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Ten Teens to Watch

As another school year starts, we read about ten teens who prove that hard work is worth the effort.

Teens in our community have numerous opportunities for a superior, well-rounded education. Here we put the spotlight on just ten, who have earned super-high GPAs, aced numerous AP classes, and made high honors year after year. Moreover, their impressive academic résumés are stacked with community service, sports awards, and creative talents that make telling the whole of their stories impossible. Consider these interesting, enthusiastic snapshots. Keep your eye on these budding geneticists, Olympic hopefuls, robotics engineers, film industry pros, entrepreneurs, and future stage stars. Theirs are inspiring stories of robust youth blazing a path.

Discover the behind the scenes details - from impromptu biology lessons to picking the wrong Strawberry.



James Austin Schaefer

Wilton High School

As a young boy, James Austin (who goes by Austin) Schaefer was introduced to competitive sailing at Westport’s Cedar Point Yacht Club. Out on the Sound, you’ll find Austin racing a double-handed 420 (named for the length of the boat, 4.2 meters) with his crew of five years. He says, “Our greatest accomplishment was qualifying for the national finals of the Bemis Trophy, the U.S. Junior Double-Handed Championship.”

Back on dry land, Austin is a gifted violinist and guitarist. He began playing violin in third grade and became immersed in music after picking up the guitar in eighth grade. After that, he says, “I became heavily involved in songwriting, composition and blues and jazz improvisation, as this is the sort of music I listen to. I also play the mandolin, which I picked up when my high school orchestra teacher asked me to play the instrument for a concert.” He’s currently focusing on guitar during his free time, studying jazz with Bryan Anderson.

At school, Austin, who maintains a superb GPA, is interested in classics, English, and science and is a spirited member of the Debate Team. He credits a Latin and Greek teacher for “deeply engaging me in the study of two languages I never anticipated having an interest in.” His favorite course was Selected American Authors. He says, “The teacher, whom I already knew from sailing, was outrageously funny and a captivating discussion leader.”

He credits sailing and debating for making him a highly dynamic thinker, confronting split-second decisions and rapid changes of course. This skill will help as he charts his course for a senior year, when he is nominated for the Future Global Leader Scholarship and as a Connecticut Governors Scholar (one of just thirty recipients).

Favorite Hangout: Toquet Hall Teen Center. I’ve played several concerts there with my band, and it’s one of our favorite venues for its accessible staff, nice location in downtown, and ability to draw large crowds.

Pet Peeve: When people say “literally” when they don’t mean “literally.” Example, “It’s literally a million degrees out.”

Role Model: My greatest sailing coach, Brendan Kopp of Fairfield. I’ve known Brendan both as a co-competitor and a coach, and he always gives the most careful attention to my progress as a sailor.



Katie Hacala

Weston High School

When Katie Hacala was ten years old, her mom was laid up following foot surgery. The duo embarked on a marathon screening of movies from the 1930s and 1940s, sparking Katie’s interest in film. In seventh grade Katie saw a poster for the second annual Westport Youth Film Festival (WYFF) and was intrigued. She recalls, “I arrived at the theater around 10 a.m. and stayed glued in my seat for nine straight hours. I was blown away, not just by the films, but how it was high school students who had founded the festival, given it life, and created an incredible showcase for their work. I knew that I one day wanted to be the director of the festival, so when I entered high school, I immediately got involved.”

Along the way Katie started reading movie reviews and got caught up in the yearly Oscar coverage and predictions. “My opinions most closely mirrored those of critic Roger Ebert, and I loved his natural writing style. He really inspired me to start writing my own reviews, the first of which was published in my middle school’s newspaper that a few of my friends and I started. I continued as a film critic for my high school’s paper, The Journal, as well as on my school’s television show, Trojan TV.”

Speaking about her role as director of WYFF, she says, “Planning and organizing the festival is a year-round project, and it starts with the wrap-up meeting at the end of each festival. We discuss what went wrong, what needs the most improvement, and what we did right, and then make our next year’s programming decisions, team-member job descriptions/responsibilities, and advances accordingly. The festival evolves with each new year, and it’s so exciting to be able to watch its growth and see all of our ideas play out.”

Favorite Film: Chicago (2002). Rob Marshall’s ingenious directing and choreography do justice to Fosse’s signature style, while incorporating his own trademarks.

Quirky Habit: I color-code all of my school papers/materials/supplies and even computer files by subject.

Pet Peeve: I’m one of the few teenagers who hates texting…I can’t stand it!

