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An Extraordinary Commitment to Service and Scholarship

This year’s 2018 WOW Sylvester Scholars Dinner proved an impressive celebration of six residents’ intelligence, hard work and selflessness.

Gathering on Monday, April 23, six graduating Westchase high school seniors were named our 2018 WOW Sylvester Scholars. Each received a $2,000 award.

Established in 2006, the scholarship recognizes college-bound Westchase residents for their commitment to academics and community service. The scholarship is named after Ernie Sylvester, a former WOW Board member who volunteered extensively in Westchase during his lifetime.

“This year’s Sylvester Scholars are an impressive group, representing the best of our community’s commitment to community service and excellence in academics,” said WOW President Jonathan Stein. “These hard working students are to be applauded for their commitment and their achievements.  The WOW appreciates the opportunity to recognize these special young people, and we look forward to good things to come from each of them.”

Selected from a strong pool of applicants were Brentford’s Joshua Cruz, the son of Terri Tully Cruz and Reinier Cruz; Allison Foster, the daughter of Sandi and John Foster of The Greens; Katie Morello, the daughter of Marc and Kathleen Morello of Stamford; Erin Piacitelli, the daughter of Andrea and Matt Piacitelli of The Greens; Nipuna Weerapperuma, the son of Dilrika and Viraj Weeraperuma of Abbotsford; and Grace Wilcox, the daughter of Pamela and David Wilcox of Sturbridge.

At the dinner the 2018 scholars were celebrated by the WOW Board, which sets policies for the magazine. Attending were WOW President Jonathan Stein of The Estates in Harbor Links, and fellow WOW Directors Mary Griffin of West Park Village, Ken Blair of Glencliff, Carolyn Reynolds of The Greens and Jeff Seligsohn of Radcliffe. Also attending were WOW staff members Chris Barrett and Leslie Blaze as well as Westchase Community Association (WCA) Director Keith Heinemann, who serves as the liaison between the WCA and WOW Board.

Heinemann kicked of the night by greeting parents and offering praise for their sons’ and daughters’ accomplishments. During dinner each scholar was then asked to tell those in attendance about their accomplishments and where they would be headed in the coming year.

A graduate of Jesuit High School, Cruz  earned a 4.61 weighted GPA and completed 550 hours of community service. He plans on studying biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech.

Cruz’s transcript shows straight A grades over four years, as well as 14 AP course and 8 honors level courses. (Note that schools weigh honors and AP courses differently in calculating weighted GPAs). Over the course of high school, Cruz accumulated 550 hours of community service. Asked which teacher had the greatest impact on him, Cruz cited Ms. Barry, his Kindergarten teacher from Westchase Elementary, for pushing him in reading and mathematics and Mr. Austin Freeman, his sophomore and junior teacher of English and AP Seminar at Jesuit. “He was the first teacher to seriously push me in English to learn how to interpret text, write coherently, and clearly present my ideas in front of an audience,” said Cruz.

In recommending Cruz for the scholarship, Joe Monroe, the coordinator of the Hillsborough County Youth Leadership Council, which provides students an opportunity to participate in civic, leadership and community service programs, stated, "Joshua is very detail-oriented, reliable and caring." Monroe added, "Joshua has a passion for helping others and continues to encourage his peers to assist.”

Allison Foster graduated from Alonso High School with a 6.07 weighted GPA and will be studying pediatric nursing Auburn University. She completed 450 community service hours during high school.

Foster’s impressive academic history saw her taking 14 honors courses and 10 AP courses. When asked which teacher most impacted her, Foster picked Ms. Jennifer Gilgan, her sophomore year AP Capstone Seminar teacher, who challenged her students to master the research class. “Ms. Gilgan was always caring and supportive of everyone’s project and was someone I could look up to when things got rough,” said Foster. “I’m glad to have had her as a teacher because I not only grew as a student, but also as a person.”

Wrote Gilgan while recommending Foster, “Knowing Allison as a person, not just as a student, she genuinely cares for people. She demonstrates a mature self-awareness I don 't see in many students and has shown a quiet courage and strength to push through both personal and academic challenges.”

