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Crest valedictorians take center stage
Plant City Observer Friday, May 15, 2015 3 years ago

Crest valedictorians take center stage


The weekend has finally arrived. Most teens around Plant City are out with friends or relaxing at home with family. They’ve eagerly awaited a break after a demanding week at school.

But two Strawberry Crest High School seniors still have work to do.


The curtain draws and the cast of “30 Reasons Not to Be In a Play” prepares for its entrances. Rebecca Stephens is among them. Opening night is just a week away, and she wants her performance to be strong, even if tonight is only a rehearsal.

Meanwhile, in Tampa, Anuj Desai takes a breath and gets ready to start practice with his Indian folk dance ensemble. They’ll be on the dance floor until about midnight.

“Chalo!” a choreographer says. “Let’s go!”

Next weekend, while Stephens graces the stage at Strawberry Crest, Desai will be performing for thousands at the India Festival of Tampa Bay.

What these students didn’t know last fall, as they were focusing on preparations for these performances, was that they would soon be in the spotlight for an entirely different aspect of their high school experiences.

This June, Desai will graduate from Strawberry Crest as valedictorian of the IB program, and Stephens will be honored as the school’s traditional valedictorian.

Dance demanded much of Desai’s time throughout his high school years. It was a fun way for him to engage in the culture of the country from which his parents came.

“At home, you expect the Indian culture, the traditional values, and all of that,” he said. “And then you go outside and there’s an American environment, so you get the best of both worlds.”

Desai is looking forward to joining an Indian dance team at University of Florida when he arrives there in the fall. But his ability to attend the school on a $20,000 scholarship is due to his academic accomplishments, even with the rigorous curriculum of the International Baccalaureate program.

“It might be a stereotype of valedictorians — they’re very studious and focus on various things and are very serious in these things,” Desai said. “But I’m laid back about it ... I’m OK if I can let some things slide.”

But he didn’t let too many things slide. Desai was honored as the third-highest scoring graduating senior in the entire school district this year.

Like Desai, Stephens is familiar with the schedule of a performing artist. Staying at school until 9 p.m., then doing homework until 1 a.m., and waking up at 5:30 a.m., was not uncommon for her. Weekends were usually the time to work on bigger projects, not to hang out with friends.

But the stage was her release.

“A lot of the time, I did not allow myself to do homework during drama, because I felt that that was the time I was allowing myself to take a break from everything,” she said.

Stephens’ college plans aren’t solidified yet, but she hopes to study zoology. Her interests in nature and conservation were partly inspired by her family’s frequent trips to volunteer at Hillsborough River State Park, where they clean up pollutants.

Stephens’ older brother and sister also excelled in high school, but they both graduated third in their classes.

“We like to say I broke the Stephens curse, because I finally got past three,” Stephens said.

IB Sal: Nichole Mathew

What extra-curricular activities have you been involved with?

I’ve done things that helped little kids, and Relay for Life. I like to read and play basketball occasionally.

How has working with kids shaped who you are?

It’s made me see the world differently, and it’s made me want to help more and get into doing something with children.

What are your college plans?

I plant to go to Nova Southeastern University, majoring in biology. ... My plan is to become a pediatrician.

Who is someone who has been a role model for you?

My dad. He told me that is success is whatever you make it to be, and you have to work hard. He’s the one that kept pushing me and made me realize it’s up to me to be successful.

Traditional Sal: Madison Jarrard

What are your post-high school plans?

I’m enlisted in the Navy. I leave sometime in August. I’ll go to boot camp at Great Lakes (Illinois) for eight weeks, and then I’ll come back and do sea school in Pensacola, and that’s about 30 weeks.

What is your definition of success, and do you think you’ve reached it?

My main end goal in life is to be a doctor, and right now I think I’m on the road to success, but I don’t think I’ll look at myself as a successful human being until I reach my goal as a doctor. I would say success is finding that goal and taking the steps you need to attain it.

In what way is your graduation speech unique?

My speech is kind of different. I love quotes. And so I asked three people in my graduating class to give me their favorite memory about Strawberry Crest.

What was one challenge you had to overcome during high school?

I am the biggest procrastinator you will ever meet, and so that was my biggest struggle. Dual enrolling at HCC really helped because in high school, teachers are pretty flexible with their deadlines, but at HCC, it was a real shock. I think dual enrolling has prepared me more than I could ever imagine, to enter the world.

Contact Catherine Sinclair at [email protected].

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