2023: Pathfinder Scholarship Awards Mark 40 years

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Pathfinder Scholarship Awards mark 40 years of recognizing academic excellence

Kristina Webb
Special to The Palm Beach Post

A first-generation college student who wants to set an example for her younger siblings. A gay Black student who hopes to improve equity in medical care. A young entrepreneur inspired to achieve great things following his sister’s stillbirth.

These are just three of the 18 outstanding students honored by this year’s Pathfinder Scholarship Awards.

The Pathfinder Awards, sponsored by The Palm Beach Post, marked their 40th year with a remarkable slate of candidates — 530 of them.

The first-place winner in each of the 18 categories received a $3,000 scholarship in recognition of their achievements. Second- and third-place winners received $2,000 and $1,500, respectively.

In addition to requiring written recommendations from their academic leaders — including principals, program directors and teachers — finalists also are required to take part in an interview process.

All told, the scholarship program has awarded more than $3.5 million over the past four decades.

“It’s hard to think of a community event The Palm Beach Post has participated in over the past few decades that has a greater effect than the Pathfinder Awards,” said Palm Beach Post Executive Editor Rick Christie. “It is often said that its children are any community’s greatest asset. And, other than our award-winning education coverage, this is our way of helping to recognize that truth.”

‘My whole life has been surrounded by one question: What more can I do?’

From an early age, Martin County High School senior Daniela Mendoza watched as her single mother worked two jobs to support her three children. As the oldest, Mendoza learned how to cook, clean and do laundry to help her mother and two younger brothers.

“My whole life has been surrounded by one question: What more can I do?” Mendoza said. “This question made me who I am and who I will become.”

Mendoza has channeled that desire to do more into a passion for health care. She is enrolled in Martin County High School’s Medical Academy. In her junior year, she earned her medical administrative assistant certification. She’s currently studying to become a certified nursing assistant. She will be a first-generation college student, and she plans to obtain her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Her skill and dedication to her work have made her a top student in her program, said Aimee French, Medical Academy instructor at Martin County High School.

“As a nursing assistant, Daniela completed 20 hours of clinical rotations at Palm City Nursing and Rehab where she participated in patient care,” French said. “During her training, Daniela went above and beyond, taking initiative to learn and expand her knowledge.”

With an admiration for women and mothers and their strength, Mendoza said she wants to go into maternity care. “Women are so strong and powerful, and being able to help a woman push out a beautiful blessing is so rewarding.”

Mendoza also works more than 45 hours a week at two jobs, seven days a week, while making time to volunteer for the Club Pure summer camp in Port St. Lucie.

Community service was a constant theme from this year’s Pathfinder winners.

The overachiever who grew ‘more proud and open with my unique identity’

Science Pathfinder winner Justin Ricketts, a Suncoast High School senior, plans to become a neurologist so he can dedicate his life to ensuring his future patients receive quality care, “regardless of race, gender, economic status or sexuality, to the fullest of my abilities,” he said.

Ricketts grew up in Lake Worth Beach, where he watched neighbors, friends and family members struggle to receive adequate medical care.

One of his greatest challenges growing up was in understanding his sexual identity.

“In high school, I have more often than not been the only Black kid in my advanced classes … or the only gay kid,” Ricketts said. “With the exception of one of my classes in four years, I’ve always been the only Black and gay kid. Regardless, I have grown more proud and open with my unique identity.”

Ricketts scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs, and he is president of Suncoast’s Black Student Union. Last summer, he attended the elite Research Science Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which accepts only 92 students per year.

He has been accepted to Harvard University’s neuroscience program, which he plans to attend before pursuing an MD-PhD.

“Justin is a chameleon of sorts,” said Liesl DeLuera, science teacher at Suncoast. “He is comfortable and confident with peers from many different walks of life; able to find a common ground from which he works collaboratively to achieve a common goal. I have seen this first hand in the classroom and know it to be equally true today.”

Collaboration both in and out of the classroom can be seen among several Pathfinder winners.

A responsibility to live life ‘to its absolute fullest’ for a sister who was stillborn

Pathfinder winners and Spanish River High School seniors Paul Passarelli and Brody Pellegrino dedicated dozens of hours to their work with the nonprofit Clubs2Kids.org, founded and operated by Passarelli with a summer school curriculum written by Pellegrino.

The organization introduces young students, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, to the game of golf. The children are provided equipment, guidance and education.

