Meet your 2014 valedictorians

The newest crop of high school graduates have been collecting their diplomas, but only one in each class can carry the honor of valedictorian. High Ground met with a few of the city's standout students to ask where they're headed, and to reflect on how they got here.

Justin Xie, Valedictorian of Cordova High School's class of 2014

Justin Xie, 18, of Bartlett, graduated from Cordova High School as his class valedictorian, earning the honor of AP Scholar of Distinction as well as being voted Most Likely to Become a Billionaire by his peers. Justin actively participated in Future Business Leaders of America throughout his high school career, advancing to the state level every year for four years and placing first at the national competition during his freshman year. He plans on attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and studying international business.

What attracted you to Future Business Leaders of America?

Justin: Since I was a baby, I grew up in a business environment. I grew up around my parents' working environment. They worked in their own markets, worked in flea markets, owned a store. The buy-at-wholesale-and-sell-at-retail-prices concept just got to me. In high school I joined the FBLA and learned that business is more than wholesale and retail. There are different aspects to business, like speaking and presentations. That interested me and made me say I wanted to pursue a career in business.

Who is your biggest hero and why?

Justin: My biggest hero isn't particularly an individual, but rather it is something implicit. More specifically, it is the bond that I have formed with family, friends teachers, co-workers. This bond is my hero, because without its love and support, I wouldn't be where I am today.

What are some of the things you touched on in your graduation speech?

Justin: I spoke about the same concepts as any valedictorian, but in a different way. I wanted to make it interesting. It was about conquering obstacles. I started out with thank yous, thanking friends, teachers, counselors, my co-workers at Chick-fil-A, my family and everyone for being there. I described our four years--freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years, and then I talked about how our teachers motivated us to be independent, to motivate ourselves to achieve. They didn't give us a fish and feed us for a day. They taught us how to fish to feed us for life. They weren't just giving us the information we needed, but they taught us the principles behind it so we could use it in our future. I told them don't be afraid, that failure encourages success, and that the stress of high school may be over, but it's not over yet. There are still more gates to open. Then I ended with a poem I wrote.

What are some of your hobbies or interests?

Justin: I'm still quite childish. I still enjoy playing Pokemon. I enjoy listening to music, just whatever fits my mood at the time. I like Taylor Swift. I know, it's embarrassing. I listen to all sorts of music all the way from Linkin Park to Flo Rida. I also enjoy computers. I like learning more about them, reading about the upcoming technology. I get excited during the summer because that's when EA comes out with their new games and the WWDC announces the new Apple products coming out.

What advice would you offer to your peers?

Justin: This will probably be our most relaxing summer ever. High school was just completed and we have nothing to think about for three months. It seems high school was our most stressful thing, but it's not over. We have a whole path ahead of us with unchartered terrain, and we don't know what's ahead. Be ready. Be prepared right now, so that even if obstacles hit you, you can take them as a challenge. And remember, failure encourages success.

Candace Grisham, Valedictorian of Central High School's class of 2014

Candace Grisham, 17, of Arlington, earned close to $1 million in scholarships upon graduating as valedictorian from Central High School. Since she's already attended Brown University—she earned a Dean's Scholarship to attend a summer course as a high school student through the Memphis REACH program—out of Vanderbilt University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, the University of Miami and Washington University, Candace chose Vanderbilt and intends to study biomedical engineering.

Why did you choose Vanderbilt, and why biomedical engineering?

Candace: I got a full ride, so the money was all there. I wouldn't have to pay anything out of pocket. It's better to have no loans, nothing owed. I plan on going to medical school, so I'll definitely have to pay something [then]. I chose biomedical engineering because I like math. Doing basic classes in the arts and sciences wouldn't give me the math I wanted.

What do you plan on studying in medical school?

Candace: I want to go into neurosurgery, preferably pediatric. I've always been fascinated with the brain, even since second grade. I learned the lobes of the brain. I loved the complexity of it when I started looking at it. I took psychology this year, and there was a lot of focus on the brain and learning about neurotransmitters. It really sparked my interest.

What did you study at Brown University?

Candace: I took a course in public health last summer. We studied the health system in the U.S. I really like public service, and it's not something you get to do a lot of. Perhaps I could become surgeon general, because you get to have more say about public health. We learned about Medicare and how the health system runs it. We read articles about health issues like stem cell research and teen pregnancy, then we wrote reports and were graded on them. It was really interesting and really enjoyable. The people I met I still have relationships with to this day.

What are some of your hobbies?

Candace: I just got back from the state competition in pole vaulting, where I got fourth in the state. I also did the high jump for the first time this year. I cheered for the school varsity team, and I will cheer at Vanderbilt. I found out that I made the team a couple of weeks ago. I'm really into athletics. I also do a lot of community service. I volunteer for a lot of St. Jude events. I volunteered for the Big Scoop Ice Cream Festival at AutoZone Park. I dressed up as a character. It was incredibly hot, which I hated, but it was really fun. I wrote a college essay about it. I want to come back and work it even though I'll be living in Nashville. And I volunteer a lot for Downtown Elementary School. I tutor every week and have for probably the past three years. I help at field day, summer camp, and field trips and for TCAP preparation. I'm there for whatever they need.

What did you talk about during your graduation speech?

Candace: I talked about making sure this is only a stepping stone to the rest of your life. It isn't the end-all be-all. It's just the end of one thing. I told them also it's time to step out of childish things and to become adults, to become responsible. A lot of people claim to be adults, and they’re still just 40-year-old children.

What advice would you give to your younger classmates?

Candace: Spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to do with your future. Have an idea. If I hadn't had an idea, I would have had less to strive for. So many of us are so caught up in living that we don't think about the future. Of course have fun, but put your attention toward what you want to do. Those first couple of years will come back to haunt you if you don't have a good ground to stand on.

