OPINION: Meet our 2024 Maine Graduates to Watch

Jun. 7—This month, thousands of young people are making one of life's great transitions at high school graduations across Maine. Each year, we seek seniors who have shown they have what it takes to make a difference in the world.

Here are the stories of 10 outstanding members of the class of 2024 and their accomplishments so far. They include several immigrants and top scholars, a few musicians and social activists, a couple of entrepreneurs, standout athletes, a barber in training, a spiritually inspired singer and a granddaughter who's dedicated to preserving her Wabanaki roots.

They have overcome language and cultural barriers, family crises, disabilities, bullying, everyday teen insecurities and the challenges of living in a post-pandemic, sometimes violent culture. Their intended careers include music production, counseling, acting, law, firefighting, politics, advocacy and animation.

They have done so much already, and we're excited to see what happens next.

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Emmett Benezra had an ear for music at an early age. He started taking piano lessons at age 4, and expanded to marimba and drum lessons a few years later. He taught himself to play guitar, bass and ukulele.

Eventually it became clear that Benezra, who has autism, understood social dynamics when performing with others in a way that often eluded him in ordinary social settings. He knew when to take the lead in an ensemble and when to support other musicians or singers. He could read body language and gestures to adjust his tone or volume. He knew when to transition or end a piece of music.

Some of those techniques in "reading" other people helped him in everyday situations. But by the end of eighth grade at a private school, Benezra became more aware of his social challenges. He had trouble understanding jokes and was sometimes bullied. He started to write a musical about a boy who wanted to trade brains with someone who didn't have autism.

"I have so many thoughts in my head, it's hard to get them out sometimes," he said.

After an unsuccessful attempt at homeschooling his freshman year, Benezra enrolled as a sophomore with Maine Connections Academy, a grade 7-12 online public charter school that serves up to 500 students annually.

The academy allowed him to work at his own pace in small classes with an individualized educational program, which included one-on-one online meetings with teachers when he got stuck. It also allowed him to continue independent studies in audio production with the Maine Academy of Modern Music and to take online classes for high school credit with Berklee College of Music in Boston.

He has added mandolin and melodica to his repertoire, and he now has seven keyboards in his home studio in Kennebunk. He was a member of the Kennebunk High jazz band and performs in two bands affiliated with the music academy: Surge, a heavy metal band, and Buttery Flaky Crust, a rock band that includes members who have Down syndrome and ADHD.

He also completed two internships in audio production, engineering and mastering through the music academy, including one at Prism Analog Studio in Portland, where he recorded, produced and mixed five songs by a Portland band, The Empress.

He plans to continue studying audio and video music production and composition through online courses with Berklee. He said he looks forward to the challenge of working with other musicians and getting them in the right mood to lay down tracks.

"I love making other people sound awesome without taking away from the musician's essence," he said.

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Born in the central African nation of Angola, Graça Bila was 8 years old when her family came to Maine seeking asylum in 2015.

They had already spent several years in South Africa, a challenging experience that prepared her well to make the transition into Westbrook public schools, then to become a student leader and standout athlete at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.

It helped that she spoke English upon arrival — initially with a South African accent — in addition to Portuguese.

"I was fairly young and I was already a people person," Bila said. "We lived in Portland at first, and I went to the Boys & Girls Club there a lot and made friends pretty easily."

Bila excelled in the classroom, where math was her favorite subject and her language proficiency proved helpful in studying French. She also was a leader in school sports, competing in soccer, basketball and outdoor track.

As captain of the girls' basketball team this year, Bila was a top scorer, tenacious defender and aggressive rebounder, leading the team to the semifinals. In outdoor track last month, Bila set a new facility and meet record at the Western Maine Conference Championships at Lake Region High, with a triple jump best of 37 feet, 3 1/2 inches.

Bila said she worked hard to strengthen her own athletic performance physically and mentally so she could better support her teammates, especially when dealing with disappointments.

"I was happy that I could help someone else, especially with something I had struggled with," Bila wrote in a college application. "After a recent regional final soccer loss, several people approached me at school, telling me how much they appreciated my hustle. Working on myself gave me the opportunity to help others."

Bila was a member and volunteer in several school activities and has worked as a babysitter and summer camp counselor. Her Christian faith is very important to her and her family. They attend First Assembly of God Church in Portland, where she provides technical assistance with worship services that are streamed online.