“For the past two years, it’s been amazing to see children learn to love golf like I do,” said Passarelli, who is this year’s Community Involvement Pathfinder winner for his work with his nonprofit. “We now have eight instructors who teach 110 children, saving local families $66,000 in fees and equipment.”

Passarelli is ranked sixth in his class, and he plans to study either economics or business, then enter the finance industry.

Pellegrino is this year’s Academic Excellence Pathfinder. He is ranked first in his graduating class, scored a 1540 on his SATs, was named an AP Scholar with Distinction by the College Board and plans to pursue a career in finance.

When Pellegrino was in fifth grade, his sister Margo was stillborn. “I thought about Margo never having the chance to take risks, to fall but get back up again, to change the world, to live,” Pellegrino said. “I felt an urgent responsibility to live my life to its absolute fullest for her.”

With that inspiration, Pellegrino in ninth grade joined DECA, a student organization that encourages entrepreneurship. He quickly assumed a leadership position and this year is president of Florida DECA.

“We have not had a DECA Executive President for Florida in many years at River, and we are so proud that Brody has done such an exceptional job representing Spanish River while gaining invaluable experience meeting with other student business leaders from across the state,” said Spanish River Principal Allison Castellano.

Pellegrino has been accepted to and will attend the exclusive Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We congratulate all of the Pathfinder Award winners, as well as the nominees,” The Post’s Christie said. “With the help of their parents and loved ones, these students are laying the groundwork for a great future. We wish them well.”

2021: Pathfinder Winners are Announced

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2021 Pathfinder Awards: WATCH as the winners are announced

Palm Beach Post staff report

2022: Pathfinder winners overcome great challenges 

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2022 Pathfinder winners overcame great challenges in Palm Beach and Martin counties

Giuseppe Sabella
Palm Beach Post

“I was thrown into a classroom where nobody could understand me, and students would bully me for not knowing the language,” Gerig said. “I would ask other Spanish speakers for help, and they would trick me into saying things to embarrass myself.”

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT First - Gabriel Gerig - Inlet Grove High School

Gerig, now a senior at Inlet Grove High School and one of 54 students honored during the 2022 Pathfinder Scholarship Awards, said that family, faith and self-determination fueled his journey.

He earned straight A’s, climbed to the top of his class and recently earned a spot at the prestigious Harvard College.

But it was Gerig’s volunteer work — more than 1,300 hours dedicated to tutoring students, helping at school events and passing out food to local families — that secured his position as the Community Involvement winner during this year’s Pathfinder awards.

The awards, sponsored by The Palm Beach Post, entered their 39th year and gave $3,000 to each of the first-place winners across 18 categories, honoring the high school seniors for their achievements inside and outside the classroom.

“The Pathfinders Scholarship Awards are a tradition unlike any other in Palm Beach and Martin counties, providing an opportunity to put our hardworking high school students center stage,” said Post Executive Editor Rick Christie.

“It is the most significant showing by our communities how much we value education, and the importance of investing in our students,” he said.

“The Palm Beach Post is proud to have been a part of this great tradition from the beginning, and looks forward to continuing that support.”

REACH FOR EXCELLENCE First - Aidan Locke - Jensen Beach High School

Aidan Locke, a student at Jensen Beach High School and this year’s winner in the Reach for Excellence category, turned her challenges into opportunities.

Locke has dyslexia, a learning disability that can make reading difficult. But that struggle motivated Locke to work harder and to advocate not only for herself, but also for the many students who face similar obstacles.

She excelled in school, shared her story at national conferences, pushed for new dyslexia legislation and worked toward her ultimate goal of becoming a special education teacher.

“I cannot think of a more noble course of study than to give back to other students that may find themselves struggling and feeling discouraged and disheartened,” teacher Amanda Cooke said in a letter of recommendation for Locke.

Locke was among the many Pathfinder winners who aspired to make a positive difference in the world.

MATHEMATICS First - Alexander Stone - West Boca Raton High School.

Alexander Stone, who ranked No. 1 in a class of more than 500 students at West Boca Raton High School, plans to major in aerospace engineering.

Stone, this year’s winner in the Mathematics category, said he hoped to advance technology for everyday travel, cargo transportation or space voyages.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE First - Belina Bubenik Parry - Olympic Heights High School

And this year’s winner in the Foreign Language category, Belina Bubenik Parry, is using her gift to pursue a career in diplomacy and international relations.