Bryan Redmond, Valedictorian of City University School of Liberal Arts' class of 2014

Bryan Redmond, 17, of Whitehaven, graduated from City University School of Liberal Arts as valedictorian and earned over $2 million in scholarships. He was nominated for the prestigious Princeton University Prize in Race Relations and has participated in the BRIDGES leadership programs, Students in Service AmeriCorps, the Memphis Bar Association's Summer Law Intern program, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Business Education for Talented Students program and has served as a challenge coach and coordinator for the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center.

Describe your involvement with BRIDGES.

Bryan: In Tennessee there are only four high school AmeriCorps student service volunteers. I participated in it for two years, increasing the youth voice in the Shelby County School system. I participated in action research, gathering the opinions of students, stakeholders, teachers and community leaders in how they were affected by the decisions the SCS board makes. Through research such as surveys, focus groups and key informant interviews, along with reading books and studying best practices in other states, we found that our city youth wanted to be included more in the decision-making process. I began working on a student congress policy, which is a mechanism that connects students together through meeting and collaborating, and from there they're allowed to address their educational concerns to the school board. We passed the policy on November 26, 2013.

How did you become interested in BRIDGES?

Bryan: I always say [it was] my brother. I went to his commencement when they graduated at the end of the summer, and I saw what a great time he was having with people he had never met before. They were doing chants and cheers. And when he came home he would tell me about the program and the activities he did and the bonds he made. I wanted to join.

What are your plans?

Bryan: I plan on going to Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and studying psychology. Since I was young, I have been drawn to three careers. I started off wanting to be a lawyer because I like mediating situations. I have been interested in a medical career path, too. And recently, working with BRIDGES and coming up with policies and solving problems, I'm interested in becoming a social entrepreneur. I want to diagnose problems the people in the community have and figure out a way to solve them. [Maybe I will create my] own position, or maybe the world will create one for me.

What are your hobbies?

Bryan: I like playing basketball a lot. I play that and soccer in my spare time. I like reading. Right now I'm reading the Divergent series. I guess I like fictional drama. I like romance movies. And I guess I'm a foodie too. Right now I'm exploring Ethiopian food a lot.

What did you discuss in your graduation speech?

Bryan: I focused on one of my friends who died in a car accident on May 8, 2014. She was the valedictorian of Bishop Byrne (my former school) in 2012 and attended Xavier University. She was a kind of mentor to me. She was doing the things I wanted to do in life. She was involved actively in the community, and was finding a good balance between school and friends. I talked about the things I thought she would say to me if she saw me graduating that day, and the advice she would give me for the future. I said, "Baby, show your sparkle wherever you go." Her nickname was Allie, and she was the type of person who let her light shine no matter what crowd she was in. I think that's great for high school students to take to college, because it can be a place where you assimilate or become timid due to your new surroundings. I also told them, "Don't let high school memories be the best ones of your life." Make them stepping stones for future experiences and go out and live all you can. I ended it with [Allie's] last tweet. She said, "Too many young people are dying. Always stay grounded." It's so ironic, you know.

Garret Sullivan, Valedictorian of Memphis University School's class of 2014

Garret Sullivan, 18, of East Memphis, graduated as the 2014 valedictorian of Memphis University School with a long resume of accomplishments. He earned the honor of being an AP Scholar with Distinction, having achieved a perfect score on all of the seven AP exams in which he participated. He achieved a perfect score in AP Calculus, AP Physics: C Mechanics, and AP Physics: Electricity and Magnetism as a younger classman. He is a member of the Cum Laude Society, is a National Merit Finalist, scored a perfect 36 on his ACT and a 2360 on his SAT and graduated with a 5.51 GPA. He has participated in numerous contests and exams, including the Tennessee Mathematics Teacher's Association contest, the UT Pro2Serve Math Contest, the American Invitational Mathematics Examination, the American Chemical Society's high school chemistry exam, and the National Latin Exam, among others, placing and qualifying in all. Garret plans on attending the California Institute of Technology.

What is one of your earliest memories of when you realized why and how much you liked math and/or physics?

Garret: The first math contest I participated in was in fourth grade. It was very small, involving only four schools, and the questions were very basic. Despite these facts, winning first place in that contest was a joyous surprise. Although that was the only contest available to me in elementary school, when I entered seventh grade I began competing in every contest I was eligible for, and I greatly enjoyed them. Trying to solve the difficult problems which I knew I had the necessary mathematical tools to complete is a very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating challenge. In seventh grade I remember the calculator we needed for math class--it was a TI-84. It was very advanced and could do graphing, and I didn't know how to work it. As the year went on, I learned how to work it. There was a program button, and I asked my teacher what it did. He said we could program and tell our calculator what to do, so I started writing various programs that helped with math.

Why did you choose the California Institute of Technology, and what are your future plans in college and life?

Garret: I chose the California Institute of Technology mainly because of its academic rigor and its exceptional engineering programs. The location was also a factor, as I have family in the Los Angeles area and love the California weather. I plan to major in some field of engineering and am leaning toward either electrical engineering or computer science, but I am still open to other options. I hope to work at one of the big technology companies in the future, such as Google, Apple, Facebook or Twitter. I'm interested in the technical stuff. I've been a technical person as far back as I can remember. I love computers. I've always been that way.

What are some of the things you discussed in your speech?

Garret: I went through the accomplishments of our class while trying to keep it funny with lighthearted humor. Then I gave thanks to the faculty, specifically the ones who influenced my life.

What advice would you give to your peers?

Garret: Particularly to those in math and physics, I feel you really need to do your homework and do the tough problems to be able to solve them right. It's not all formulas and trigonometric identities. Unless you actually solve the problems, you won’t be able to solve them on the tests. Practice, practice, practice.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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