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Meet Sonoma County's 2015 valedictorians

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Among the Sonoma County seniors honored during this spring’s commencement exercises are several dozen who also carry the valedictorian title. They represent the pinnacle of academic success, boasting grade point averages that often top 4.0, but most are eager to share the accolades with the people who have inspired them to succeed. Below, these top achievers name their role models and talk about their future college plans.

Because not all schools select valedictorians, some class presidents and graduation speakers have been included.

Analy High School, Sebastopol

Rebecca Colbert, 18, student body president

Rebecca Colbert credits her parents, Audrey Desky and Cyrus Colbert, and grandfather Michael Desky with her success in school. “They pushed me and supported everything I’ve done,” she said. “They were always there to help and were great role models,” she said.

She also singled out Erin Elliott, an Analy activities director who advised her leadership class and “made sure I’m on track.”

Colbert intends to study marketing, business and communications and was accepted by the University of California at San Diego and the University of Oregon.

“I want to work with people and promote products that are good for people and the environment,” she said.

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Cardinal Newman High School, Santa Rosa

James Gunnar Walker III, 18, Windsor, co-valedictorian

James Walker III attributes his success in school to his parents, James Walker Jr. and Judy Groverman Walker.

“They really pushed me to try my hardest,” he said. “My mom especially pushed me and kept me on track.”

Walker also mentions Anna and Steve Williams, his sixth grade teachers at the Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School in Rincon Valley. Anna taught English and history. Steve taught math and science and encouraged Walker to pursue a degree in engineering.

Walker was accepted to the University Notre Dame and the University of California at San Diego, where he would like to study aeronautical or chemical engineering. He also was offered a $30,000 scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Paige Amormino, 18, Windsor, co-valedictorian

Paige Amormino cites her parents, David and Jocelyn Amormino, as her biggest fans and supporters.

“They made the most difference,” she said. “They helped me and encouraged me to pursue what I wanted to do. There was no pressure to go to a big college. They had no ulterior motive.”

Amormino was admitted early to Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in New Jersey, where students wait until the end of their sophomore year to choose a major.

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Casa Grande High School, Petaluma

Jeanette Jin, 18, valedictorian

Jeanette Jim knew in December that she attend Harvard University in the fall to study history and literature, and minor in economics.

“Harvard was my dream school,” she said, adding that she also wants to learn Chinese or German, and possibly earn a law or business degree.

“A career in politics would be awesome,” she said.

She initially was interested in pursuing a career in health care but enjoyed her English classes and mentoring by teachers Richard Pillsbury and Atthena Kautsch.

She was a page editor and writer for the school paper, The Gaucho Gazette, and was active in the debate club.

Her biggest inspiration is her father, Zhong Jin, who left China when he was between 25 and 30 years old, moved to the United States and attended Monmouth University in New Jersey.

“He had to be persistent in getting an education, and he taught me the value of an education,” she said.

Jin also considers teachers Richard Pillsbury and Atthena Kautsch as influential mentors.

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Cloverdale High School

Perla Anguiano, 18, student body president

Perla Anguiano credits her teachers and counselors for the Upward Bound Program who have challenged, supported and guided her. “Having this outreach as a first-generation student has made a big impact in my life,” she said.

Anguiano will attend UC Santa Cruz this fall, with from The Wine Road and Wilson Artisan Wineries Children of Vineyard Workers scholarships.

Maria Gonzalez, 18, senior class president

Maria Gonzalez will attend Cal State Channel Islands and will major in psychology, but instead of naming an inspirational mentor said, “When it comes to my success, I want to say that I still have to grow. I’ve had supporters along the way who’ve helped me, that contribute to my everyday life. They all have been part of my ongoing story.”

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El Molino High School, Forestville

Sydney Saxon, 18, and Brent Rivera, 18, co-presidents

Sydney Saxon will go to Oregon State University to study nutrition.

Brent Rivera will attend St. Mary’s College of California to study business administration.

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Elsie Allen High School, Santa Rosa

Bradley Torres-Greiner, valedictorian

Bradley Torres-Greiner attributes his success to his parents and two teachers. His father, Jason Greiner; mother, Angie Torres; and stepmother, Dana Greiner, “always wanted me to succeed in my studies to the best of my ability,” he said.