Mackenzie “Macky” Young

Weston High School

Macky Young is a “hippie-prepster,” mixing the hippie aura of Vermont with the preppy vibe of Weston. Outwardly, she’s fun and adventurous. Inwardly, she’s a determined ski racer with her eye on the prize of racing in college, making the U.S. Ski Team, and tackling World Cup events. Her passion was ignited at age eight, when her parents took her to Okemo. She recalls, “Pretty much what inspired my interest in ski racing was my quest to be ‘cool.’ I thought it would be an opportunity to ski more, but the camaraderie, competition, and the fun got me hooked.” Since sophomore year this self-professed “adrenaline junkie” has been in the circuit with top racers Sarah Schlepper and Chelsea Marshall of the U.S. Ski Team.

As a freshman at Weston High School, Macky says, “It was pretty tough traveling, racing, and trying to keep up with my schoolwork. I missed about twenty-one days of school during the winter alone. I fell behind in my classes, my grades slipped, and my social life away from skiing was nonexistent.” Then, in tenth grade she switched to Mount Mansfield Winter Academy in Stowe, Vermont. “At the academy, my friendships, skiing, and grades improved by leaps and bounds. It was an asset to all areas of my life. The ninth-grade Macky and the twelfth-grade Macky are two very different people. I have learned how to be more efficient and resilient when doing schoolwork, training or traveling.”

Pursuing her deep passion for ski racing keeps her grounded about typical teenager pursuits, like parties. She says, “I have so many other things on my mind, like what temperature wax to use, what skis to bring, where I’m going and for how long, what I need to think about while I’m racing, what I need to work on.”

Perfect Day: Hang out with my friends on the chair lift and then go 50 mph on a GS course.

Ideal Job: Backcountry ski guide (before I get a real job in the field of environmental biology).

Fashion Quirk: Even though I wear sweats and flannel most of the time, I still really like to dress up for formal occasions.

Famous Twin: Ellen Page, Juno in the movie Juno. We kinda look alike, and rarely do I care what other people think about me.

Nicholas Hilton

Fairfield Prep

While other kids were playing soccer, Fairfield Prep’s Nick Hilton was peering into a microscope, amassing rock collections, and competing in Lego League competitions. “The exact field of my interest varied depending on my age,” he recalls. “My interest in biology was a combination of my interest in science and getting my hands on every book I could read. The Peddie Summer Science Institute further drew my focus to biology and genetics through their genetics-centered lab activities.”

He is excited about his summer internship at Yale–New Haven Hospital that provided hands-on experience in biology. Under the eye of Dr. Michael Paidas, codirector of Yale Women and Children’s Center for Blood Disorders, Nick observed ultrasound evaluations of obstetric and gynecologic patients, as well as current clinical research projects. In the lab, he learned tissue culture techniques, molecular biologic techniques, and immunoassay.

Last summer Nick worked at the New York Botanical Gardens studying glutamate receptors, which deal with signaling in the human brain. He explains, “A chemical called BMAA has been found to disrupt the function of glutamate receptors and lead to diseases similar to Alzheimer’s when ingested by humans.” Nick practiced his lab skills in a state-of-the-art-facility. “My time was directed towards real-world problems, and I was supervised by very distinguished scientific staff and technicians,” he says. The internship also provided weekly lectures with researchers from a variety of specialties.

Nick wants to become a geneticist who employs techniques like gene substitution to treat diseases. “An example would be employing viruses to deliver functioning DNA sequences to pancreas cells in someone with diabetes. I would love to be on the cutting edge of such technology, because the science of genetics has the potential to cure diseases previously thought incurable,” he says.

Stress Reliever: Crew. It’s a total commitment sport.

Pastime: Fishing on the Saugatuck River.

Pet Peeve: Mosquitoes. Some people never get bitten, and some attract every mosquito in the state. I am in the latter category.

Naveen Murali

Staples High School

National AP Scholar, National Merit Scholarship Finalist and Staples’ valedictorian, Naveen Murali takes his position as a top scholar in stride. His school counselor described him as “by far the most outstanding student I have encountered in my ten years at Staples High School.” Despite his high GPA and rigorous course load stacked with AP classes, Naveen is equally known at Staples for his leadership qualities and for being a “regular guy.”

As the business manager of Inklings, the school’s award-winning newspaper, and news director of WWPT radio, Naveen plunged into his roles, covering the historic 2008 presidential elections late into the night up to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. He recalls, “It was interesting for me to experience this election from the unique perspective of a newscaster, streaming election results live on air, an opportunity I may never have again at such a key moment in American history.”

