Raphael Brisson: Portland High School

Photo by Ben McCanna

Raphael Brisson knows the value of having a stable home.

Born in Massachusetts, into a family of hard-working Haitian immigrants, Brisson cycled in and out of homelessness many times in his young life. Limited to minimum-wage jobs, his single mother struggled to keep a roof over his head, he said, then health problems made it impossible.

“We slept at various hotels, and crashed at so many different houses, that I could not even remember the names of the people who lived there,” Brisson wrote in college applications. “Some nights I had to wonder if we would have to sleep in the car, or if we would have to go beg for food from the local Wendy’s with just a few bucks and change.”

Eventually, their car got repossessed, so Brisson’s mother “took a chance on the universe” and moved to Portland, heeding the advice of friends. After three months in the family shelter here, they found an apartment in public housing. It was the fall of 2017 and Brisson enrolled as a freshman at Portland High School.

“We were finally housed for the first time in over a year,” Brisson said. “The feeling has been so great and I have never felt so secure in my life.”

At Portland High, Brisson proved himself to be a stand-out student, athlete and community leader. He excelled in honors, Advanced Placement and virtual college courses offered through the University of Maine System. He was a member of the Black Student Union and participated in indoor track until knee injuries put him out of competition.

He was a volunteer intern at Planned Parenthood, served meals at the Preble Street soup kitchen and regularly met with eighth-graders interested in attending Portland High. He previously worked with Cultivating Community, preparing meals delivered to people in need, and now works as a sales associate at JCPenney.

He plans to study nursing at Northeastern University, hoping to fulfill his family’s wish that he have a medical career and his personal goal to never be homeless again.

“I’ve always been motivated to work to make sure I stay out of that situation, and I really want to help people in the way that I have been helped with my medical issues in the past,” Brisson said, referring to serious bouts of pneumonia and two dislocated knees.

“I barely saw the doctor at all when I was in the hospital,” Brisson said. “It was mostly the nurses who took care of me. I want people to know they are being taken care of and they are going to be OK.”


Jane Dawson: Freeport High School

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Jane Dawson has learned a thing or two about political negotiations in the last few months.

As a proponent of a bill to establish a Maine Youth Impact Commission, Dawson watched during legislative committee meetings as some lawmakers questioned whether the commission would become a launching pad for left-leaning activism. And so the bill was amended and the proposed advisory panel was renamed the Maine Youth Workforce and Economic Development Commission.

Undeterred, Dawson remains hopeful that the bipartisan commission will be approved and provide an avenue for Mainers ages 15 to 35 to influence policymaking that directly affects them. After all, she said, the issues that many young people are interested in, such as climate change, voter access, living wages, and racial and gender equity, directly relate to workforce and economic development.

“I’m hoping the commission will still be able to do much of that work,” said Dawson, who is graduating from Freeport High School. “I think it still has the potential to create a more front-facing place for young people in the Legislature.”

Dawson’s work with Maine Youth Power, a group promoting the bill, shows how marginalized groups are organizing to ensure that lawmakers understand the slogan, “Nothing about us without us.” And it has been good training for Dawson, a Pownal resident who plans to study international relations and mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

For those who don’t see a connection between international relations and math, Dawson explains.

“I’ve always been a good math student and I couldn’t imagine going to college without studying math,” she said. “And I’ve always been into the puzzle aspects of both international relations and math, including game theory and risk analysis. But really, I just love math.”

In addition to being a founding member of Maine Youth Power, Dawson is a planning board member with Maine Environmental Education Association Changemakers, a youth voting organizer with JustME for JustUS, and a student member of American-Iraqi Public Health Teams organized by United Planet.

At Freeport High, she’s president of her class and the Interact and Earth clubs. She’s also captain of the varsity Nordic skiing and cross-country running teams, and a member of the Coastal Youth Orchestra, Wescustago Youth Chorale and the National Academy of American History and Civics. And she works each summer at the East Boothbay General Store as a barista and cook.

