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Student Spotlight

Abby Ershadi

StudentGreenville, North Carolina • Class of 2023

Abby Ershadi, one of the recent winners of our Think the Vote debate contest, is in her junior year at J.H. Rose High School in Greenville North Carolina. Abby is a busy and multitalented young woman with diverse interests. Her favorite subject is English, and she participates in mock trial, Science Olympiad, FBLA, and several other clubs at her school. She also dances at a local studio, NCADA. “I love hanging out with my friends, going to the beach, and reading,” says Abby, “And I love dystopian books and movies, so I love The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series.” Her favorite musical artists include Chase Atlantic, Green Day, Ghost Club, and Camino. Abby is very proud to have been accepted into the North Carolina Governor’s School West, “a multi-week summer residential program for gifted and talented high school students, integrating academic disciplines, the arts, and unique courses.” As a future voter, the three most important issues to Abby are human rights, the environment, and affordable health care. Abby’s plans for the future include obtaining a degree in either business or journalism and traveling.

Abigail Christensen

StudentHouston, Texas • Class of 2024

2021 We the Students Honorable Mention winner Abigail Christensen already has a diverse range of interests from biology to world history, despite having another three years ahead of her at Incarnate Word Academy in Texas. By the end of her freshman year, Abigail was already involved in three of her high school’s sports teams as well as its speech and debate club. The latter of which has led her to start thinking about a career in law although she has plenty of time to decide how she ultimately wants to “make the world a better place for people.” As both an active social media user and a student of world history, Abigail would be interested in how Joan of Arc would be using social media if she were alive today. Having learned about Joan of Arc and so many other important historical figures and events from her teachers, she credits them with being important influences in her life along with her parents. Abigail is not able to vote yet, however that hasn’t stopped her from thinking about issues that matter to her such as equality — a principle she can help to uphold if she stays on the pre-law track. Additionally, Abigail cares about protecting things that are important to her such as the environment and animals.

Alexander Mahdavian

StudentBasking Ridge, New Jersey - Class of 2024

Alexander Mahdavian is a rising sophomore at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and one of the runner-up winners in the 2022 We the Students Essay Contest. Alexander is very involved in his school’s Academic League, Latin Club, and Amnesty International chapter. The latter has had particular influence on his career plans for the future as he hopes to work in some legal capacity for the UN or with the US government. His favorite subjects are English and history, and he hopes to continue on this path in college by majoring in American history. His passion for the subject is further evidenced by his selection of Alexander Hamilton when posed with the question of which historical figure he would follow if they were alive and on social media today. Apart from sharing his name, Mahdavian notes that “Hamilton would be interesting to follow as he was always trashing the other founding fathers.” That said, Alexander cites Harvey Milk, Malcom X, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as his greatest influences because they inspired his interest in law, government, and social activism. These interests are reflected in the three most important issues to Alexander as a future voter: climate change, gun control, and corporate influence on our government. Read his essay here!

Amy Olsen

StudentBarrington, Illinois • Class of 2023

Curiosity and a love of learning are the clear driving forces in Amy Olsen’s life. “I spend a lot of time checking out books from the library to teach myself random things,” says the high school junior from Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois, and a recent winner of our biweekly Think the Vote debate contest. “I have comprehensively taught myself basic Astronomy and Korean,” she notes. Among Amy’s favorite books are The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, Dance of Thieves, and It Ends With Us. Amy also loves music, and her favorite artists are artists are The Blue Stones, Arctic Monkeys, Blackpink, and Thin Lizzy. In her free time, she also enjoys riding horses and playing video games. Amy’s favorite classes are AP Government and Physics, and as far as extracurricular activities go, she is involved in UNICEF Club, 60010 Feeds Kids, Key Club, and Class Board. She is also active on several social media platforms including Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter. As a future voter, the three most important issues to Amy are climate change, voting accessibility, and improving the justice system, and her future plans include studying Pediatric Psychology or Aerospace Engineering. “My dream would be to work in the space industry,” says Amy, “But if not, I want to work with kids and families.” And who is Amy’s hero? Definitely her mom, she says. “She was a stay-at-home mom of five kids for most of her life, but eventually decided she wasn’t satisfied and decided to make her mark,” says Amy. “She began in her 40s by helping teach special needs students before getting her own degree in teaching and now she is a middle school English and social studies teacher. She taught me it’s never too late to chase your dreams.”