Katie Morello graduated with a 7.84 weighted GPA and will attend the University of Florida in the fall. While yet uncertain on a major, her current interests include nutritional sciences. Her Alonso transcript, consisting of straight A grades through all four years, listed at least 17 honors courses and 11 AP courses, winning her the honor of valedictorian out of 625 students. She completed 120 community service hours.

She cited her flag football coach at Alonso, Mr. Matthew Hernandez as the teacher who made the greatest impact on her. “[He] has been my coach for four years and accounting and economics teacher for two years. He introduced me to flag football and has helped shape me as a player and as a person. He truly cares about me as a person and is always there to support me.”

Recommending Morello for the scholarship, Karina Bletsch, her AP Chemistry teacher, cited "a work ethic like no other" and mentioned she was always prepared and helped other students master the class concepts. "Students like Katie Morello are rare and they leave a lasting impression,” said Bletsch. “She has challenged me and I truly feel that our interaction has made a better teacher."

Erin Piacitelli graduated Middleton High School with a 7.16 GPA and completed an impressive 302 hours of community service. She will be studying biomechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. Her transcript, with very few grades other than A grades, featured at least 10 honors level and 13 AP courses and a host of computer and engineering courses.

Piacitelli cited Mr. Scott Meade, who taught her Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Principles of Engineering while mentoring Middleton's Robotics Club, as having the greatest impact on her. “In as early as my freshmen year, Mr. Mead taught me how to put fear of failure aside and dive into my education,” she stated. “He has taught me to believe that my goals are achievable and how to always keep them in sight.”

Wrote Meade of Piacitelli, “While she possesses the intelligence to learn quickly, she also applies herself to go beyond expectations. She strives for a deep understanding while making connections among multiple concepts.” Citing Piacitelli’s establishment of programs with middle and elementary schools to introduce girls to STEM careers, he added, “Erin’s commitment to community service is an intrinsic part of her personality.  She has led the [Middleton] robotics club to become as much of a community service organization as it is a competitive team.”

Nipuna Weeraperuma graduated from Middleton High School with an atmospheric 9.02 GPA and 402 community service hours.  In the fall he will attend University of Florida, where he will study computer engineering with either a double major or minor in business administration. Dual enrolled at Middleton and Hillsborough Community College and University of South Florida, he has a transcript that features over 11 honors courses and 17 AP Courses, as well as multiple computer coding and engineer courses at the college level.

Weeraperuma cited Mrs. Robertson, his AP Language and AP Literature teacher, as the instructor who has had the greatest impact on him. “She’s definitely one of the hardest teachers I’ve had, and she’s extremely politically informed and opinionated,” he said. “With her as one of my teachers, I’ve been constantly challenged, but in such a way that’s helped me develop my writing capabilities and my capacity to have my voice heard.”

Observed Weeraperuma’s orchestra instructor Bennie Leverett of his achievements outside of his class, “Nipuna is an exemplar of being balanced.” Leverett added, “He’s directly founded two clubs, amassed community service far beyond any minimum requirement, and tutored his peers in and out of the classroom. Additionally, he’s been elected as the varsity swim team captain, commemorated as a National Merit Semi-Finalist, and designated one of seventy-five dual AP and PLTW scholars nationally.”

Grace Wilcox graduated from Robinson High School’s IB program with a 6.84 GPA and 415 community service hours. She plans to study engineering at University of Florida in the fall. Her IB transcript featured seven honors courses, three AP courses and a significant number of rigorous IB courses widely considered by state universities to be the equivalent of AP coursework.

Naming her most inspiring instructor as her math teacher, Ms. Judi Charley-Sale, Wilcox stated of her, “She taught us extremely difficult college level calculus and beyond in an easy to understand manner. She solidified and expanded my love of math, giving me the confidence to know that there is no problem that I cannot solve.”

In turn, Erika George, the Robinson IB guidance counselor, strongly endorsed Wilcox for the WOW scholarship. “Grace has constantly pushed herself in her academics – although she makes it look easy. She has taken the most demanding coursework offered and recommended: IB higher level math with double science in physics and chemistry.” George concluded, “This young lady knows how to manage her time and academics!”

Congratulations to our impressive 2018 WOW Sylvester Scholars!

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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