She credits her parents and other mentors for “always encouraging me to speak up and be confident” and demonstrating “how to lead as a human who sees a need to do good in the world.”


Christiana Gannon: Portland Arts and Technology High School

Photo by Brianna Soukup

Christiana Gannon doesn’t let what other people think keep her from reaching her goals.

So when a friend told her she was taking a welding course at Portland Arts and Technology High School, Gannon set out to learn more about the program and what classes she might take there, too. It didn’t matter that scheduling conflicts make it difficult for college-bound students to attend PATHS.

Working around her honors and Advance Placement classes at Portland High School, Gannon enrolled in the carpentry program at PATHS and became a top student there. She distinguished herself as a creative and determined learner, team leader and mentor to other students. And she was named 2021 Student of the Year by both PATHS and the MELMAC Education Foundation, an organization that supports career and technical education across Maine.

Carpentry was a natural fit for Gannon, who enjoys working with her hands.

“Initially I wanted to flip houses,” she said, referring to the process of buying rundown properties and fixing them up to sell for a profit.

“But I also wanted to be involved in designing them,” she said, which is why she plans to study architecture at the University of Oregon.

Gannon, who also played varsity girls’ ice hockey and softball, was attracted to the carpentry program because she knows several people who work in construction and other building trades, including an uncle and several women.

“All of these women around me were really smart and they had these skills,” she said. “If I’m not happy designing, then I want to be able to go out and build structures. Some people look down on construction, but there’s an art to it. Plus, it’ll be nice to be able to fix things around the house, and it’s a skill people are always going to need.”

While studying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gannon buckled down and completed the first-year certification course with the National Center for Construction Education & Research, then started on the second-year course. She also works two days a week at Windham Mill Works, applying the skills she learned at PATHS, and serves ice cream at Sammy’s Scoops.

Gannon said she is inspired by her mother, Ann Christie, a psychologist who “does a lot for a lot of people,” and she’s looking forward to traveling out West for college.

“I want an adventure,” Gannon said. “I want to go so many places and learn so many things.”


Elizabeth Goodrich: North Yarmouth Academy

Photo by Gregory Rec

Elizabeth “E-Beth” Goodrich turned a traumatic sports injury into her mission in life.

In 2019, following a season-ending concussion during an ice hockey game, the North Yarmouth Academy student spearheaded a now-annual partnership with The Headway Foundation to raise awareness of “the new tough” attitude about concussion injuries.

Goodrich received her concussion during her sophomore year, then returned to competition that spring, playing lacrosse despite still feeling unwell. Concussion can cause temporary loss of consciousness, with other symptoms including confusion, vomiting, headache, nausea, depression, disturbed sleep, moodiness, and amnesia. Some symptoms can be long-lasting.

While playing lacrosse that spring, she suffered an ACL injury, damaging the anterior cruciate ligament that stabilizes the knee. Again, she was out of competition. But the second injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise, she said, giving her time to heal more fully and realize that the months following her concussion were some of the darkest she’d ever experienced.

“I felt like a lot of people didn’t really understand what I was going through, and I didn’t want people to think I was weak, so I forced myself to smile and pushed through each day, despite the pain I was feeling,” Goodrich said. “Though my symptoms seemed to be improving, I still felt an emptiness inside.”

With The Headway Foundation, Goodrich regularly educates athletes and others about concussion, an injury that she says is generally overlooked and misunderstood. Her goal is to inspire other athletes to be #newtough and create a safer sports culture that takes concussions seriously.

“My hope is that I can prevent others from feeling the same way,” Goodrich said. “With concussions, it really is up to the athlete to let people know how they’re feeling. Whenever we play sports we take a risk of getting injured. I want to get rid of the stigma of being seen as weak if you report being in pain.”

And if others see an athlete get hit, Goodrich said, “speak up for them, because they won’t always speak up for themselves.”

