Announcing the Los Angeles Class of 2016

Published 07/07/2017 in Program Updates
Written 07/07/2017

We are pleased to announce our newest class of Milken Scholars from Los Angeles County; fifteen outstanding students who demonstrate the academic achievement, leadership, service, and character that exemplify our program motto: Lifelong Leaders for a Better World.

We are pleased to announce our newest class of Milken Scholars from Los Angeles County; fifteen outstanding students who demonstrate the academic achievement, leadership, service, and character that exemplify our program motto: Lifelong Leaders for a Better World.

Over one hundred and forty high schools in Los Angeles County participated in the 2016 Milken Scholars Selections Process, nominating more than 600 highly qualified individuals for the scholarship.

We are honored that so many high school counselors, college advisors, and other educators from top public, private, and parochial schools took the time to recommend so many worthy candidates. The process of choosing the finalists and the eventual scholarship recipients was extremely difficult given how much potential all of our applicants have already demonstrated at such a young age.

However, fifteen of these recent high school graduates will be welcomed into the Milken Scholars family this year and we look forward to doing all that we can to support them as they embark on the next step toward reaching their goals.


Shubhayu Bhattacharyay
Johns Hopkins University

Aspiring neurosurgeon Shubhayu Bhattacharyay graduated as valedictorian at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, CA. He was president of Mira Costa's National Honor Society and a member of the Tri-M Music Honor Society and California Scholarship Federation. A decorated science student, Shubhayu was president of the Mira Costa Science Olympiad team, with which he won medals in the Dynamic Planet, Anatomy and Physiology, and Disease Detectives categories. Shubhayu also won the Northrop Grumman High School Innovation Challenge, in which he designed and built a remote-control blimp. During an internship in Boeing's ground systems engineering group, Shubhayu worked on actual satellite technology applications, writing code for hardware simulations and calibration.

Shubhayu was also president of Mira Costa High School symphony orchestra that played at Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall and six concert halls in China. He participated in Model United Nations throughout high school, serving as Under-Secretary-General in New York City at the UN building, and named Best Delegate at the North American Invitational Model United Nations in Washington, D.C. Preparing for a competition, Shubhayu researched the issues surrounding universal access to education, which inspired him to volunteer as a math teacher at a school for underprivileged children in his native India. Teaching in Kolkata affected Shubhayu deeply; he plans to return to the school and now considers educational opportunity a personal priority. He created an advanced math tutoring center at El Camino College.

Shubhayu plans to study biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.


Destin Bigsby
University of California, San Diego

Destin Bigsby, a graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School's Program of Additional Curricular Experience (PACE), is committed to serving his community in Long Beach, CA. He founded the ONE BIG DEED club on the principle that numerous small actions combine to leave a lasting impact. Through ONE BIG DEED he developed "Playroom to Classroom," where students in elementary classrooms play games, sing songs and do crafts via Skype with young patients at a local hospital. ONE BIG DEED also raised funds for caps and gowns, prom and Grad Night tickets, and yearbooks (dubbed "The Senior Experience") for needy high school seniors in the Long Beach school district. "I am consistently impressed by the leadership skills Destin displays," says his ONE BIG DEED faculty advisor. His guidance counselor concurs, remarking that Destin "stands out as a leader in his high school community and in the Long Beach community as a whole."

An AP Scholar with Distinction, Destin has won several awards in the national C-SPAN Student Cam Documentaries competition for projects on renewable energy, mental illness, and gun violence, for which he traveled to Newtown, Connecticut, and interviewed both the chief of police and the mother of one of the Sandy Hook shooting victims. The C-SPAN awards led him to an internship with California State Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell, where Destin worked on community outreach projects.

Destin was captain of the Long Beach Poly debate team and served as a judge for junior varsity debates. He was also a varsity wrestler. Destin will study economics and political science at the University of California, San Diego.


Joseph Chavez
Dartmouth College

Joseph Chavez graduated as valedictorian of Montebello High School in Montebello, CA. He is an AP Scholar with Distinction, National Hispanic Recognition Program Scholar, California Boys' State Delegate, and member of the California Scholarship Federation. Joseph was parliamentarian of Montebello's chapter of the National Honor Society, where he helped to plan the school's first college fair and raised money for autism research. He held several leadership positions within student government, as chair of the Winter Formal Committee and a member of the Prom Committee. He also pioneered a Valentine Gram program in which each of the school's 3,000 students received a personalized greeting on Valentine's Day. Joseph served as president of the Calculus Club, which tutors students in preparation for the AP Calculus exams and raises funds to provide students with AP review books, and vice president of the Key Club, an international service organization. As a result of his accomplishments, he received the City of Montebello's Student Service Award. His English teacher calls him "a clear leader" and says she uses his projects and writing assignments as examples with her students.