Baseball coach Manuel DeLao, also a trigonometry and pre-calculus teacher, “was the first teacher I knew, and we used to hang out in class,” Torres-Greiner said.

Biology teacher and advancement placement co-coordinator Jennifer Fleischer helped him meet college application deadlines.

Torres-Greiner applied to seven colleges and chose the University of Texas, Austin, where he plans to study civil engineering. “I have a passion for math, structures and buildings,” he said.

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Geyserville New Tech High School

Estefani Silva, 18, Cloverdale, valedictorian

Attending college always was one of Estefani Silva’s dreams, but money for college is always an issue for lower-income households, she said. Thanks to an eight-semester, $19,000 a year Presidential Award Scholarship from Dominican University of California, that worry has been eased.

“I want to major in psychology and work toward being a clinical psychologist,” Silva said. “My parents motivated me to go. They are both hard working people and have been my motivation to strive for the best and achieve my goals.

“They have taught me to value my education and to never give up, because if I work hard for what I want, I will succeed.”

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Healdsburg High School

Cristal López, 18, senior class president

Cristal López points to her parents, Ana and Lupe López, as the most influential people in her life. “They came from nothing,” she said. “As immigrants from Mexico, they didn’t go to school. Whatever I do, I want to make them proud. They are the two that motivate me the most.”

López will start her college education at Santa Rosa Junior College, earning an associates degree in nursing before transferring to a four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

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Maria Carrillo High School, Santa Rosa

Breeana Ramirez, senior class president

Breeana Ramirez has always had a passion for baking and thought she was interested in a culinary career. She signed up for Maria Carrillo’s culinary program and spent four years in it.

“My teacher, Mary Schiller, gave us time to learn the ropes about catering,” Ramirez said, and a class in event planning kindled an interest in the field of international hospitality. After two years at SRJC, she plans to pursue that career at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

“I want to travel the world to hotels and restaurants and do event planning,” she said.

Breeana credits Maria Carrillo’s leadership program with giving her the confidence to run for class president, and her parents, Rafael and Deanna Ramirez, with pushing her academically and “helping me broaden my horizons.”

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Montgomery High School, Santa Rosa

Keala Fakalata, 18, senior class president

Keala Fakalata plans to attend Brigham Young University in Idaho because “I like the positive environment there,” she said. She is still unsure about her major.

Fakalata said her mother, Debbie Fakalata, and brother, Soni Fakalata, supported her endeavors and kept her “on top of things.”

English teachers Kristin Reed and Monica Ashcraft helped her when she was struggling with writing essays and compositions, she said, and math teacher Tina Angel helped her with algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

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Petaluma High School

Thomas Koenitzer, 18, valedictorian

Thomas Koenitzer is aiming high with his sights set on aerospace engineering. In the fall he will attend California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

“Their engineering program is the best chance,” he said. “I have to get a job right out of college. I can learn to work on satellites, space craft and planes.”

Koenitzer received the Herold Mahoney Award from the Mahoney Family Foundation and a $3,000 National Merit Scholarship that is renewable for four years.

He says his fifth math grade teachers at Liberty Elementary School taught him a strong work ethic, and the support of his parents, Nancy Cooley and Robert Koenitzer, was crucial to his success.

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Piner High School, Santa Rosa

Julissa Camacho, 18, valedictorian

Julissa Camacho says her older brother, Clemente, inspired her to do well in school. They took six-week college prep courses together on Saturdays at Sonoma State University.

“He was really into school and is at Stanford University studying politics now,” she said.

Camacho applied to 19 colleges and universities and was accepted at three. She chose UCLA, where she will major in business with an emphasis on international relations.

“I speak English and Spanish, and I want to study different cultures,” she said.

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Rancho Cotate High School, Rohnert Park

Co-valedictorians Jillian Nilsson, 17; Aric Lang, 18; Mikayla Moss, 18; Brianna Wambold, 17; Amy Kouch, 17

Jillian Nilsson, names her mother and her best friend, Emily Mackey, as the biggest support, influence and inspiration in her life thus far. “My mother for always loving me and pushing me by saying, ‘If it scares you, you have to do it.’” And my best friend for filling my life with constant laughter.”

Niilsson will attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, with an aeronautical science-fixed wing major and plans to become a commercial airline pilot. She won scholarships from Embry-Riddle that total $76,000 over four years.

