A teen mom who survived domestic abuse and became the first of her siblings to graduate high school and attend college. Two 17-year-old transgender boys. A 16-year-old high school junior who, at 14, won the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist.”
Those were some of the teens honored Wednesday night at San Diego County’s third annual “25 Most Remarkable Teens” ceremony held in the Shiley Special Events Suite on the top floor of the downtown San Diego Central Library.
“The San Diego Public Library’s vision is to be the place for opportunity, discovery and inspiration,” Misty Jones, director of the library, said at the start of Wednesday’s ceremony. “And tonight, I definitely think we have the inspiration part more than covered.”
The program is led by San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize’s office. The winners were chosen by the Public Defender Youth Council, a group of civically engaged high school students.
As deputy public defenders read out loud a short biography on each teen, the inspiration that Jones referenced became clear.
There was Zane Trubick, who bounced between foster care and a rough home life before finally going, as an eighth grader, to live with his court-appointed special advocate. Bob O’Conner taught Trubick to surf and encouraged him to join the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps while in high school.
Trubick, 19, graduated from Point Loma High and earned a Naval scholarship to the University of California, San Diego, where he is now a sophomore studying electrical engineering.
Jonathan Eppert, an 18-year-old senior at Hilltop High in Chula Vista, had to drop out of school for a time to battle the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that had produced a golf ball sized tumor on his right clavicle. Now, Eppert is the top ranked student of his 416-member graduating class, and hopes to become a pediatric nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital — the same facility where he underwent cancer treatments.
Vanessa Russell, 18, was abused by her partner in her early teens, just six months after giving birth to their daughter. After working up the courage to report him to police — which resulted in a conviction — she turned her attention back to school. Despite being three years behind most students her age, she became the first sibling in her family to graduate high school, and now studies at Palomar College.
Other honorees have already achieved national renown. Kara Fan, a 16-year-old Westview High junior, invented a spray-on bandage that uses microscopic silver particles rather than antibiotics. It’s her solution to the issue of bacterial infections that are growing resistant to antibiotics and won her the 3M Young Scientist Challenge and $25,000.
Sita Antel, a 17-year-old senior at Mission Bay High, received the 2020 George and Helen Hartzog Youth Service Award — a National Parks Service honor given to just one teen nationwide each year — for her work at Cabrillo National Monument honoring the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. She created a “picket garden” with replicas of real signs held by suffragists during the first protest outside the White House.
After the teens were honored, several leaders from the city and county spoke, including Holly Porter, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer. She led the room in a round of applause for the families and supporters of the honorees, and to those without strong support, she said: “You can make your own family. That’s a thing. You grow up, and you find caring people, and you make your own family.”
San Diego city councilmembers Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Sean Elo-Rivera also spoke. Even though many of the teens plan to or have already left the area to pursue degrees at the nation’s top colleges, Campillo urged them to return to San Diego.
“Please come home when you are done learning, doing whatever it is — come back to San Diego, we need you,” Campillo said. “I have a feeling that after we’re done, if some of the 25 of you ran for office and replaced us, we’d be in a really good shape.”
Elo-Rivera ended the night by having all of the honorees stand up from their chairs. “To the adults in the room, these might be the most remarkable teens in San Diego, but they are not the only remarkable teens in San Diego,” he said. “Take in who or what a remarkable teen looks like. It’s an incredibly diverse group of people; this is reflective of the San Diego we’ve become.”
Full list of San Diego’s “25 Most Remarkable Teens”
- Jonathan Eppert, 18, Hilltop High, Personal Determination
- Nicole Warkentien, 17, San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, Performing Arts: Musical Theatre
- Sree Kandhadai, 16, Francis Parker School, Environmental Activism
- Elijah Hudson, 17, Rancho Buena Vista High, Community Empowerment
- Rhea Chhabra, 17, Scripps Ranch High, Most Enterprising
- Zane Trubick, 19, UC San Diego, Courage to Overcome Adversity: Family Situation
- Fei Chan, 17, Canyon Hills High, Leadership
- Sita Antel, 17, Mission Bay High, Community Service
- Jocorey Mitchell, 17, West Hills High, Performing Arts: Actor
- Kara Fan, 16, Westview High, Inventor
- Kieran Pearson, 17, Torrey Pines High, LGBTQ Activist
- Flora Yuan, 17, Del Norte High, Music: Vocalist
- Caden Barnes, 17, Carlsbad High, Creativity: Filmmaking
- Denisse Lopez, 18, UC San Diego, Civic Engagement
- Kellen Bynes, 17, San Marcos High, Campus Leadership
- Xiomara Villarreal-Gerardo, 19, San Diego State University, Journalism
- Vanessa Russell, 18, Palomar College, Perseverance
- Leonardo Garcia, 14, Kearny School of Engineering, Innovation, and Design, Citizenship
- Divinity Hawkins, 17, San Pasqual Academy, Courage to Overcome Adversity: Personal Situation
- Rohan Bosworth, 15, Poway High, Technology
- Wendy Brizuela, 17, Gompers Preparatory Academy, Creativity: Art
- Aidan Hallinan, 18, Mission Bay High, Mental Health Activist
- Ilan Jinich, 17, San Diego Jewish Academy, Social Conscience
- Samira Hassan, 16, Patrick Henry High School, Youth Activism
- Stephan Abrams, 18, George Mason University, Public Defender’s Award of Excellence