This month, thousands of young Mainers are making one of life’s great transitions at high school graduations across the state.

For this annual feature, we seek inspiring seniors who, through talent, hard work and perseverance, have already proven they are remarkable and likely to make a difference in the world.

They are top scholars, athletes, social activists and community volunteers. They include a Unified Basketball coach, an Eagle Scout, a Boys & Girls Clubs youth of the year, two aspiring physicians and a few musicians.

There’s a guitar maker who plans to study the wonders of the universe, an Iraqi immigrant who wants to be a commercial pilot, a civil rights leader who already owns her own business and a nonbinary robotics whiz who hopes to end discrimination in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

They have overcome poverty, discrimination, language barriers, family turmoil, major health challenges and everyday teen struggles. And they excelled during a global pandemic that forced them to attend classes online, canceled many school events and changed their lives in countless ways.

Their intended careers include therapeutic horseback riding, music production, theater, economics, astrophysics, health care and the military.

They have already done so much and we have no doubt they will continue to impress.

Ariana Easter, Bonny Eagle High School

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Like many people, Arianna “Ari” Easter had a tough time during the COVID-19 shutdown, cooped up at home, isolated from friends, cut off from activities at Bonny Eagle High School.

But for a dedicated horsewoman, the worst part was losing daily contact with the animals that have been the focus of her life since she was 8.

The farm where she worked and trained began scheduling solitary visits to keep riders safe. Suddenly her daily visits with Mikey, the pony she rode at the time, were reduced to twice a week.

“I’m a very social person,” Easter said. “I was stuck in my room for classes and everything. Not being able to ride every day, I felt even more stuck in my head. Depression hit me hard.”

Easter sought help in the summer of 2020, spending a week at a group home for inpatient counseling. It’s something she talks about openly to promote mental health awareness.

As soon as she left the program, she scheduled a ride with Mikey and immediately realized she wanted a career that included therapeutic horseback riding.

“Mikey was waiting for me at the gate,” she said. “I knew at that moment, this is what I want to be, this completes me. Horses saved me.”

Easter, who lives in Standish, is graduating from Bonny Eagle as a top student, frequent volunteer and president of the student council. She plans to study the business and care of horses at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, located in Marion County, which calls itself the “Horse Capital of the World.”

She hopes to return to Maine in a few years to work with horses – possibly on her own farm – as she has since December at the Hearts and Horses Equestrian and Therapeutic Riding Center in Buxton.

An award-winning dressage rider, Easter spends 40-50 hours a week at the center, cleaning stalls, feeding horses, training for her next event and giving riding lessons to people of all ages and abilities.

“I’ve seen what spending time with horses does for people,” she said. “Just seeing their mood change and their confidence grow after they’ve been at the barn for a while is amazing.”

Easter recently purchased her first horse, a 4-year-old palomino Haflinger pony named Noble. He will travel with her to Florida and participate in her school programs, competitive events and internships at nearby farms.

Together they will help others as horses have helped her.

“He’s going to be my partner for the next 25 years,” she said.

Baqer Jalil, Casco Bay High School

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Growing up in a traditional Iraqi family, Baqer Jalil was familiar with the folkways his parents and grandparents brought to the U.S., such as breaking a plate to end a streak of bad luck or hanging a fish head on the front door to keep demons away.

So when his mother urged him to put his right foot forward the first time he stepped into Casco Bay High School, Jalil complied without question. She said it would ensure his success, and he proved her correct.

Jalil excelled at Casco Bay, becoming a top student, athlete and class leader.

He arrived in Portland in 2013.

“We didn’t know any English when we came here,” he said. “But I always wanted to represent my tribe, my people and my culture with pride.”

Ten years later, Jalil is fondly known as the “dad” of his senior class. He has distinguished himself as a volunteer who rarely says no and “an all-around solid human being,” said Stephanie Doyle, guidance counselor.

He won the school’s Navigator Award from faculty for being a model citizen and Pathway to Success Award from fellow students for being compassionate. He’s a member of Portland Youth Corps, working on recreational trails, planting trees and educating people about the need to protect the environment.

He attributes his willingness to help others to being Muslim.

“Giving back to the community is an important part of our faith,” he said. “As it was with our ancestors, even those who had nothing.”