Aric Lang gives credit to his teacher at Rancho Cotate and said he will moved to Kenosha, Wis., to attend Carthage College, majoring in Environmental Science. He was awarded an academic scholarship worth $24,500 each year.

Mikayla Moss had trouble choosing just one influential person but settled on her older sister, Kelsey. “She has always served as a role model, and I always admired how she was able to balance her academic success and her social life,” Moss said. “I have aimed to do the same.

“She told me at the beginning of high school not to stress over any one thing because, although it seems like huge deal then, in the big picture, it’s just high school. That was by far the best advice anyone has given me.”

Moss will attend San Diego State University to study biology and kinesiology, with hopes of transferring to medical school to become a radiologist.

Brianna Wambold, gives kudos to her dad, John Wambold, “because no matter what, he was always supporting me.” She will go to San Diego State University Honors College to major in kinesiology.

Amy Kouch said, “My parents have made the biggest difference in my success. They have taught me to value education and to appreciate the privileges that America offers its citizens. Because of them, I have a strong work ethic, and I prioritize school and getting the best education possible.”

She will attend Stanford University, her dream school, with hopes of becoming both a doctor and author.

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Roseland University Prep, Santa Rosa

Rocio Mondragon Reyes, 17, valedictorian

Rocio Mondragon Reyes lost faith in people when she was in sixth grade. Her parents are undocumented immigrants, she said, and her father was deported that year. It wasn’t until her freshman year that she learned to trust them again, thanks to her physical education teacher Gordon Perkins.

“I had a lot of repressed emotions and he was very kind and didn’t try to show me pity,” she said.

Rocio went on to intern at an immigration law firm and plans to study culture, politics and international development at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., perhaps as a springboard to becoming a criminal defense attorney or entering politics.

“I’ve been fortunate having many mentors. My parents have lead by example. They don’t give up and I don’t give up.”

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Santa Rosa High School

No valedictorians. Commencement speakers will be Mia Spizman, Chlõe Mellier and Kira Findling.

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Sonoma Academy, Santa Rosa

Eli Rosen-Duran, 17, senior class co-president

Eli Rosen-Duran considers his cross-country coach, Danny Aldridge, an inspiration, along with singer Bruce Springsteen. “My dad grew up in New Jersey,” he said, “and I’ve been to seven of his concerts. I like his older songs.

In the fall he will attend the University of San Diego, a Jesuit school, to determine what his major will be, with the help of a $15,000 merit scholarship.

“I’ll find out where the classes I have will take me and what interests me. I’d like to build something,” he said.

Christopher Reed, 18, senior class co-president

Christopher Reed will attend Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., to study molecular biology and finish the pre-med requirements.

He names his teachers and parents and his biggest supporters and said he admires Thomas Jefferson.

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Sonoma Valley High School

Angelica Griggs-Demmin, 18, valedictorian

Angelica Griggs-Demmin found academic inspiration within her immediate family, where standards are high and education is greatly valued. Her parents, Jeff and Vikki Griggs-Demmin, were valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, of their high school classes, and her brother Connor was valedictorian two years ago.

She plans to major in international health at Georgetown University, perhaps leading to a career in orthopedic surgery. (Photo by Moon Valley Studio)

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St. Vincent de Paul High School, Petaluma

Joseph Wertz, 18

“One person who has inspired my academic success is Richard Herman, my eighth-grade math teacher. He taught me that the real rock stars in life are the scientists and engineers who make the world we live in possible, with all its great technologies.”

Wertz will attend Harvard and will concentrate in Biomedical Engineering.

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Technology High School, Rohnert Park

David Luo, 17, valedictorian, plans to attend UC Berkeley and said, “My brother has always been helping me as a role model and pushes me to my limits, which has been really helpful in preparing me for life.”

Curtis Shinn, 17, salutatorian, named his grandparents and parents as most influential in his life. He will attend Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, and will major in aerospace engineering.

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Windsor High School

Mikaela Rowe, 18, valedictorian

Mikaela Rowe plans to study biomedical engineering at UC Davis, hoping for a career in medical device and technologies development.

Rowe singles out Windsor High science and biology teacher Mary Beth Fenton, who helped her discover her love of engineering and recommended her for an engineering internship at Sonoma State University last summer.

Rowe has received scholarships from the local Soroptimist International group and the Windsor Boys and Girls Club.