"I trust in God," she said. "It's a good habit that I have. He gives me confidence in everything I do."

The youngest of four, Bila said she's most grateful for the support of her family, including her parents, Guilherme and Maria, who work in health care, and her older brother Joaquim, who also graduated from North Yarmouth Academy and is studying biomedical engineering.

She plans to study psychology at Bates College, where she got a scholarship and will compete on the women's track and field team.

"I want to work with kids," she said. "I'm not sure exactly how yet, but I've always loved babies and kids."

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Eric Bowen is a stellar student, community volunteer and three-sport varsity athlete who has participated in many clubs and activities at Windham High School.

But it's outside school that Bowen has distinguished himself as a young entrepreneur who has several part-time jobs, including a barber's apprenticeship with Keenan Pinard at the Crow's Nest barber shop in Windham.

Since starting the school-endorsed Extended Learning Opportunity for extra credit, Bowen has completed about 700 of 1,600 hours of on-the-job training needed to get his state barbering license.

"I always liked getting my hair cut," he said. "Keenan was willing to apprentice me and it went from there. I started cutting my friends' hair and as I progressed, I cut more with the public. I like the environment and I like working on it as an art form."

Bowen also works as a board-certified basketball referee, a DoorDash driver, a Walmart associate and co-owner of the Bowen-Moody Basketball Training Co., started with his friend A.J. Moody. They offer youth basketball training programs for individuals and small groups.

"Helping to have an impact on others is something that is very important to me," Bowen said. "I have really enjoyed seeing them learn and the excitement they have."

His volunteer activities include assisting at youth sports camps, teaching Spanish to elementary students and mentoring a middle school student.

"Sometimes we shoot some basketball and talk about things," he said. "We'll definitely stay in contact after I graduate."

Bowen excelled at baseball, football and basketball, helping lead Windham's basketball team to a state championship. An all-around sportsman, he also enjoys hunting, fishing, boating and sleeping under the stars.

He was a member of the National and Spanish honor societies, High School Quiz Show Team, student council and yearbook committee, and he helped establish the Investments and Finance Club.

He plans to study sports management and business entrepreneurship on presidential scholarship at St. Joseph's College in Standish, but he'd like to start his coaching career as soon as possible.

He sees himself following in the footsteps of coaches who have guided him through the years, especially Windham High basketball coach Chad Pulkkinen, who became an all-around mentor.

"He started out as my basketball coach, but now I feel I could go to him for anything," he said. "I'd like to be that person for other people."

And he'll always have barbering as a side gig.

"Everybody's always going to need to get their hair cut," he said.

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Saga Hart says she spent much of her childhood as a girl in retreat. She missed her father, who was no longer involved in her life. From ages 6 to 15, she was a shy, shut-down, self-conscious observer.

All that changed during her freshman year at Cape Elizabeth High School when she volunteered at a drag brunch fundraiser hosted by EqualityMaine. The experience rocket-boosted her outlook on life.

"There were all these fabulous people and loud music and super bright clothes," Hart said. "Everyone was super welcoming and super nice. It was a very warm community, and it was fun to step into that. I just wanted to keep putting myself into places like that."

That's when Hart "came back out into the world" and began building a resume that already exceeds those of many people twice her age, including launching her own company, Saga Hart Digital Media, a freelance portrait, event and art photography business.

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she headed the high school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance. She delivered a presentation on gender-respectful pronouns to more than 200 staff members and produced a professional, grant-funded video on the subject to be used in Maine schools. She also led a successful campaign to get gender-neutral bathrooms at Cape High and helped administrators develop a restorative justice program for students who struggle to respect their LGBTQ+ classmates. The program focuses on mediation and accountability rather than punishment.

She's a fellow with Maine Youth Power, helping manage the nonprofit's social media and organize youth advocacy programs across the state. She founded and led the organization's Youth-Oriented Queer Collective, a 150-member volunteer group that ran a statewide gender-neutral bathroom campaign and hosted workshops on various LGBTQ+ issues.

She has been active in OUTMaine, Maine Youth Action Network, Maine Youth for Climate Justice and the town's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. She participated in more than a dozen school activities, including the theater group, speech team and sociology club, which she founded.