An award-winning student and athlete who also played soccer, Goodrich plans to study applied exercise science and physical therapy at the University of New England and work with athletes in the future. She’s most grateful to her parents, who moved from Waterboro to Cumberland so she and her brother wouldn’t have to travel so far to attend NYA.

“I just want to make them proud with everything I do,” she said, “for all the sacrifices they made and all the opportunities they’ve given me.”


Tatiana Jonk: Gorham High School

Photo by Carl D. Walsh

Ten years ago Tatiana Jonk was living in an orphanage in Bogata, Colombia.

A few months later, she and her two older brothers were walking across a stage, participating in an adoption ceremony. She describes the moment as if she were born again. It’s also the foundation of everything she has accomplished at Gorham High School and in the wider community, including as co-founder of GARD, Gorham’s Anti-Racism Development action group.

“I believe in second chances,” Jonk said. “My second chance was being adopted. It was like a rebirth.”

Jonk (pronounced Yonk) and her brothers had been at the orphanage for three years, the final stretch of what she calls their “humble beginnings.” They became a family again when they were adopted by Yvonne Jonk, a public health research professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Jonk wrote about waiting to be adopted in college applications: “From a young age, since the time I was placed in the third institución, I dreamed of being adopted by someone in America because of the education and opportunities everyone in the institución said I could receive. Before going to bed every evening I prayed. Nine-year-old me, on my knees at the foot of my bed. Hands clasped, eyes closed, praying to be adopted by an American family.”

In the United States, Jonk initially struggled to learn English and other subjects. She hit her stride at Gorham High, becoming a top student, joining multiple sports teams, clubs and organizations, and rising to Student Council president.

She organized a recognition program for the high school’s custodial staff and started Pre-Prom Prep to provide free formal wear to students. She is executive director of GARD, which she co-founded in 2020, and she helped draft the school district’s anti-racism policy as a member of the high school’s Civil Rights Team.

She volunteered at the elementary level, teaching Spanish and mentoring a Spanish-speaking student. And she worked part time as a babysitter and a lifeguard, also teaching children to swim.

Jonk plans to study nursing at USM on a four-year merit scholarship and work to address racial inequity in health care. She’s grateful for her mom’s unflagging support and advice to “start small to improve your little part of the world.” And she wouldn’t change a thing about the path she’s traveled so far.

“Everything I’ve gone through, good or bad, has shaped who I am,” Jonk said. “Your past doesn’t have to determine your future. You will succeed if you believe in yourself.”


Aidan Joyce: Scarborough High School

Photo by Brianna Soukup

It might sound old-fashioned, but it’s safe to say Aidan Joyce has a calling.

The Scarborough High School senior has accepted an offer to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a revered institution that typically receives about 12,000 applications per class and accepts about 1,200.

Joyce had a healthy resumé and strong nominations from Maine’s congressional delegation, with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree saying he “has demonstrated an incredible commitment to serving our country and a maturity well beyond his years.”

But he came to see West Point as his school of choice by chance. He was a sophomore when he attended a football game at the campus 60 miles north of New York City. West Point was hosting the team from Colgate University, his grandfather’s alma mater.

“West Point won and I got a taste of campus life there,” Joyce said. “It’s a beautiful campus on the Hudson River and all the cadets were in their dress uniforms. I was really struck by it.”

Joyce wrote about his educational aspirations at West Point in his letter of intent to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins: “Will West Point be an academic challenge? Certainly. But I have always sought and overcome challenges … so I say bring it on.”

Joyce has received a variety of academic and athletic recognition in high school, including being named class salutatorian, playing varsity soccer, lacrosse and indoor track, and serving as co-captain in soccer and lacrosse. He also had summer jobs mowing lawns and working at a kayak rental company in Pine Point, and he volunteered at Maine Veterans’ Homes.

As the only student he knows who is heading into the military, Joyce said he thinks his friends and family recognize that it’s a huge commitment and see it as an honorable thing to do.

Joyce isn’t sure what his major will be, though he’s committed to serving eight years in the Army after graduating from West Point, as required, likely in a combination of active duty and reserve service. He leaves for basic training later this month.

