It’s a night students will never forget. Dressed in gleaming gowns boasting their school colors, more than 1,500 Plant City students will turn their tassels June 3, 4 and 6.
But four students will stand out from the sea of mortar boards. Representing Durant, Plant City and Strawberry Crest high schools, four valedictorians will give their commencement speeches and forever be remembered as part of their respective school's rich history.
Jacob Bernier had no idea who was going to be this year’s valedictorian at Durant High School. Along with his girlfriend and a mutual friend, the three were in the top five and made a guess about the final order.
“I was excited,” Bernier said of learning of his No. 1 status. “We had the order completely backward.”
Throughout his high school career, Bernier took Advanced Placement classes. Even after he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes his sophomore year, Bernier continued to challenge himself academically.
With his favorite subject as science, he plans to major in physics at Florida State University. He was accepted into the honors program, with an academic scholarship. He is considering becoming a professor but hasn’t set his mind on a career yet.
In addition to academics, Bernier volunteers at Metropolitan Ministries, Relay for Life and tutors students in math.
Sarah Renee Winters
Who says girls don’t like math and science? For Sarah Renee Winters, math is her favorite subject. Her goal is to become a financial analyst for a major company.
To that end, this fall, Winters will begin classes at University of Florida to study finance and economics.
“I’m happy to have been able to accomplish so much,” Winters said. “I’m excited to go to my dream school.”
Although math is considered a left-brain function, the valedictorian doesn’t let her creative side go unnoticed. Through her high-school career, she’s helped with the theater department’s productions, including “Grease” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
Her favorite volunteer activity is spending time with her best buddy, Matthew, through the Best Buddies program. The two have been inseparable since her sophomore year.
“It’s one of those things that I love,” Winters said.
While in school, Winters dual-enrolled in Hillsborough Community College and took Advance Placement classes at her high school.
GPA: 6.39, traditional
Exor Serrano-Arce spent the first two years of his high-school career running from academics. He was on the cross country team at Armwood High School. Nothing could stop him from hitting the pavement — until he received a life-altering diagnosis.
His sophomore year, Serrano-Arce was diagnosed with lupus. He wasn’t allowed to be out in the sun. It ended his running career.
“I thought my world ended, to be honest,” Serrano-Arce said. “I knew I was mad. I was mad at God. But then, I stopped feeling bad for myself, started getting better, and my grades shot up.”
When he transferred to Strawberry Crest his junior year, the guidance counselor told him he was ranked No. 1 in his class.
“I didn’t want to go down,” Serrano-Arce said.
For two years, he stayed on top. Now Serrano-Arce’s hard work has paid off. In the fall, he will attend the University of South Florida, with plans to be a pediatrician.
GPA: 7.66, IB
Rahul Patel always has loved world history. His parents, who are from India and England, instilled that passion through travel. They have taken trips all over the world — from the Netherlands to Mexico. But this fall, Patel will make one of the biggest moves of his life.
Patel will be attending the University of Florida. The Strawberry Crest valedictorian was accepted to the honors program and hopes to study international relations and finance. From there, he plans to earn a master’s degree in corporate or international law.
“I just want to thank God, my friends, my family, teachers and coaches for my success,” Patel said.
Patel balanced soccer and academics while in high school. He was captain on the school’s soccer team for three years, playing a total of four.
He also took the IB track.
“It was challenging to balance school, family, religion, athletics and friends,” Patel said.
Patel is ready for the next step. And spoken like a true Gator, Patel is ready for Gainesville’s favorite pastime.
“I’m pretty excited — especially for the football games.”
Contact Amber Jurgensen at [email protected].
PLANT CITY PRIDE
In addition to the valedictorians at Durant, Plant City and Strawberry Crest, students with Plant City addresses this year also are taking top honors at Armwood, Chamberlain and Newpoint high schools.
Armwood High School
One of Reece Dial’s main pursuits is his mission work. He’s been to Costa Rica twice, Honduras and will venture to Uganda this summer with Baylife Church.
“The biggest thing I learned from missions is humility,” Dial said. “While we’re rich materialistically; they’re rich culturally and spiritually. We can look at them and say they’re impoverished, but they can look at us and say the same.”
Armwood’s valedictorian hopes to study missions after he gets a degree in civil engineering. Dial has been accepted at the University of South Florida.
“I’m really thankful,” Dial said. “I feel like I was just doing what I was supposed to.”
Chamberlain High School
As part of a competitive academic program, Rachel Dwyer was required to take multiple Advanced Placement classes and complete a community-service project. So, the Walden Lake resident attended Chamberlain, where she took 14 Advanced Placement classes.
She also spent weeks gathering presents for U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan.
“I know a lot of people in the service, specifically, my softball coach, who has told us how tough it is over there,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer has played softball since she 6 and starred as a pitcher on the Chamberlain team. Last year, she was part of the team that won the state championship.
She will continue using her talents in softball at the University of Virginia. At college, Dwyer will be studying pre-med biology.
Newpoint High School
It was Sera Moore’s second-grade teacher at Central Baptist Christian School that inspired her to pursue a career in education. That dream will come true for Moore this fall.
Moore will be attending Florida Southern College, in Lakeland. As the valedictorian of Newpoint, in Valrico, Moore was accepted into the honors program, where she will study elementary education.
“I’m looking forward to finding out who I really am and exploring the world in a different way,” Moore said.
After taking honors and Advanced Placement classes, Moore will graduate with some college credits.
In addition to academics, Moore plays “almost every sport known to man.”
“This is an amazing school,” Moore said of Newpoint. “I probably wouldn’t be valedictorian without the teachers, school — and especially friends and my family.”