Last summer, she spent three weeks in Singapore learning about global entrepreneurship through the Council on International Educational Exchange. Her team designed a proposal for a computer app to help immigrants connect and organize events in their communities.

Hart plans to study economics and film at Barnard College. In addition to the unflagging support of her mother, Dori, who is a counselor, Hart said she's grateful for a bit of advice she got from Cape High social studies teacher Kevin St. Jarre.

"He told me to 'hit send' whenever I have an interest or an idea, even if I don't think I'm worthy," she said. "It's helped me because I've said yes to everything, and I've met some great people, and I've had so much fun."

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Lianna Holden graduates from Freeport High School as a top student and social justice advocate who was spurred to action by her own experiences with prejudice, racism and the mass shooting last fall in Lewiston.

Born in China, Holden was adopted as a toddler and grew up in Freeport, where some of her elementary and middle school classmates made hurtful comments about her Asian ethnicity. A substitute teacher was the first to intervene.

"He called the kids who were making racist jokes small-minded," she wrote in a college application. "He made me feel like I could advocate for myself for the first time after years of accepting racism."

Having found her voice and confidence, Holden joined Freeport High's Student Leadership Committee and headed a subgroup that focused on student and faculty experiences with microaggressions — common verbal and nonverbal insults, both intentional and unintentional, that perpetuate negative stereotypes. She presented the subgroup's findings to high school administrators and the Maine Department of Education for policy action.

"It was really important work that will result in significant change," Holden said.

She also was an intern with the Maine League of Women Voters, creating its Youth Advocacy Team to track and support key legislation. She was National Honor Society co-chair, mentoring students from asylum-seeking families. And she founded the local chapter of Students Demand Action, a group that advocates for racial equity, LGBTQ+ rights and gun control.

By sophomore year, Holden was living full time in Lewiston with her mother, Nadine, who drove her to and from Freeport High each day until she got her driver's license.

"It was really hard for both of us," Holden said. "My mom has always been really supportive of me and understanding of my passion for issues."

Holden's interest in gun control intensified after the Lewiston shooting, leading her to organize student demonstrations, testify before the Legislature and provide a young person's perspective in state and national news media.

"I was scared when the shooting happened, like everyone else was, because it was so close to home," she said. "It's frustrating because it didn't have to happen, but too often legislative action is very much reactive. We shouldn't wait until something happens."

Holden is heading to Pomona College in California on a full scholarship and plans to study political science on a pre-law track.

"I really want to be a lawyer and I want to continue to work in political advocacy," she said. "My goal is to use my education as a tool to champion the causes I believe in."

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Archer Isgro's art has become a lifeline, a way to reach beyond his own solitude and a means to raise LGBTQ+ awareness.

In the wake of the pandemic, as other students at Casco Bay High School in Portland celebrated getting back to normal activities, Isgro found himself wanting to withdraw even more. But he recognized that months of online learning had taken a toll on his social skills, which were already challenged by autism, anxiety and ADHD.

"Sometimes people think those things mean you can't do things," Isgro said. "It just means you have to find a way to work around those things."

So, Isgro started communicating through his art, which includes painting, drawing and design in the fantasy genre. He got to know other artists at school, helped to paint a hallway mural and sought more opportunities to organize and participate in events at school and beyond.

"The act of drawing and painting with others taught me what I needed to start speaking: a community of creators," Isgro wrote in a college application. "As my artistic skills grew, I began to try new ways of getting my thoughts into the world, namely, storytelling through character design."

A top student, he enrolled as a junior in the commercial art program at Portland Arts and Technology High School, which allowed him to take several design and digital imaging courses through Southern Maine and York County community colleges.

Isgro incorporated his transgender identity into expeditionary learning projects at Casco Bay High. As a junior, he focused on the cost and accessibility of mental health care, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. His senior project explored transgender representation in media and book banning.

He worked on Casco Bay's literary magazine each year, played viola in the District II Honors Orchestra Festival the last two years and participated in various efforts to increase equity for all at the high school.

Isgro planned to study animation at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which announced June 1 that it will shut down this month. Quickly switching gears, Isgro now plans to spend his freshman year at the University of Southern Maine and apply to other schools with strong animation programs. He wants to pursue a career in the art form where he first noticed LGBTQ+ characters as a child.