He is certain about what he wants to accomplish as a person, however.

“I want to develop as a leader, whatever I do, first in the Army and then whatever I do afterward,” Joyce said. “I just feel really lucky to live in America and have a privileged life. A lot of that is because of my parents, but it’s also because we live in the United States. I feel a desire and a duty to serve as part of a team and protect our freedoms. I want to give back because I haven’t done anything to deserve this.”


Adam McLeod: Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center

Photo by Gregory Rec

Adam McLeod grew up working on motorcycles, snowmobiles and ATVs in his father’s repair shop, where he saw how often they had to send away for hard-to-find parts that precision machinists would make from scratch.

Now, McLeod is graduating from Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center knowing how to make those parts himself.

Using computer technology, keen eyes and steady hands, McLeod can make engine and other parts that can’t be found in a store or online, saving time and money and sometimes the vehicle itself.

“I can take a block of metal or plastic and turn it into something really useful and highly precise,” McLeod said. “It’s usually within a measurement that’s thinner than a piece of paper, so it’s exact.”

A top student at Sanford High, McLeod completed four dual-enrollment courses at York County Community College and two courses at the technical center – precision manufacturing and welding – which is a rare accomplishment. McLeod is so well-regarded by school faculty, he was included on a staff hiring committee.

He works at his dad’s business, Shawn’s All-Season Sports in Shapleigh, every day after school and on weekends. And since his uncle was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, he has spent a few hours most mornings helping his uncle keep his sandblasting business going during his surgery, chemotherapy and recovery.

McLeod enlisted last year in the Maine Army National Guard and will leave in July for 10 weeks of boot camp in Missouri, followed by eight weeks of training for his role as an equipment operations engineer in the Guard.

When that’s over, he’ll enter the apprentice program at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where he expects his precision manufacturing skills will be put to the test. His long-term goals include joining his father’s business and making precision machine parts a featured aspect of their sports vehicle sales and service.

McLeod said he is most inspired by his father and mother, Cathy, who is an accountant, “for what they’ve built themselves into and the life they created together.”


Swetha Palaniappan: Cape Elizabeth High School

Photo by Ben McCanna

Swetha Palaniappan chose her first science fair topic after she read an article about the growing problem of microplastics in the world’s oceans. She wondered what was happening less than a mile from her home in seaside Cape Elizabeth.

She knew floating plastic trash was accumulating across the globe. The article explained how plastic bottles and bags, which don’t biodegrade, break down into microscopic bits that have become a life-threatening part of marine ecosystems and the food chain.

“I never knew plastics could get so small,” Palaniappan said. “And the more research I did, the more questions I had.”

Over the next three years, her study of microplastics along Maine’s southern coast won annual recognition at the Maine State Science Fair, including first place this year in the environmental sciences category.

As a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School, she measured microplastics in sea water collected at 15 beaches. Bug Light Park in South Portland had the highest numbers – an average of 1,108 microplastics per milliliter – while Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk had the lowest – an average of 20 microplastics per milliliter.

“The samples showed a growing concern to protect our marine ecosystem,” Palaniappan concluded. Junior year, her research showed microplastics caused toxicity and decreased growth in animal cells, and this year, she developed a diagnostic test to detect microplastics in water samples.

Palaniappan admits she had a leg up in the competition because both of her parents are scientists; her father works at Idexx Laboratories and her mother works at Abbott Laboratories. “There’s definitely a lot of talk about science in our home.” she said.

She also credits her success to many teachers, mentors and friends, and a large extended family around the world that celebrates her accomplishments and gives her a deep appreciation for her Indian heritage.

She’s an all-around top student who also participated in theater and volleyball, worked as a tutor and volunteered counting ballots in town elections. She plans to study molecular and cellular biology on the pre-med track at the University of California, Berkeley. She wants to become a doctor but also has a strong interest in research. And she still hankers to solve the microplastics problem.