Jalil is a twice-published author in The Telling Room youth writing program and a longtime member of Portland Community Squash and its after-school program, Rally Portland. While in Morocco last summer, on a scholarship from the Council on International Educational Exchange, he learned to speak Darija, the local dialect of Arabic. He is now certified fluent in both Darija and Arabic.

An aspiring commercial pilot, he has taken flying lessons out of Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport and works part time at the Portland International Jetport. He plans to study engineering at the University of Southern Maine, continue to travel the world and one day fly planes professionally.

“After 9/11, a lot of Arabs and Muslims are looked down upon, and I want to work against that stereotype,” he said. “I want to be up in the sky, because the sky is the limit.”

Maclain Lowe, Thornton Academy

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maclain “Mac” Lowe started playing T-ball at age 4, when the coach and his parents couldn’t stop him from running onto the field with his older brother’s team.

By seventh grade, his pitching elbow was nearly destroyed from overuse, effectively ending his three-season sports career at age 12. He pushed through nearly four years of surgeries and physical therapy before he could play varsity baseball, football and basketball in his last years at Thornton Academy in Saco.

The extended rehab gave Lowe lots of free time to volunteer, including as a player and coach in Thornton’s Unified Basketball program, which partners students with and without developmental disabilities for interscholastic competition.

The experience did more than keep Lowe off the sofa. It gave him some perspective on his own challenges.

“I saw the daily struggle my Unified teammates went through, including being looked down on by other students, and I hated it,” he said. “It gave me the extra spirit and patience to push through whatever I was dealing with.”

Lowe also volunteers with The Salvation Army and Saco Food Pantry, and as a flag football referee, football summer camp coach and Little League fundraiser.

He’s been a top student, class president, Dirigo Boys State delegate and member of the Interact and community leaders clubs, and he won Thornton’s Pillar of Responsibility Award in 2020.

He has worked as a summer camp counselor and private child care provider since 2018, and he operated a lawn care company with his brother, Jake, for four years before that.

Lowe calls his brother his best friend and biggest role model. He led him on backyard adventures when they were kids. He showed him the ropes at Thornton.

Now, he’ll be following Jake Lowe to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where Jake just finished his second year. Again, having a big brother will have advantages.

“I’ll be leaving my mom and dad, but I’ll be joining him there,” Mac Lowe said. “Jake hadn’t even seen the campus before we dropped him off, because of COVID.”

Lowe said he’s always wanted a career in service to others, whether as a police officer, firefighter or soldier.

“I get a lot of satisfaction working with other people and helping other people,” he said. “The best way to do that is to give my all at West Point.”

Jayden Moore, Portland High School

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Jayden Moore is open about the challenges he faced as a kid growing up in Portland.

When his parents were together, they were always fighting and constantly moving, he said.

He found refuge at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine, which offered him consistency and peace that were often missing at home.

Later, when the family turmoil began to affect his younger brother, he had to step up.

“I became a caretaker for my little brother, because I was used to it at that point,” he said. “In those moments, you learn what not to do and what you’re capable of.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine named Moore, who is graduating from Portland High School, the 2023 Portland Clubhouse Youth of the Year, recognizing him as a positive role model and hard worker who is committed to the club and to his family.

A club member since he was 5, Moore was co-captain of the high school-level basketball team, coached younger teams, filled in for front-desk staff and led younger members by example.

“I take a lot of pride in being someone the younger kids can look up to,” he said.

This summer, before heading to the University of Maine to study theater, Moore plans to offer an outdoor leadership and theater workshop at the club. He wants to share his love of the stage, first experienced when he rapped in club talent shows. Later, at Lyman Moore Middle School, he played Captain Hook in “Peter Pan.”

“I almost quit that show because I was so nervous,” he said. “A teacher talked me into staying and it was the best decision I ever made.”

A member of Portland High’s drama and Shakespeare clubs, he had lead roles in several shows, including the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and Caliban in “The Tempest.” He also works 20-25 hours a week at Dunkin’ and is a team captain with Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, a school-business partnership that promotes post-secondary education and career success.

He’s proud of his mother, Larisa McGill, who has been sober for three years and showed him how to be an empathetic person, he said. He hopes to have a relationship again with his father in the future, but he knows he will be OK regardless.

