, Mark is also an enthusiastic member of the Beachside Express, GFA’s a cappella singing ensemble.
5. Christina Hwang
Fairfield Warde High School
Christina’s parents, Grace and Tony, fell in love when they were students at Cornell University. But since Christina likes to forge her own path, she wasn’t sure the legacy route was the right one. “But I went to see the campus and said, ‘Now I know why they were so happy here.’ I loved it too,” she says.
So Cornell it is for Christina, eighteen, who excelled at Fairfield Warde High School with exceptional grades and an impressively diverse list of extracurricular accomplishments. A devoted classical pianist since age six, Christina also hit high notes with her community service. In lieu of a sweet sixteen party, she spent her birthday fixing up battered homes in Appalachia.
“The idea of me banging nails is kind of hilarious if you know me. I didn’t even own hiking boots, but I feel like we are so lucky to live in a community like Fairfield. It’s important to realize just how much we have,” she explains.
She also logged more hours of service as a student mentor at McKinley Elementary School than any of her fellow volunteer peers did; a distinction that was recently honored by the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club.
Christina’s after-school job at Billy’s Bakery planted the seed for another good deed: “I noticed at the end of the day we were tossing away bread, bagels and croissants because we bake fresh each morning,” she says. So she started a one-person “Bread Brigade” and delivers excess bakery stock to support programs such as Operation Hope. “It takes a fifteen-minute drive out of my way to do something good,” she says.
The daughter of a long-serving state representative, Christina naturally possesses a growing interest in public service: “But if I did go into politics, it would be on my own terms.”
6. Hayden Zelson
Fairfield Country Day School
T he best advice Hayden ever got at Fairfield Country Day School came from the head of its upper school, Cliff Paige, who encouraged him to “get writing.” Eventually, Hayden took the advice so seriously he became editor-in-chief of FCDS’s daily electronic newspaper, The E-Blotter.
When he wasn’t researching and drafting his own posts, Hayden gained insights into the trials and tribulations of many a veteran newshound. “The hardest part of my job was wrangling up my team of writers,” says Hayden. The fifteen-year-old aspiring journalist finds the daily demands of reporting and editing stories satisfying. “It’s got to get done and it makes you very focused in everything you do,” he explains.
Now at Choate Rosemary Hall, Hayden tends to be most intrigued by international news, an interest that makes perfect sense in the context of a relatively new passion (and helpful skill as a foreign correspondent): his independent, intensive and self-initiated study of Russian. “My family originally came from Russia, but no one can speak it anymore,” he says. “I thought it was kind of sad that we lost the language through the generations.”
7. Mary Boyle
Notre Dame High School
Mary displays her Roman Catholic faith in many ways like on a silver religious charm that adorns her neck and a bracelet strung with colorful, beaded images of saints. Yet for the recent Notre Dame High School graduate, faith is much more than a hip accessory. “I don’t believe in just talking about your faith,” Mary says.
amed the class of 2012’s “Most Outstanding Senior,” Mary’s high school career was testimony to her devout spirit. A student moderator of Notre Dame’s campus ministry, Mary spent summers fixing roofs on the dilapidated homes of rural Appalachia and working with special-needs children locally at Camp Fun in the Sun. It was there that Mary, eighteen, was intrigued by the work of the occupational therapists who teach the physically challenged how to make life-changing adaptations. She particularly enjoyed watching those therapists work with kids: “I like the idea of making it a game while you teach them new ways to use their bodies and strengthen their muscles.”
This fall Mary plans to begin prepping for an occupational therapy career at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, a school thoughtfully chosen for its strong OT program and Catholic affiliation. If Misericordia doesn’t have an Ultimate Frisbee team, expect Mary to do exactly what she did at Notre Dame: She starts a club. “I’m pretty serious about my frisbee,” she says.
8. Derek Chu
Fairfield Ludlowe High School
Four hours of swim training a day did not keep Ludlowe High School alumnus Derek Chu from diving into the books too. He graduated in June holding a full academic scholarship to Boston’s Northeastern University and enough college credit earned from his heavy load of advanced placement classes (thirteen total his junior and senior year) to potentially abbreviate his undergraduate years. “I have a good chance of graduating in three [years],” he says.
When Derek sat for his AP exams, the National Merit Scholar scored perfect 5’s on four of them—so far. “It was actually fun,” Derek says of those intimidating tests.
Derek is used to going the distance. As cocaptain of Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde’s joint boys’ swim team, Derek excelled in longer, freestyle races that demand stamina. To train, Derek would hit the blocks daily at 5:15 a.m. for a two-hour swim before school and again after classes for two more hours. “Being that busy just helped me focus more,” he insists.
Since he excels in all subjects, Derek could easily segue into any academic discipline, but he’s eyeing a career in business or finance. “It draws on all the things that interest me,” he says.
9. Suzy McGrath
Greens Farms Academy
When Suzy is curious about something, the Greens Farms Academy senior goes exploring. Her far-flung travels have taken her from Peru (freshman year) to Ecuador (sophomore) and Nicaragua (junior) as a passionate volunteer for Builders Beyond Borders, a service corps that engages high school students in community action and construction projects in impoverished communities.
“I love to travel, but it’s more than that,” says Suzy, of her philanthropic global adventures. “When I don’t understand something, or I’m curious, I just jump in to find out more.”
Last year, that adventurous spirit took GFA’s varsity soccer forward to the base of the Himalayan mountains, where she spent an exchange semester studying at an Indian boarding school. With roommates from all corners of India and classmates from around the globe, Suzy’s quest for a “big change of scene” from Fairfield and GFA was completely fulfilled. “It was a huge challenge in that I’ve gone to the same school for years. I’ve never had to start over before. But it made that big world we think we live on seem smaller and smaller,” she says.
Expect Suzy’s future to hold no boundaries: She hopes to somehow pair her interest in developing countries with her passion for environmental science.
10. Michael Whelan
A lot of Michael Whelan’s former Fairfield Prep classmates tune into ESPN for the morning sports-news version of cold pizza. Not Michael. “I would rather read the New York Times or the opinion section of the Economist,” says the eighteen-year-old, who asked for (and received) that highbrow publication as a birthday gift.
“I’m just the polar opposite of a lot of kids,” he says. So far, this Georgetown University freshman’s intellectually free spirit has served him well. As a top-ranked graduate of Prep’s Class of 2012, Michael distinguished himself by writing opinions for the Zeitgeist, the journal of its Political Awareness Club. He also hit his stride as a member of its state championship cross-country team. “I wasn’t the fastest runner, but it was exciting to be part of the effort,” he says.
As intrigued as he is by politics, Michael envisions a role as a policy maker rather than a handshaking, trailblazing campaigner (although he’s certainly charming enough to be the latter.) “I consider my views on issues one-by-one and don’t like to take a stand because it fits into a certain political viewpoint,” he explains.
He once considered a career in architecture, “but since I just can’t draw, I see myself more as a city or transportation planner,” he says. “When I was little, trains and cars fascinated me, and now it’s evolved into more of a visionary thing.” Expect his cityscapes to always be well-considered.