"Seeing that representation has inspired me to tell my own stories through my art and to support others in sharing their stories as well," he said. "I want all people to be able to see people who represent them."

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An accomplished actor, singer and tenor sax player, Jaden Nicita has already grabbed the spotlight in numerous theater, chorus and band auditions, performances and competitions at Brunswick High School and beyond.

He was chosen multiple times for All State Choir, All State Jazz Choir, All New England Band and All National Choir. As a sophomore, he landed a role in Maine State Music Theater's production of "The Sound of Music," as Friedrich, the oldest son.

He was selected from top students nationally to participate in the Berklee School of Music's Musical Theater Acting Intensive, UCLA's Camera Acting Summer Institute and the Carnegie Hall Honors Festival, which culminated in a performance on the world-famous stage.

But around Brunswick High, Nicita is best known for his thoughtfulness and compassion — traits that he says developed during a challenging upbringing and help him breathe life into the characters he plays. Since age 12 he has lived with his paternal grandparents because of his parents' substance use disorders, he said.

"It definitely impacted my early life and gave me empathy as a superpower sooner than most people," Nicita said. "As a kid I saw the world in gray rather than black and white. I make a point to cut people some slack and try to understand them."

As a result, he often goes out of his way to include students who are being excluded from conversations or activities. And he makes a point of saying hello and chatting with all staff members, especially cafeteria workers and custodians.

"I always thought the lunch ladies got too much flack, so I've been nice to them since grade school," he said. "And I'm often at school late for band practice or whatever, so I got to know the custodial staff. To me, it seems funny that these are people we see and walk by all the time and we don't even acknowledge them."

His deeper understanding of the human condition has fueled his interest in acting, along with early stage experiences at The Theater Project in Brunswick and watching movies with his father when he was a boy.

"I like to figure out what makes people do what they do," he said. "That's why I don't want to just create a caricature on stage. I try to create a human being."

In addition to being salutatorian and vice president of his class, Nicita is a Hannaford cashier, prolific volunteer, long-distance runner and member of Folk Orange, a rock band on track to put out an album this summer.

He plans to study theater and performance at Yale University on a full Questbridge scholarship, a program that connects the nation's best schools with exceptional low-income students.

His course list will be diverse, ranging from philosophy to playwriting.

"I want to include the things I like into a career and see where it takes me," he said."I want to become the fullest me and have acting be a part of that."

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Samuel Sprague graduated from Sanford High School last week in the top 10% of his class, after completing multiple college-track and Advanced Placement courses and participating in a variety of school clubs and sports.

It's an accomplishment that seemed unlikely when Sprague was in elementary and middle school, he said. Emotional and behavioral issues linked to his autism regularly foiled his academic success. He was suspended three times when angry outbursts got out of control, he said.

His transformation began in eighth grade, when he finally clicked with a counselor who helped him learn how to manage his emotions. He wrote about the experience in a college application:

"I am proud of my ability to transform myself, with the help of those who care about me, from an emotionally and physically challenged child into an intelligent, strong, reliable young man who wants nothing more than to make the best of myself and those around me."

In taming his outbursts, Sprague developed many other strengths and talents. He joined the Sanford High track team, throwing shot put, discus and javelin all four years. He also managed the varsity football team, wrote articles for the school newspaper and was a member of the National Honor Society and the Guidance Department Advisory Council.

Outside school, he ramped up independent studies, delving into U.S. military history and human psychology. He also learned to play guitar and continued his longtime habit of creative writing, producing many short stories and a novel that he hopes will be published.

He works part time at Smitty's Cinema in Sanford and volunteers regularly with a low-income housing provider, helping to run community events and assisting residents with everyday tasks. And he has practiced the combat sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu for three years, rising to second-degree white belt and forming a tightly knit group of friends.

"It's one of the more transformative things I've done in my life," he said. "It gives me confidence and the ability to handle difficulty and a sense of community."

Sprague plans to study psychology and government at Colby College, become a psychologist and assist others with the abilities he has gained through his own experiences. He also wants to participate in politics and help to make the world a better place, like his mom, Michelle.

"She fought incredibly hard to make sure I got the best chance to turn things around," he said. "She's one of those people that others can rely on. That's the kind of person I aim to be."