“It’s always going to be an interest of mine,” Palaniappan said. “They are so tiny, but they are having a huge impact. And it’s scary because it’s so hard to think about how we stop using plastics and how we remove them from the ocean.”


Amir Seidakhmetov: Thornton Academy

Photo by Gregory Rec

As a boy growing up in Kazakhstan, Amir Seidakhmetov dreamed of building spaceships like those launched at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

He built his first spaceship at age 5, using pots, pans and other kitchen utensils. He also designed airplanes, cars and buildings, crafted from cardboard, scrap metal and plastic bottles. He studied hard in three languages: Kazakh, Russian and English. But he knew his career options were limited in Kazakhstan.

“I went to school with false promises and no future opportunities, especially to achieve my dream,” Seidakhmetov wrote in a college application.

Then he and his mother immigrated to the United States in search of a better life and educational opportunities.

He came in 2017 on a student visa to attend Thornton Academy in Saco, where his mother has family members. She followed a year later when she got a green card. A former journalist of Ukrainian heritage, Larissa Brovataya faced job discrimination and religious persecution in Kazakhstan, Seidakhmetov said. He also was bullied by other kids, even though his father is Kazakh. Now, they live in Arundel and both are going to school and working several jobs to make ends meet.

Seidakhmetov started at Thornton needing English language support and worked hard to become a National Honor Society member. He took Advanced Placement calculus and physics, as well as dual-enrollment courses in engineering through the University of Maine and in several subjects through Southern Maine Community College, where his mother is studying cybersecurity.

“Life has shown me that knowledge has no boundaries,” Seidakhmetov said. “It doesn’t matter what and how much circumstances change your life. It is crucial to believe in your dream and follow it.”

Since arriving in the United States, he has donated blood every two to three months because both he and his mother nearly died when he was born and required blood transfusions. He works two part-time jobs, as a delivery person for Domino’s Pizza and as a clerk at CVS, where he soon will be training as a pharmacy technician, he said.

He plans to study computer and electrical engineering at UMaine and make his mother and his new community proud.

“My mom is the biggest force and inspiration for me because I can see how hard she is working to make life better for me,” Seidakhmetov said. “I really like Maine and I appreciate what the state has done for me. I want to create innovation and bring it to Maine.”


Joseph St. John: Cheverus High School

Photo by Carl D. Walsh

Life got pretty tough for Joseph St. John early in his freshman year at Cheverus High School.

In one week, his father lost his insurance job and was diagnosed with cancer, sending St. John’s entire family into turmoil, he said. He took on new responsibilities during his father’s treatment, looking after his siblings when his mother was at the hospital. But it was a dark time for St. John and he lost interest in school, socializing, everything.

When his father entered remission and got a new job, St. John decided to “redeem” himself and turn that darkness into light. And his efforts reached far beyond Cheverus, a Catholic high school in Portland.

“I took a hard look at myself after that experience,” St. John said. “I wanted to grow more and do more.”

St. John was a committed member of the Cheverus Key Club, and by his junior year was leading the service organization’s annual Turkey Drive, which provides Thanksgiving meals to hundreds of families.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, St. John modified the drive so it could continue under strict health protocols. As president of the club his senior year, he organized two new drives, for personal care items needed at the Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Food Pantry, and for Easter baskets distributed through The Root Cellar.

A fitness buff who is a certified spinning class instructor, St. John emailed workout plans to faculty and staff members during the pandemic lockdown. He also played tennis all four years, hosted a yoga class as part of virtual Homecoming events last fall and organized a spinning class for 2021 graduation festivities.

He volunteered regularly at Maine Medical Center, started a Best Buddies chapter at Cheverus, spent a week as a summer camp counselor with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and attended an Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C.

St. John, who lives in South Portland, also worked throughout high school at local restaurants – part time during the school year and full time during the summer. He plans to attend Belmont University in Nashville to study the music business and journalism.

“I connect with music so deeply, I would just love to be in that business,” St. John said. “And I really love communication and the news, so I really could see myself in that field as well.”

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