An accomplished musician, Joseph was the vice president of his high school orchestra, in which he played first violin, and led the tenor section in the Golden Keys Choir, the most advanced vocal ensemble at Montebello High. With the choir, Joseph participated in the Los Angeles Master Chorale High School Choir Festival and performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Joseph will study engineering at Dartmouth College.


Ruwanthi (Ru) Ekanayake
Cornell University

Ruwanthi (Ru) Ekanayake, a graduate of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes, CA, started writing poetry at the age of five — and hasn't stopped since. She published a book of humorous poems for children called "A Bag Full of Everything" and reads it aloud at pediatric hospitals, taking joy in watching young patients laugh at the silly rhymes and pictures. Ru won a National YoungArts award for creative nonfiction, was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, and received a National Merit Award. She is also a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo and an accomplished pianist.

An aspiring neurosurgeon who has done research in a memory lab at UCLA, Ru has won several awards in behavioral sciences at the California State Science Fair, as well as the American Psychological Association Award and the U.S. Naval Research Award at the Los Angeles County Science Fair. She has participated in the Palos Verdes Peninsula 4-H Club for nine years, serving as its president, winning numerous public speaking competitions, and running public speaking clinics and leadership conferences for younger members. As a 4-H National Healthy Living Ambassador, Ru developed an educational comic with the Centers for Disease Control, teamed with the television show "The Biggest Loser" to fight childhood obesity, launched a national health blog, and created a nine-county Southern California Healthy Living Summit. Ru's 4-H mentor calls her "one of the most self-assured and expert spokespeople" for the Los Angeles County 4-H program.

Ru will study global health and biology at Cornell University and plans a career in medicine.


Mirna El-khalily
Stanford University

Mirna El-khalily, the valedictorian at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles, CA, has a dream: curing brain cancer, the disease that took her father when she was a toddler. Through a USC Science Technology and Research (STAR) internship, Mirna earned a position in the lab of Dr. Stephen Swenson, where she has tested new therapies for gliomas, a type of brain tumor, one of which has shown promising early results. Dr. Swenson describes her as a dedicated and curious scientist who keeps up with the undergraduates and graduate students in his lab: "Mirna drives herself to complete and succeed at any given task." Mirna has competed on Bravo's award-winning Science Bowl team throughout high school and served as team captain for two years.

ABC7 News featured Mirna in one of its "Cool Kids" segments, praising her commitment to giving back to her community. As president of her school's National Honor Society, Mirna has volunteered for the Los Angeles Marathon, built gardens at an elementary school, pioneered partnerships with a local children's hospital and museum, collected toys and canned goods for the homeless, and sustained the mentoring program in which high school seniors guide juniors through the SAT, AP, and college application process. She was also a member of Bravo's California Scholarship Federation.

Mirna will major in biochemistry at Stanford University to prepare for a career in medicine; inspired by a volunteer assignment in the childcare unit at LAC+USC County Hospital, she plans to become a pediatrician.


Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman, a graduate of New Roads School in Santa Monica, CA, believes in the power of language to effect social change. As the inaugural Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, she published a volume of poetry, recited her work at libraries and community events, helped the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations develop youth programs, and worked with Starbucks on a campaign supporting girls' education. With a grant from Ann Taylor and Loft stores, Amanda founded One Pen One Page (OPOP), which teaches youth to use writing to promote social change; she has taught poetry workshops, organized a youth leadership and literacy symposium, and run reading rewards programs for underserved youth. OPOP is now expanding across the U.S. Amanda was named the Western Region Youth Poet Laureate and is one of four candidates to become the country's first United States Youth Poet Laureate.

A protest against police brutality inspired Amanda to found her school's first Black Student Union. Amanda also founded Girls Learn International, a club focused on girl's education. Amanda was a delegate with SustainUS for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Amanda is an Ambassador, writer, and Editor for School of Doodle, an online platform for teen girls. She serves on the Diversity Committee and is head editor of their Microaggression Survival Guide, an online creative collective of tips and support given to marginalized young people. Amanda is a member of WriteGirl's creative writing program and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Elle, The Huffington Post, and HelloGiggles. She has received awards from Scholastic Inc., the California State Assembly and Young Arts, as well as the Yale Book Award.