“I’ve definitely become a lot more confident in myself,” Moore said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and people in general.”

Sophia Mosqueda, Traip Academy

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sophia Mosqueda wasn’t prepared for the culture shock she experienced when her family moved from the Philippines to Maine seven years ago.

Manila’s giant concrete buildings and diverse population were replaced by towering trees and clapboard houses in mostly white Kittery, she said.

The 11-year-old struggled to fit in, a process that became more difficult as her parents’ relationship dissolved. Her mother, a bank manager in the Philippines, could barely pay the bills here, despite working two retail management jobs.

She felt friendless, she said. Her grades tumbled. But she grew determined to turn her life around.

“I realized that dwelling on my current situation would not change anything,” Mosqueda said in her college application essay. “If anything, it would only hinder improvement.”

Now, she is graduating summa cum laude from Traip Academy, where she was an outstanding student and leader. She plans to attend Boston College on a full four-year QuestBridge scholarship, a program that connects the nation’s best schools with the most exceptional low-income students. She also won a Gates scholarship that will cover many other costs while in school.

Mosqueda was president of the student council, pushing Traip to let students use their personal laptops in class because school iPads were insufficient. She led the Interact Club, boosting volunteer opportunities and growing membership into the school’s largest organization.

She also led the civil rights team, organizing a public protest against New Hampshire legislation that would have banned state contractors from offering workforce diversity training. The bill died in committee.

The team also drafted a formal land acknowledgment recognizing the original stewardship of Indigenous Wabanaki who lived in Kittery before colonial settlers. It’s on display in a prominent school mural designed and painted by students that features the land, sea and sun.

“It’s important to acknowledge there were people here before us,” Mosqueda said. “It resonated with me because people in the Philippines who are Indigenous or darker skinned are also treated differently.”

She helped to write a climate action plan for Traip, suggesting ways to reduce the school’s carbon footprint through recycling, careful purchasing, and encouraging walking, biking and electric vehicles. Students are disappointed the school hasn’t followed the plan, she said, but they remain hopeful.

Mosqueda volunteers regularly at Kittery Footprints food pantry, works part time in the stockroom at J.Crew, and helps her mother take care of her younger brother and their home.

She plans to study biochemistry on the pre-med track.

“There’s a noticeable discrepancy in medical care in the rural provinces of the Philippines,” she said. “I want to work to change that in disadvantaged places around the world.”

M Pierce, Baxter Academy for Technology and Science

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

M Pierce was the type of kid who loved putting on a frilly dress but would wind up wearing it in the mud, they said.

At Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Pierce led the public charter school’s FIRST Robotics team to the nationals this year and made an 1890s woman’s outfit as their independent senior project.

The yearlong research and sewing project – complete with intricately fashioned bustle padding and corset cover – explored the cultural, economic and environmental impacts of dressmaking historically.

Far more personally enlightening, however, was what Pierce learned in four years on the robotics team, where they first experienced discrimination as a freshman in the group.

Older students on the mostly male team discounted Pierce, who was assigned female at birth but by high school identified as nonbinary, using they/them pronouns. Pierce said that, as a feminine-presenting person, they were dismissed as clueless, relegated to menial tasks and blocked from working on the robot itself.

“I was pushed to do things that others didn’t want to do,” said the Freeport teenager.

Pierce stuck with the team and eventually became a leading member.

“When the team members that pushed me away graduated, I was seen as essential and accumulated more and more responsibilities, all of which I carried strongly and proudly,” Pierce said in their college application essay.

The team helped Pierce become a more confident communicator.

“I learned how to communicate with people who don’t like me for whatever reason – which happens in life – and reach a positive result,” they said.

A top student at Baxter, Pierce volunteered as a tutor for classmates and an ambassador to new students; testified in the Maine Legislature in support of charter schools; and completed an internship customizing software for The Escape Room in Portland.

Pierce plays guitar, ukulele and electric bass; edits weekly worship service videos for the South Freeport Congregational Church; and works selling pastries for Bread & Friends bakery.

They are most grateful to their “super mumma,” Beth Dunfee, for unconditionally supporting her “super kid,” they said.