Angier Lei

StudentNew York, New York • Class of 2023

Since he is a member of Stuyvesant High School’s policy debate team in New York City, and a lover of history and politics–his favorite subjects include AP United States Government and Politics and AP European History–it is no surprise that junior Angier Lei was one of our recent Think the Vote debate winners. In addition to the debate team, Angier also plays on the school’s tennis team and is the vice president of the history club. Angier is proud of his accomplishments in debate and history. “I have been able to attend competitions hosted by prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Yale in debate,” he notes, “And have qualified for an international history trivia competition.” Angier is a fan of many different musical genres including classical jazz, pop, and electronic dance music. His favorite book is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in his spare time he enjoys hanging out with friends and playing video games. The three most important issues to Angier as a future voter are social justice, healthcare, and the environment. As far as plans for the future, “I intend on pursuing a career in political or social science,” Angier says, “But I’m leaving my options open as I like to be prepared for the possibility of change.” Angier says his heroes are his parents, emphasizing “the difficult sacrifices [they made] for me in the hopes that I would have a better life than they did, and that I would be the first in my family to go to college, the first to get a stable, well-paying job, and the first to live a life where I could achieve my dreams.” “When I achieve my dreams in life,” says Angier, “I will know that my heroes have also achieved their dreams: a better life for me.”

Annalise Wade

StudentBig Sandy, Tennessee • Class of 2021

Both inside and outside the classroom, BRI student network member Annalise Wade displays a diverse set of interests. A junior at Big Sandy School in Tennessee, her favorite classes are U.S. History and AP Biology, the latter of which fed into her participation in the HOSA – Future Health Professionals student organization this past year. In addition to playing for Big Sandy’s varsity basketball team all throughout high school, Annalise is involved in Beta Club and she recently co-founded a creative writing organization at the school. If he were alive and on social media today, Annalise would follow famed writer C.S. Lewis, who Annalise thinks “would be a remarkable source of inspiration and blessing in today’s climate,” as she “[admires] his writing and passion for following Christ as Lord and Savior.” Annalise praises her older sister, Abbey, for being a positive influence in her life, adding that Abbey’s “loyalty, honesty, and genius have been and will continue to be something I’m constantly amazed and blessed by.” As a future voter, Annalise cares deeply about preserving the separation of powers that exists between the U.S. government and state governments under federalism. Moreover, she is especially concerned about issues related to Second Amendment rights and abortion. Though her future plans are admittedly “somewhat uncertain,” Annalise will likely attend college with the intention of becoming a nurse practitioner and, eventually, returning to school to become a physician assistant.

Annika Cushnyr

StudentAlbuquerque, New Mexico • December 2016

Honors: Red Cross Real Heroes Youth Good Samaritan 2014, Medical Reserve Corps Honors, President’s List (4.0) Fall 2015 and Spring 2016, Girl Scout Gold Award, Constitutional Academy 2015 Annika Cushnyr is a sophomore at the Central Michigan University Honors College, and is double-majoring in French and Political Science with a concentration in International Relations. She is a former intern for Senator Tom Udall, a current Resident Assistant at her university, and is involved in the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority. Annika is described by her friends as “determined, ambitious, and organized.” Annika was initially introduced to the Institute through the “We the Students” essay contest in 2015. Annika deepened her involvement in BRI by attending Constitutional Academy in the summer of 2015. She described the academy as, “an incredible week that forced her to think about issues from many different viewpoints. It was a rewarding experience to be surrounded by individuals that are passionate about the same topics as me, even though we may have disagreed on major issues.” Of great importance to Annika is the Constitutional principle of “equality under the law.” In her mind equality, should be at the heart of all decisions made by policy-makers. The principle of equality connects to Annika in a more concrete way to her current and future career. Beginning in 2017, Annika will have the opportunity to be CEO of the non-profit Bridges to Tajikistan, whose mission is to build connections, create opportunity, and advance education for youth in both the U.S. and Tajikistan. Annika will be studying abroad in Sweden during the Fall semester of 2017, and hopes to continue her international focus by studying in France the following Spring. Annika plans to attend law school upon the completion of her bachelor’s degree. After law school, she would like to work within the field of international human rights.