Amanda will attend Harvard and plans to study literature and politics.


Spencer Greene
Brown University

Spencer Greene is a graduate of Crossroads School in Santa Monica, CA, with a strong interest in politics. He interned in the office of Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, where he updated the Homeless Services Directory, which directs homeless people to the resources they need. He also worked to elect U.S. Representative Ted Lieu to Congress in California's 33rd district, canvassing neighborhoods and working at phone banks. As a lead intern for California State Senator Ben Allen, Spencer served as an ombudsman, optimizing the senator's social media platforms, staffing community events, securing benefits for residents from state programs like the California Labor Board, and helping residents navigate state agencies like the Franchise Tax Board and Department of Motor Vehicles. On his blog "Angeleno Politics," Spencer writes about national and local issues, including the local political climate, public transportation, and the entertainment industry.

An accomplished athlete, Spencer captained his school's varsity volleyball team, which reached multiple playoffs and won the California Interscholastic Federation's Academic Team Championship. He also played varsity soccer. As vice president of his school's student council, Spencer organized dances, pep rallies and fundraisers, managing large budgets and serving as a liaison among students, faculty and administrators. He has logged more than 300 hours of community service, earning him entry into the Crossroads School Community Service Honor Society. Senator Allen calls Spencer "an impressive young student" and says, "I cannot wait to see what the future holds for him."

Spencer will attend Brown University.


Hyo Jung (Julie) Ha
Williams College

For Hyo Jung (Julie) Ha, a graduate of Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta, CA, participating in the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) has led to significant leadership opportunities. As president and squadron commander of the Kitty Hawk Air Society (KHAS), with a rank of cadet captain, Julie led her flight to top scores on drill exams and created a leadership camp for middle school students. "I not only saw, but also felt the respect my cadets had for me as a leading others, I became a leader in my own life," says Julie.

Julie is a National AP Scholar, a National Merit Commended Scholar, and has received the Air Force Association Academic Award and President's Volunteer Service Award. She conducted medical research through the LA BioMed Internship; a paper she co-authored based on that research was published and presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. Julie served as president of her school's pre-medical society and senior fundraising officer for the school's Academy of Science and Medicine. She volunteers at Verdugo Hills Hospital and teaches both English and Korean through Antioch Presbyterian Church. Julie was president of the Mission Music Club, an ensemble that performs traditional Korean music for nursing home residents, an experience which touched her deeply: "After seeing the worn-down elders finding solace in our music, I found the value of a shared culture," she says.

Julie will study chemistry and neuroscience at Williams College and plans a career in medicine.


Jose Luquin
Stanford University

Jose Luquin graduated as valedictorian of Gertz-Ressler High School in Los Angeles, CA. He is an AP Scholar with Honor, a Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Scholar, a National Hispanic Recognition Program Scholar, and was named Student of the Year for 2013 and 2014 at New Designs Charter School, which he attended prior to arriving at Gertz-Ressler halfway through his junior year. Jose's college counselor describes him as "a proven leader….[His] potential is exponential." His mentor at the Fulfillment Fund agrees, calling him "a truly impressive student, leader and person."

Passionate about science, Jose has taken and excelled in every science course available at both of the high schools he attended, and even through studying engineering at a local community college. He attended a summer program at Princeton University focused on the sciences. With Iridescent, a local STEM program that provides students and families with engineering and technology education, Jose has helped students build robots and prepared lectures on underwater robotics. An adept orator, Jose was selected by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League as one of the league's top 10 speakers. Jose is a community relations assistant for Good Neighbors, an organization at the University of Southern California that raises money for local nonprofits. He also handles billing and purchasing for his family's home improvement business.

Jose will study engineering at Stanford University and is considering pursuing engineering or post-secondary education.


Pavle Pejovski
University of California, Los Angeles

When Pavle Pejovski was young, his grandfather shared some sage advice: When you eat at a restaurant, always try something new. Pavle, the valedictorian of Whittier High School (WHS) in Whittier, CA, took his grandfather's words to heart — and not just with respect to his culinary choices. In high school, Pavle discovered an abundance of new opportunities: athletics, community service, public speaking, even theatre, earning small roles in both dramatic and musical productions. "By doing new things, I got to meet amazing and talented new people, learn crucial skills, and become a better person," he says.