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Richard Vangu first experienced the spiritual wonder of singing in a Pentecostal church in a hillside favela overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

That's where his family lived for several years before seeking asylum in Maine in 2022.

"When I sing, I'm giving glory to God," he said. "It's a soul singing to his creator."

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Vangu and his family migrated to South America when he was about 10. After traveling to Maine, they lived in a South Portland hotel for nearly two years before moving to a Portland apartment.

He doesn't like talking about those unsettled years, other than to say the experience helped him transition into South Portland High School in February 2022. Still, it was difficult for someone who spoke Lingala, Portuguese and French, but no English.

"We moved around a lot, so adapting to places and making new friends is natural to me," he said. "But at first it was pretty challenging because I didn't know any English. That was the biggest thing. Communication is important to teenagers. Getting to know our friends."

He quickly picked up the new language and took more challenging courses, impressing teachers with his strong academic performance and moral character. Vangu downplays his success in the classroom.

"I'm still learning, not only what is the word, but what is the meaning of the word," he said.

Even more impressive is Vangu's voice, making him an instant star of the high school chorus. A smooth and versatile baritone, he wowed audiences with solo and group performances at various school events, singing in English, Lingala, Portuguese and French.

"I always like to sing," he said. "It's a gift I got from God and my parents, who also sang. If I have an opportunity to sing, I like to share it."

He formed a band, Richard & Friends, that performed before the entire school and promoted a message of unity and understanding. He also sings regularly during Sunday services he attends with his family at Rebuilding Life Church in Portland.

Second-oldest of five children, Vangu said he appreciates all the sacrifices made by his parents, Richard and Celine, to give them a better life. Both are custodians at South Portland Middle School.

He plans to train to become a firefighter at Southern Maine Community College, he said. He'd also like to study music in the future and to continue singing at venues around Portland and beyond.

"Music will always be part of my soul," he said.

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When Natalie Waloven was born, her paternal grandmother gave her a traditional Maliseet name, Mahqan.

It means "sweet like maple syrup" and reflects the generosity of the maple tree. It gave Waloven a vague appreciation of her Native American heritage.

"It wasn't really present in my life," she said. "It was more of a fun fact."

Her grandmother, Regis Waloven, was born and raised at Tobique First Nation, one of six Maliseet reserves in New Brunswick, Canada, just across the border from Fort Fairfield, in Aroostook County. It's also part of the Wabanaki Confederation, which includes Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine.

But her grandmother shared little information about her Wabanaki roots. She attended Canada's assimilation-driven government schools for Indigenous children. She later married and moved to New York, where she raised five children.

"My grandmother went to residential schools, so it was something she learned to hide," Waloven said. "She just didn't talk about it."

Waloven's interest in her grandmother's native language and culture blossomed during her junior year at Yarmouth High School, where her success in Latin and Spanish classes led her to consider studying Aztec or Swahili for extra credit.

Instead, Waloven decided to study the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy language and culture. She became dedicated to preserving the heritage of her ancestors, both to honor her grandmother, who died in 2020, and to give back to the Wabanaki community.

"It's bittersweet in a way," Waloven said. "I'm able to connect with my grandmother in a way I never was when she was alive, but I wish I could have spoken to her in her language and learned from her about the culture she was taught was useless."

She reconnected with family members on the Tobique reserve, including Imelda Perley, a Maliseet elder and language conservation activist. She learned that Wabanaki language, culture and identity are deeply entwined. She also recognized a critical link between cultural preservation and land conservation.

"Our culture connects us to these lands and serves as the reckoning force behind our fights for justice and equality," she wrote in a college application.

Waloven is a paid intern with the Royal River Conservation Trust, and as the first Native American to hold the position, she worked to link Wabanaki culture to the Yarmouth nonprofit's preservation efforts.

She also has worked on Indigenous-related issues as a member of student government, helped restart the school newspaper and served as editor, was a representative to the Maine Women's Lobby and a member of the Yarmouth Community Alliance on Racial Equity.

Waloven plans to attend Dartmouth College and double major in linguistics and another field, possibly native studies, astrophysics or law. And she intends to remain dedicated to her Wabanaki heritage.

"My role in preserving our language, culture and rights is not just my duty, but an embodiment of my entire person."

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