The Olympic Heights High School senior can speak, write and read in English, Czech, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic.

Parry — who was also practicing Mandarin, Thai and American Sign Language — said her mother inspired a love of language in the family, along with a spirit of sensitivity and cultural awareness.

Now, Parry has vowed to honor those lessons after her mother’s passing in September.

“Although I’ll never be able to repay my mom for all the wonderful things she did for me, I know I can still make her proud,” she said in her award submission. “That will be her legacy; I will be her legacy.”

This year’s Pathfinder Scholarship Awards garnered hundreds of nominations and honored students with tens of thousands of dollars.

Along with the top prizes, second-and third-place winners earned $2,000 and $1,500, respectively, adding to more than $3.4 million awarded over the event’s history.

“We are proud to recognize the hard work and tenacity shown by the 534 Pathfinder nominees from Palm Beach and Martin County high schools,” said Janie Fogt, president of the Pathfinders’ Board of Directors. “We are able to give 54 scholarships, but if we could, we would love to give so many more.”

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2020: Pathfinder winners already paving way to brighter future

Maliyah White, 18, of Dreyfoos School of the Arts, is recorded for a Pathfinders video March 4. [LANNIS WATERS/palmbeachpost.com]

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2020 Pathfinder winners already paving way to brighter future

Here are the winners for the Class of 2020.

By Sonja Isger

More than 500 of the region’s standout high school seniors wrapped all of their academic, artistic, athletic and civic accomplishments into packets just months ago and asked to be counted among the Class of 2020′s elite — to be named a Pathfinder.

Then, just weeks after being grilled by judges in their respective fields, a pandemic swept the globe, pitching their proms, canceling their celebrations and forcing their graduations to be recast for video viewing.

The 37th annual Pathfinder Scholarship Awards ceremony had to switch gears as well.

Since their inception, the awards sponsored by The Palm Beach Post have celebrated soon-to-be graduates from Palm Beach and Martin counties, handing out more than $3.2 million in scholarships to more than 2,450 students.

This year, 54 students earned first, second and third prizes in 18 categories, laying claim to $171,000 in scholarships.

While there was no red-carpet or Kravis Center stage moment, the Pathfinders recognized Wednesday during an online broadcast have proved they can power through the difficult and make hay of most obstacles.

They’ve got this.

Olympic Heights student Francois Khouri survived a childhood punctuated by missile strikes in Syria, fueling a curiosity about political science. His pursuit landed him internships with both the Florida Democratic Party and two local Republican congressional campaigns. Winner in the category of History and Political Science, Khouri is sharing his passion with thousands of YouTube viewers a month through his Political Discourse for Dummies channel.

Repeated family visits to India exposed Science winner Rohan Jakhete to the scourge of poverty and water insecurity. As a student at South Fork High, he developed tools — one patent pending — to purify the polluted and manage the meager. He’s the founder and CEO of two start-ups.

The intersection of invention and water also paid off for Sophia Lloyd George. The Oxbridge Academy student’s work to translate data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and her use of crowdsourcing to map algae caught attention in the Computer Science category.

But her resume, too, is girded by success over adversity. Inspired by an older brother with autism, Lloyd George convinced doubting adults to let her teach computer science to children with the disorder. Her nonprofit, Code Autism, was further propelled by a $14,000 grant.

Park Vista High’s Noah Cabarcas was just looking for fun when he turned learning a new language into a sport with young friends: Who can master another tongue in the shortest amount of time?

But as others lost interest, Cabarcas found new purpose, seeking to better connect with his best friend, a transplant from Brazil.

Tapping YouTube, Duolingo and the international pop music scene, Cabarcas cracked Portuguese well enough to chat with his friend’s family in eight months. He went on to master Italian — that’s what you do when family arrives from Italy for the summer. And French — it began with a class and then took off when a student from the country arrived on campus. The Pathfinder in Foreign Language also speaks Spanish and is chipping away at Japanese and Russian.

“It’s heartening and inspiring to know that our Pathfinders have the qualities that will enable our country not only to emerge from today’s unprecedented crisis, but be better prepared to face similar challenges in the future,″ Palm Beach Post Executive Editor Nick Moschella said. “They are leaders and scholars, driven to succeed and serve their communities with compassion and vision.″

The credentials amassed by this year’s Pathfinders would be the envy of most adults.