Pierce plans to study math at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In the future, they hope to support and inspire others in breaking down gender and other barriers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“The fact that I see so few people like me in STEM terrifies me,” Pierce said in their essay. “I regularly face this discrimination. I want to change this. I want to be the voice for those who are afraid to speak up.”

Alexander Potter, Windham High School

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Alexander “Al” Potter has always wanted to know how things work – and how to fix them when they don’t – often to the benefit of others.

By first grade he was taking stuff apart just to put it back together. His family’s computer, VCR and stereo were early experiments.

“I wanted to figure out how I could apply the technology to other projects,” he said.

Now a Windham High School valedictorian, Potter has become a bit of a Renaissance man, with accomplishments in theater, music, agriculture and public service. He taught Spanish to primary school kids. He canoed the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. He studied the wonders of the night sky.

How he does it all is a mystery.

An interviewer at Princeton – where Potter plans to major in astrophysics – put it aptly. “Al Potter clearly has more than 24 hours in a day,” he wrote in his recommendation letter.

Potter admits, “I’m not a person who likes to sit on the couch and watch TV.”

For his Eagle Scout project, during his freshman and sophomore years, he designed and built an automated, solar-powered ventilation and irrigation system for a community greenhouse in Raymond.

“I knew I didn’t just want to build a picnic table,” said Potter, now an assistant scoutmaster. “It was supposed to be a simple project, but it ended up taking six months.”

Throughout high school, he volunteered hundreds of hours designing and operating sound and lighting for concerts and theater performances. And he enjoys debugging home Wi-Fi systems for friends and neighbors.

“I’m always in the know about new technology and I like to apply it,” he said. “Helping people is just the candle on top.”

He was class president, leading $15,000 in fundraising for various causes; student representative on the RSU 14 school board, speaking about COVID-19 policies, masking and book banning; and van trip “navigator” for the 2023 state champion quiz bowl team.

For three years he has worked part time – full time each summer – at Fallbrook Woods, a memory care residence in Portland, where he developed a rare understanding of aging. “People with dementia are the most themselves they will ever be,” he said. “Their personality and their souls shine through.”

Potter’s interests in music and technology collided last summer when he built an electric guitar from scratch. He modeled it after an early Fender Stratocaster in Taos turquoise. He also performed solo for the first time, at Vallee Square in Westbrook. It was a nerve-wracking experience he hopes to get more used to at Princeton.

“I want to be part of a band and be able to perform out,” he said. “I love being able to make music.”

Adele Weaver, Greely High School, Cumberland/Portland Arts and Technology High

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Greely High School staff unanimously nominated Adele Weaver to be recognized for how far she’s come and how much she’s accomplished.

Weaver was born in Ethiopia to a poor young couple who had AIDS. Her birth mother scraped together enough money to have her tested for the disease, she said. When the result was negative, she placed her in an orphanage.

“She put me up for adoption hoping that I would have a chance at a better life in the U.S.A.,” Weaver said in her college application essay. “I am 18 now and I am thriving.”

Weaver, who lives in North Yarmouth, was adopted when she was 3 and settled with her new family in Maine.

A top student at Greely, she joined the civil rights team in middle school and was captain for the last three years. She recently spoke to the entire faculty in support of a more inclusive curriculum.

“Schools are educating the newer generations,” she said. “Ignorance is a thing we can overcome and be more accepting and understanding of each other.”

She also was a member of the Greely team that took the state title in Samsung’s 2023 Solve for Tomorrow national science competition. Their work on a filtration system to remove PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” from drinking water won $14,500 to buy technology for district schools.

A motivated self-starter, Weaver has held several part-time jobs since she was 15. Last year, she launched her own business, designing repurposed clothing with hand-painted and appliqued graphics.

She has worked at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester since September – an ideal job since she wrote a business plan to buy a farm in third grade – and she’ll be mowing lawns for Yarmouth’s parks department this summer.

A talented guitarist, singer and songwriter, Weaver is also graduating from the music performance and production program at Portland Arts and Technology High School.

She attended four recording camps at The Studio Portland, working with artists Spose, Dave Gutter and King Kyote; and the Maine Media Camp at Husson University, where she plans to study music production and audio engineering.

In addition to having supportive parents, Weaver believes her musical ability and uncommon drive are rooted in her African heritage and humble beginnings.