As humble as he is bright, Naveen says, “What I have learned from my meager high school experiences is that effective leadership requires understanding and accessing each other’s strengths. Most of the activities and competitions I did were collaborative (Siemens Competition, Moody’s Mega Math Challenge), where our collective success was dependent on the attitudes of each team member. I tried to recognize the strengths of my peers and divide the work appropriately.”

Naveen hopes to combine his interests in technology and business. He explains, “My dream job would be working in the venture capital/private equity industry to fund technology entrepreneurs and their innovative ideas.”

Pet Peeve: People repeating themselves.

Role Model: Bill Gates, a self-made man who didn’t let his incredible success affect his understanding of the importance of philanthropy.

Erica Bower 

Fairfield Ludlowe High School

This Fairfield Ludlowe senior is busy developing skills in environmental and political activism by studying climate change in the Arctic Circle and attending the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. Inspired by her parents, who are active in public health and international issues, Erica has traveled to countries with drastically different cultures. She says, “The more I’ve learned about these issues, the more closely I’ve felt connected to them, and the more anxious I’ve been to actually do something. After taking AP Environmental Sciences, I was inspired to apply for the Earth Watch trip to study climate change in the Arctic Circle. I had spent the entire academic year learning about the impact of global warming on the planet and species that inhabit it; finally, here was an opportunity to actually get out into the field and see the effect first-hand.” Similarly, at this year’s World AIDS Day at Ludlowe, Erica spoke about her experiences at the conference in Mexico: “Classmates and teachers came up to me and said how my speech got them thinking about how important it is for everyone in the ‘bubble’ of Fairfield to attempt to make a difference in the lives of others around the globe.”

Of her plans, she says, “I would love to work at the United Nations or a nonprofit organization that works with these issues and the manner in which they impact human lives directly.”

Inspiring Change: Our genuine passion for living in a sustainable and “green” manner as teenagers, rather than adults who were getting paid, seemed to really catch people’s attention.

Quirky Hobby: I love taking obscure photographs at angles of the marsh grass or of trees or of my friends jumping.

Favorite Food Haunt: Eating sushi at Fin or getting coffee at Las Vetas and ice cream at Timothy’s.

Sarah Hackett

Wilton High School

Wilton High School senior Sarah Hackett spreads the word about dating violence by flooding the school and community with information. She says, “Seeing a magnet in a bathroom stall, receiving a bookmark at the library, or finding a card in your shopping bag—each outlining signs of abuse and how to get help—have all been very effective in spreading the message. We disperse information without requiring someone to attend a seminar. The community is getting the information. Some recognize themselves when they read our cards.”

Part of her mission is to change the misperception that domestic violence is just physical. “It is the verbal and emotional abuse that is much more far-reaching and damaging. It is also not well-known that the level of domestic violence is the same in an affluent community, like Wilton, as it is in a poorer community. It’s just better hidden here.”

Sarah started Wilton PeaceWorks, a teen group to raise awareness about teen dating violence, as a sophomore. She never thought the team would accomplish so much by the simple acts of hanging seventy purple ribbons around town, one for each case of domestic violence in town the previous year. That lead to a variety of clever campaigns. 

Sarah motivated the board of education to incorporate teen dating violence education into the health curriculum. She also reached out to classmates with speeches on abusive relationships. She says, “Even though only a few students came to me for advice on dating abuse, I know I made a difference. I can always tell when I am reaching someone. There is that slight nod of acknowledgement, that look of knowing on their face or even tears in their eyes. I know they heard me and that they received a card telling them how to get confidential help.”

Motto: “Things happen for a reason.” After such a challenging year, I learned that in the end everything works out, even though it may not have been what you planned or imagined.

Haris Durrani 

Staples High School

Haris Durrani is an award-winning writer for Teen Ink, a senior writer for Inklings, his school newspaper, a key member of Staples top-ranked Robotics team, and an all-out ball of energy. He started journalism because “Minorities rarely get a voice, and reporting on the issues we face, and working to get our voice heard, are key. I want to challenge the thinking of my readers, break stereotypes, make sure that as an American society we maintain and stick to our ideals—that they are not just things we read in textbooks.”