In addition to building academic transcripts that rarely, if ever, see anything below a B, they are the editors of their school newspapers and yearbooks; they lead debate clubs, language clubs and clubs for computer coding. Dreyfoos School of the Arts student Elizabeth Sinn has placed second in the Steinway Junior Piano Competition for two years running. Her classmate, Jacqueline Kaskel was a semifinalist in the New York Lyric Opera Theatre Competitions. Jensen Beach High student Sandra Edwards played in the women’s under-19 lacrosse world championships (as a recruit and leader for a nascent Team China, thanks to a grandfather’s bloodline).

Even their spare time is superlative-worthy. Among them, they hold black belts in taekwondo, teach chess, play performance level harp.

And they aspire to do so much more.

At Glades Central, Fabio Louis will be the first in his family to graduate high school and is poised to have his associate’s degree in hand by December. The grandson of Haitians who raised cattle and banana trees and the winner in the Vocational Education category, Louis has set his sights on the science of agriculture. He wants to help solve world hunger.


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2019: Dreyfoos grad’s Pathfinder award for drama comes 35 years after dad won same prize

Chas Payson and Olivia Payson stand at the 2019 Pathfinder High School Scholarship Awards in May. The father and daughter each won the top prize for drama 35 years apart. [TIM STEPIEN/palmbeachpost.com]

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Dreyfoos grad’s Pathfinder award for drama comes 35 years after dad won same prize

When Olivia Payson won the top prize for drama at this year’s Pathfinder High School Scholarship Awards, she took home the same honor her father, Chas Payson, won 35 years ago as a graduating senior at Benjamin.

By Sam Howard

JUPITER — Theater roots run deep in the Payson family.

Last month, Jupiter-area resident Olivia Payson won the top $4,000 scholarship in drama at the 2019 Pathfinder High School Scholarship Awards. It was the same honor her father, Chas Payson, won at the 1984 Pathfinder ceremony.

The Pathfinder Awards, organized by The Palm Beach Post, are presented each year to high school seniors in Palm Beach and Martin counties who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in 18 academic, vocational and athletic categories. The students are nominated by their schools.

“It’s been something really special for us,” said Olivia Payson, who graduated from Dreyfoos School of the Arts and plans to attend University of Oklahoma in the fall to earn a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater.

Her father, owner of Jupiter’s Echo Beach Studios, often regales her with stories of his involvement in shows, such as the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit “The King and I,” while growing up in Jupiter, Olivia Payson said. Although Chas Payson largely set aside his theater ambitions upon graduating from the Benjamin School 35 years ago, Olivia said he was a valuable critic while she rehearsed for college auditions in the family living room.

“My dad would say, ‘OK you’re a little pitchy here,’” Olivia Payson said. “It was great, he’d help me with that.”

His daughter’s win gave Chas Payson a chance to reflect on his own Pathfinder experience. His scholarship was worth about $2,500 and many students were unaware of the program, he said. When he was called into Benjamin’s library with other Pathfinder nominees, Chas Payson joked, “We all thought we were in trouble for something.”

Another difference: the talent pool among students today “is incredible,” he said. For him, theater was “kind of an excuse to goof off.” He still remembers his first role, playing a “bratty kid chased by a toy soldier” while in second grade. He can’t remember the name of the production at Stuart’s Barn Theatre, but recalled being drawn to the comedic aspect of the role.

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“I did it for laughs,” he said.

Acting has been a much more serious passion for his daughter, he said. Her first role was as Rope Twirler No. 1 in a production of “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre when she was 6. He has video footage of his daughter acting at home in her early childhood, and said her love for the stage was always apparent.

She was talented, too, her father said, and that made it even easier to support her. He calls her a “triple threat” because of her ability to sing, dance and act.

“If you have a talent for something, definitely why not pursue it?” Chas Payson said. “That was our belief all along.”

While theater president during her senior year at Dreyfoos, Olivia Payson said, she took part in productions of “Amélie,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Cry-Baby.”

Her love for theater has grown over the years and she hopes that passion will someday turn into a profession. After college, she plans to move to New York to audition for “as many shows as possible.”

“I loved being on stage and getting a chance to express myself. … As I’ve gotten older that love has matured and changed,” Olivia Payson said.

There seems to be a natural inclination toward the performing arts in her family, Olivia Payson said. Her 15-year-old sister Catherine is a dancer at Dreyfoos and one of her grandmothers loved to dance and play piano, she said.