Pavle is a National Merit Commended Scholar, AP Scholar with Distinction, and Bezos Scholars Program Finalist. He was captain of WHS’s varsity water polo team and the Huntington Beach Water Polo Club, participating in the U.S. Water Polo Club Championships and U.S. Water Polo National Junior Olympics. Pavle also captained WHS’s varsity swim team and has worked as a swim instructor and lifeguard. As president of his school's Junior State of America chapter, Pavle organized a one-day convention at WHS that was attended by high school students from around southern California. He also served as lead prosecutor for WHS's mock trial team and city manager for Students in Government, a program sponsored by the city of Whittier in which students work together to solve a real issue facing the community. Pavle and two other students developed Community to University, through which nearly 100 high school students volunteer to tutor elementary and middle school students in the district.

Pavle will study business and economics at the University of California, Los Angeles.


Simaranjeet (Jeet) Rai
University of California, Berkeley

Simaranjeet (Jeet) Rai, a graduate of Granada Hills Charter High School (GHCHS) in Granada Hills, CA, credits a summer study-abroad opportunity in Russia for igniting her keen interest in international relations. For six weeks she lived with a host family in Kirov, took daily five-hour intensive Russian language classes, and absorbed Russian culture through visits to museums, libraries and an embassy. "On my flight to Russia, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," she says. "On the flight back, I saw a future filled with language-learning, cultural immersion, and international relations….I discovered passions that were simply waiting for the right time and opportunity to shine."

Jeet has won awards from the California Scholarship Federation and National Honor Society. Her Russian trip was the result of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship. She has won many honors at GHCHS, including four years of honor roll and Highest Honors in the International Baccalaureate Program. Jeet was one of 16 cadet commanders in the Los Angeles Police Department Cadet Program, overseeing community service programs for 6,000 cadets that included staffing parking lots, writing cards for veterans, cleaning helicopters and organizing toy drives. Horrified when she saw her brother and his classmates being served french fries during an after-school program, Jeet co-founded and ran The Snack Strategy Club, educating students about healthy eating habits and bringing the campus its first farmers market.

Jeet will study international relations at the University of California, Berkeley and plans a career in foreign service.


Amanda Rizkalla
Stanford University

As an intern at the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program, Amanda Rizkalla focused on cells, scientific theories and data. One day, four words from her mentor changed everything: "That kid died yesterday," he said, handing her a flask of tumor cells from a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) brain tumor. For Amanda, that one sentence made her abstract experiments real. "Most of the experiments I designed had worked, and I learned from the ones that did not," she says. "I feel humbled to have helped keep brain cells where they belong — in children's brains, not in a flask."

A graduate of Notre Dame Academy Girls' School in Los Angeles, CA, Amanda is a QuestBridge National College Match Scholarship Recipient. She won second place in Anatomy and Physiology in the Science Olympiad, a gold medal in the National Spanish Examination, the George H. Mayr Science Scholarship, the Woman of Academic Excellence award as well as school awards in AP Drawing and the Principal's award. As co-president of the Women In Math and Science Club, Amanda gave presentations to Notre Dame students to encourage interest in STEM fields. She also participated in the National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society and Queen's Council, a faculty-chosen group that represents the school at open houses, reunions and admissions events. As a sophomore, Amanda was the first high school student to enroll in Writers Workshop Los Angeles, an eight-week fiction workshop. Amanda volunteered at UCLA Hospital and studied neurobiology at Harvard's summer school.

Amanda will study creative writing and neuroscience at Stanford University and plans a career in medicine.


Melisa Santizo

Melisa Santizo, the salutatorian at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles, CA, is committed to helping other students stretch to achieve their goals. When a neighbor was struggling to keep up with her schoolwork and losing teachers' support as a result of disabilities caused by a genetic condition, Melisa began tutoring her, setting her on the path to high school graduation and community college. As a student recruiter and mentor for Minds Matter Los Angeles, which provides academic support, summer learning opportunities, standardized testing preparation and guidance on college applications, Melisa has held informational meetings at neighborhood schools and kept in touch with students as they progressed through their education. Her Minds Matter advisor calls her "a born leader and advocate for kids within her community."

Melisa is an AP Scholar and QuestBridge National College Match Finalist. She was a practice team leader for Bravo's varsity track team and a junior coach for Girls on the Run Los Angeles, teaching young girls about self-confidence and empowerment through physical education and seminars and helping them train for their first 5K race. As a volunteer at the Echo Park Library, Melisa planned programs for teens and children, tutored students and helped with homework. She also served as a peer tutor for her high school in AP Environmental Science, Calculus and AP Chemistry. Her writing has been published in the Creative Communications Poetry Anthology.