Anton Akroush

StudentSterling Heights, Michigan - Class of 2024

Anton Akroush, a rising junior and 2022 We the Students Honorable Mention winner from Sterling Heights, Michigan, is actively involved in numerous sports at his high school. In addition to playing for the school’s basketball team, he runs track and field as well as cross country. Anton particularly enjoys his math, history, and English classes and is already preparing to further his interests in some of these subjects when in college. Delving deeper into his historical interests, Anton stated his admiration for Thomas Jefferson, who he would be sure to follow on social media if Jefferson were alive and on social media today. In the midst of his extracurriculars and school interests, Anton cites his parents as his greatest influence and support system. As a future voter, the three issues that Anton is especially concerned with include the protection of religious liberties and free speech, as well as focusing more on infrastructural growth. Read his essay here!

Ariana Maria Perez

StudentFullerton, California • Class of 2024

Ariana Maria Perez, one of our recent Think the Vote debate winners, is a young woman who is optimistic about her future. “The future looks bright to me,” says Ariana, “Sometimes I think of working for NASA, other times I think of being a scientist studying chemistry or a doctor studying anatomy. I am also interested in law and government, so maybe I will go to law school.” Ariana is a sophomore at Troy High School in Fullerton, California, where her favorite classes are English and History. She is on the girl’s golf team, participates in Mock Trial, LEO Club, WOW Club, NJROTC, and orchestra. In her free time, she also enjoys watching 80’s movies with her cat, Kiki, listening to music, and volunteering at her church. As a future voter, budget, homeland security, and social programs are three of the most important issues for Ariana. Her favorite books are Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby, and her favorite movies are Legally Blonde, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and most Marvel or DC comic book movies. Travel is definitely in Ariana’s future, too. “I hope to learn to speak both Spanish and French,” she says, “to help me to appreciate and enjoy other countries’ cultures and histories while I travel.”

Austin Smith

StudentNewark Valley, New York • Class of 2023

As a member of Generation Z, you might expect recent Think the Vote debate winner Austin Smith’s musical tastes to reflect what’s popular today. But you would be wrong.  “I’m huge on metal and grunge music,” said Austin, who is expected to graduate from Newark Valley High School in Newark Valley, NY, this year. “I also listen to a lot of 50s and 60s big band music.”  Austin’s musical preferences range from Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, and Ella James to Tool, Metallica, and Disturbed, with bands like Rush and Pearl Jam also thrown in for good measure. Austin also plays guitar as part of his passion for music, and “I’m a massive fan of being connected with nature,” he said. “I love to go hunting and explore new land. I also hunt and fish.”  Austin is a member of the National Honor Society at Newark Valley and plays tennis. His favorite classes include calculus, law, and government. 

Ava Chaladpru

StudentPalestine, Texas • Class of 2024

Ava Chaladpru, one of our 2021 We the Students Essay Contest runner-up winners from Palestine, Texas, wasted no time getting involved in a diverse range of clubs her freshman year at University Academy. In addition to competing in her school’s University Interscholastic League, Ava is a member of their HOSA — Future Health Professionals chapter. Her involvement in the latter has also inspired her to become a doctor because it gives her an opportunity to “reassure [people] and encourage them to not give up.” Ava attributes this empathetic attitude to her family’s influence, particularly her uncle. She also looks up to her teachers, and as a result, has trouble picking a single favorite class. That said, history is one of her top subjects, and she notes three historical figures that she would love to follow on social media if they were alive today: Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Franklin. The unifying link between them all? “That [she] could learn a lot from all of their experiences.” Although she can’t vote yet, Ava knows what issues are important to her and what she looks for in a candidate. She primarily cares about ensuring the rights of all citizens, and that fairness and equity are at the forefront of policy. In general, she wants what is best for the country and hopes it consistently improves where possible.

Brayden Wilkins

StudentPembroke, North Carolina - Class of 2024

Brayden Wilkins, a rising junior and 2022 We the Students Honorable Mention winner from Pembroke, North Carolina, is actively involved in numerous clubs at his high school. In addition to playing for the school’s basketball team, Brayden is a member of the agriculture club. He has a passion for chemistry and math, and is already preparing to further pursue the subjects by attending the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics for his final two years of high school. Afterwards he plans to study engineering in college. Beyond science and math, Brayden is also interested in historical figure Alexander Hamilton, who he would follow on social media if Hamilton were alive and on social media today. Despite Brayden’s varying interests, something that has remained constant is the influence that Brayden’s grandparents and great-grandparents have had on his life. He describes their influence as being “essential to his foundation.” As a future voter, the three issues that Brayden is particularly concerned with include the advancement of democracy in foreign affairs, protection against the infringement of rights found in the U.S. Constitution, and promoting the importance of education in his generation. Read his essay here!