As a junior, the science fiction fanatic’s story, “After the Age of Giant Sundials,” was published. And recently his short story about civil rights was recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards (publishers of Harry Potter). He won a regional Gold Key and a National Silver Medal and was one of only three nationwide out of 150,000 contestants to receive both the Creativity and Citizenship Gold Medal and the Scholarship Award.  

In his “spare time,” Haris, an Isaac Asimov devotee, interns for John Joseph Adams, assistant editor of award-winning Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. As such, he rescues gems from the slush pile. He says, “I help Adams read through anthologies, magazines, or original story submissions and judge them for his anthologies.”

Beyond this, he can frequently be found pulling all-nighters with his Robotics teammates. He jokes, “Before we shipped out our robot to Atlanta for this year’s world championships, we pulled an all-nighter from Friday afternoon to Saturday midday. It was so crazy we literally worked in shifts…It was the most insane, awesomest thing ever.” The effort paid off—the Staples robotics team set the highest score in competition history, placing second and third worldwide in the past two years (200,000 students from forty-five countries compete). They are still the only FTC robotics team from Connecticut to make it to the world championships.

Dream Job: A roboticist (you know, Isaac Asimov coined the term “robotics”!) or physicist…I will also write investigative journalism on issues of free speech, social justice, media accountability, and issues that impact American lives (voices which aren’t heard, minority issues), and study ancient history, and the historical evolution of scientific/mathematical thought (I think the past has a lot to teach us about our future).

Family Ties: I’ve got a humongously giant big extended family.

Tyler Angotto

Farfield Warde High School

An eighth-grade production of High School Musical kick-started Tyler Angotto’s career as a musical actor. He recalls, “I loved the movie and was hoping to get the part of Ryan. I had never sung in front of anyone before and was terrified for my audition. Well, turns out I didn’t get the role but a smaller part instead. I did the show anyway and had a great time and have loved theater ever since.”

Acting was an odd choice for a young boy who was once so terrified to speak in public that he couldn’t order his own food in a restaurant. Now Tyler’s main fright is flubbing his lines. “I have been in as many as three shows simultaneously, so early on I sometimes would worry about blurting out the lines to a completely different show.”

Tyler counts his backstage experiences as more memorable than some of his stage performances. He says, “The friendships I have made performing in shows at the Downtown Cabaret and the Playhouse on the Green in Bridgeport will last a lifetime; we’re family.”

He counts Legally Blonde: The Musical among his favorite Broadway shows. In fact, his dream role is playing Emmett. “I would also like to play Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs,” he notes. In addition to his aspirations of performing on Broadway, he and a friend are busy writing the book to a musical. “We are in the copywriting process now and collaborating with a composer to write the score.”

Looking forward, the Fairfield Warde senior says, “I would love any job that has anything to do with theater.”

Celebrity Crush: Betty White

Passion: Theater! And it doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. When I’m not rehearsing or performing, I am usually writing and editing the musical my friend and I created.

Kaitlyn Moro

Greens Farms Academy

Kaitlyn Moro, a competitive swimmer and cross-country track star, has been swimming at the Westport/Weston YMCA since she was seven months old. As a six-year-old, she says, “I was impressed when I saw the swim team practicing each day and was astounded by their ability to swim lap after lap for what seemed like an eternity.” But fear kept her from trying out. “Once I turned eight, I finally gained the courage to attend tryouts, and I have been swimming on the team ever since.” She started running in eighth grade in order to train for swimming, and now she divides her time between competing on land and in the water.

While maintaining a stellar GPA and working as a member of Penumbra, the school literary magazine, two to five times a week she swims for two to three hours, often waking at around 5 a.m. During cross-country season, she focuses on running, averaging about twenty-five miles a week.

A highly decorated athlete, Kaitlyn was named GFA’s Varsity Cross Country Most Valuable Runner in 2007, 2008, and 2009 and has run on the All New England Cross Country Team and Fairchester Athletic Association All-League Team for the past three years. As a freshman, she was first in the NEPSTA Division V Women’s Cross Country race. This past year, she was named a Connecticut Swimming Scholar Athlete by USA Swimming, and she qualified for the CT Swimming Age Group Championships in both short course and long course the past seven years.

Looking ahead, she says, “I am hoping to win the NEPSTA Division IV Women’s Cross Country race and the Fairchester Athletic Association Championships; it would be an excellent way to end my cross country career at GFA.”

Quirk: Before one race, I ate two red Sourpatch Kids and one green one [candy] and ended up running one of my best times of the season. From that point on, I always eat two red Sourpatch Kids and one green one before every race.

Motto: Prefontaine once said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”