Melisa will study biotechnology and environmental engineering at Harvard.


Khai Tran

Khai Tran, the valedictorian at Franklin High School in Los Angeles, CA, loves languages. By the time the Vietnamese native arrived in the U.S. for high school, he had already studied English, Japanese and Norwegian. A Scandinavian language might seem an unusual choice for a teenager in Southeast Asia, but Khai had a friend who was planning to attend university in Norway and was having trouble finding learning materials. Khai translated materials from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology into English, then used his translations to create a free online Norwegian course for English speakers, translating textbooks, making videos and recordings, and creating grammatical guidelines. Khai sees studying a language as a window on a new world: "I am thrilled with the power of communicating and gaining insight into another culture," he says. His College Match counselor says Khai has "an exceptional facility and fascination" for language learning.

Khai is an AP Scholar with Honor and has won medals at regional, state, and national Academic Decathlon competitions. He has spent more than 1,000 hours on Academic Decathlon, memorizing facts; studying texts, musical compositions and works of art; and looking intensely for the common threads and themes within the material he studied. Khai is also a member of the Environmental Club, and he earned his school's prestigious Academic Jacket. As an intern at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Khai worked in the solar energy lab on experiments with photoelectrochemical water-splitting.

Khai will study linguistics at Yale and is considering a career as a writer.


Dongni Zhao
University of California, Berkeley

Dongni (Audrey) Zhao, who graduated as salutatorian from San Fernando High School in San Fernando, CA, knows more about dental implants than the average teenager. Through the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Pre-College Science Education Program, Audrey collaborated with graduate and post-doctoral students on research looking at chemical coatings and their effect on the bioactivity of titanium surfaces, a material used in dental implants. She presented the results of her research at the 2016 meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. "I am happy to know my findings will benefit future studies," she says.

Audrey, an AP Scholar, is a student leader for Project Grad Los Angeles, helping younger students prepare for college. She is treasurer of the Junior Engineering and Technical Society, organizing monthly competitions in which students make pasta towers, paper planes and self-propelling cars. San Fernando's Science Club, of which Audrey is treasurer, partners with Pacoima Beautiful for community improvement projects like cleaning, planting trees distributing bike lights. Audrey played volleyball for three years, earning awards for Most Consistent Player and Best Sportsmanship. She is also a student leader for Language In Action, a program for non-native English speakers which Audrey credits with helping her learn the language when she moved to the U.S. from China before high school. "My fluency in English and Mandarin in this Latino community makes [this work] more rewarding because, despite our distinct cultures, we find joys in our shared dreams," Audrey says.

Audrey will major in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.


Class of 2016 Washington D.C. Milken Scholars

Thank you to our Partner, EJF Philanthropies, for its generous support of our Washington D.C. Scholars


Xiu Chen

Throughout her career at Schools Without Walls Senior High School in Washington, D.C., salutatorian Xiu Chen has been fascinated by worms. For her senior capstone thesis, Xiu worked in a lab at Howard University, researching the functions of 16 genes in the reproductive systems of roundworms. Her goal: understanding how similar genes in humans regulate the meiosis cycle and fertilization. Through the EnvironMentors Program, she investigated the effect of metal toxins on human health by looking at the effects of iron on the heart rates of black worms and studied cyanobacteria levels in the Potomac River. One of Xiu's teachers describes her as "an intensely academically motivated student" with "a fierce passion for science."

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Xiu is a National Merit Commended Scholar and Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) Scholar who has won numerous EnvironMentors Science Fair awards, including the Ronald Carvalho Memorial Scholarship. She also won the Euro Challenge competition for her region, proposing policies to address weaknesses in the German banking system. Xiu attended a Women's Technology Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she learned to code in Python, built a direct current motor, and presented on the complexity of NP-Hard games like Candy Crush.

Xiu spends Saturdays at a Chinese community center, where she teaches English, tutors high school students in Mandarin, and helps community members complete applications for affordable housing. As the leader of the community service club, Xiu organized an assembly on homelessness and poverty, then collected necessities for needy families. Xiu will study biology and computer science at Yale.


Daniel Nguyen
George Washington University

As co-captain of the award-winning robotics club at Capital City Charter High School in Washington, D.C., Daniel Nguyen led the team's strategic planning and robot design, as well as serving as lead programmer and builder for one of the team's robots. Juggling factors like battery life and availability of parts makes building a robot like solving a puzzle, says Daniel.