“My mom (Suzanne Payson) always talks about how there must be something in the Payson family blood,” she said.

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2019: These cancer-fighting, charity building teens didn’t wait for adulthood to think big

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Pathfinder Awards 2019: These cancer-fighting, charity-building teens didn’t wait for adulthood to think big

Dozens of the region’s most outstanding high school seniors were recognized Tuesday at the 2019 Pathfinder High School Scholarship Awards.

By Andrew Marra

WEST PALM BEACH — They organized voter-registration drives, collected shoes for impoverished children, researched new ways to detect lung damage and breast cancer.

They studied contamination in Palm Beach County’s waterways and designed computer programs for predicting sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico.

And they still haven’t graduated high school.

For their outsize achievements, dozens of the region’s most outstanding high school seniors were honored Tuesday at the 2019 Pathfinder High School Scholarship Awards, a pomp-filled, bass-thumping ceremony at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

The 36th annual event, organized by The Palm Beach Post, recognized 54 students for outstanding achievements in 18 categories, from drama and computer science to community involvement and literature.

The first-place winners were announced with a blast of pop music and shrieks of excitement from fellow students, then presented onstage with a trophy shaped as an astrolabe, an ancient tool used to navigate ships via the position of stars in the sky.

The honorees hailed from public and private high schools across Palm Beach and Martin counties, all united by an extraordinary passion for their particular interests.

Many winners were striking for the sheer precociousness of their achievements. Take Justin Wang, a Suncoast High School senior who took home the top award for mathematics.

He competes annually in math tournaments hosted by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has worked with Florida Atlantic University researchers on a computer model to forecast sea levels.

He proposed improvements to a computer algorithm that works to detect signs of breast cancer. And he has published research in four academic journals.

“His knowledge of the applications of mathematics surpasses that of any teenager I have ever worked with,” wrote Randal Oddi, the chair of Suncoast High’s mathematics department.

All the Pathfinder winners excelled in their studies, but none were merely excellent students. Winners distinguished themselves with the variety of their achievements and passions that extended beyond the classroom.

Natalie Navarrete, a Boca Raton High senior named the top winner in the academic excellence category, maintained straight A’s throughout high school and is poised to graduate at the top of her class.

In an essay, she wrote that she hopes to apply her wide range of interests to government policy-making in order “to craft and present unique solutions to the political problems facing our nation and the world today.”

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But Navarrete’s achievements were hardly limited to the classroom. At Boca Raton High, she was an award-winning member of the debate team and organized a club that registered students vote, then sent them into their communities to encourage others to vote.

Her commitment, her studiousness, her maturity and poise combine to make Navarrete “fearless and a born leader,” her teacher said.

“In a world where rendered resumes and constructed characters are commonplace, Natalie’s authenticity and humility is a gift,” Christina Hessing, a government and politics teacher at the school, wrote in a nominating letter.

For some of the evening’s winners, their passions took them beyond academics and into a world of service.

Joseph Rubsamen, a senior at Oxbridge Academy, visited Nicaragua as a boy and was shocked by the number of impoverished children and adults he saw who could not afford shoes.

Returning home, he started collecting used shoes and sneakers, and in 2014 he formed a non-profit organization, Shoes2You, to distribute them to people in need.

To date, Shoes2You has donated more than 15,000 pairs of shoes to needy people in Florida and four developing nations.

Along with his work at the nonprofit, Rubsamen organizes student volunteers to work at a local homeless shelter and has done research investigating the sources of bacterial fecal pollution in the county’s waterways.

Tuesday evening, he was awarded the top Pathfinder award for community involvement.

“Joseph is the kind of person who sincerely believes there is value when we all succeed,” wrote Teresa Thornton, an Oxbridge biology teacher, in a nominating letter.

All told, more than 500 students at nearly 50 high schools were nominated for the Pathfinder awards this year. The winners were selected by judges who reviewed nomination letters and applications and interviewed all the nominees.

Each of the 18 first-place winners receives a $4,000 scholarship, while second- and third-place winners receive scholarships worth $3,000 and $2,500, respectively.

Though there were just 18 first-place Pathfinder winners, just being among the more than 500 nominees was an honor in and of itself, Palm Beach Post Publisher Timothy Burke told the audience.

“You are officially part of a very select group of super scholars whose achievements amaze and inspire,” Burke said.

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