“Starting out in an orphanage might be something that stays with you,” she said. “I just know that I really want to connect with people through music and art. And I know I have to work very hard and do it for myself, because no one else is going to do it for me.”

Hannah Wilkoff, Brunswick High School

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hannah Wilkoff has earned a reputation for being kind and helpful, not just at Brunswick High School but throughout her community.

During the pandemic, she recorded video messages from her fellow students to isolated senior citizens, and she made 250 origami doves for volunteers at the town library, which couldn’t host its annual thank-you gathering.

“I don’t see any reason not to be kind,” Wilkoff said. “My parents raised me to be nice to people and make sure that you’re a positive part of their day.”

Her efforts have won recognition. She twice received the high school’s Davis Award for Outstanding Citizenship, given annually to two students in each grade who are kind, genuinely sympathetic and willingly go above and beyond for others.

She made the Young Maine Volunteer Roll of Honor as a sophomore and won the high school’s Community Service Award as a junior, racking up hundreds of hours helping out in the music department, the town’s recreation department, athletic events and her church.

She did all this while excelling in the classroom, winning multiple academic awards and becoming valedictorian.

Now, Wilkoff is heading to Harvard University to study economics.

She’s also an outstanding athlete and musician.

She distinguished herself in varsity cross-country running, girls’ ice hockey and outdoor track. As head captain of the hockey team, she mentored new players, was twice named an all-conference defensive player and played a season with the Maine Gladiators travel club team.

A piano player since second grade, Wilkoff was a pianist and percussionist in numerous high school groups, including the marching, pep and symphonic bands, honors wind ensemble and honors jazz band. She was a featured piano soloist and national finalist for the prestigious Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music.

She also was the pianist in the student-led jazz combo, collaborating on arrangements and improvisations for several performances each year, including paid gigs and multi-state competitions.

Wilkoff hopes to stay connected to music that inspires and challenges her through student clubs at Harvard.

“I am an avid improvisationalist, unafraid to explore uncharted territory,” she wrote in her college application essay. “I crave new experiences, whether going on a 13-day backpacking trip in Alaska or simply trying another egg-free chocolate chip cookie recipe.”

Dagan Youssouf, Cheverus High School

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Dagan Youssouf decided to go to Cheverus High School because her parents were familiar with Catholic schools in their native Djibouti, a tiny country just north of Somalia on the east coast of Africa.

Although Youssouf’s family is Muslim, the Jesuit Catholic college prep school in Portland offered structure and values in keeping with their faith.

Youssouf has thrived at the school, deepening her faith in her years there.

“It was an interesting transition from public schools,” she said. “Going to Mass for the first time was definitely a shock.”

She was impressed by how dedicated other students were in practicing Catholicism, she said. She found that it reinforced her own beliefs and highlighted similarities between the two religions. And she felt welcomed as the only Muslim girl at the school, especially when Cheverus readily altered its pants-only dress code so she could wear dresses.

Youssouf did so well academically, she won a full four-year scholarship to Dartmouth College through the QuestBridge program, which connects the nation’s best schools with the most exceptional students from low-income backgrounds.

Youssouf was born in Ohio but spent her early years in Djibouti. Her family moved to Portland when she was 5. Second-oldest of five children, she speaks French and Somali, and is teaching herself Korean because she was drawn to the “linguistically logical” language and finds the culture fascinating.

Outside the classroom, she was co-president of the civil rights team and a member of the environmental action club. She participated in the Model United Nations for three years and last year went to the Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice in Washington, D.C.

She has volunteered at Maine Medical Center, Partners For World Health, King Middle School and the Islamic Society of Portland, where she taught children Arabic grammar and writing. She’s a leader of the Young Muslim Sisters of Greater Portland, a local branch of a national organization that encourages young women to study Islam.

Youssouf plans to major in neuroscience at Dartmouth and is considering a pre-med track. She’s grateful for her family’s support as she figures out her career path. After witnessing the poor state of health care in Djibouti on a recent visit, she’d like to help improve medical care in developing nations.

“I noticed how hospitals aren’t really the best there,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to help people, maybe with Doctors Without Borders. I’ve seen what a difference even one person like me could make.”

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