Local Youths Doing Great Things

by Amanda Milewski – photography by Nikola Tzenov

If today’s students are the future then make no mistake about it: The future is bright. There are outstanding students in every corner of Carroll County, in every school, at every level. While we’re profiling only seven students here, there are many youths doing awesome things both inside and outside of the classroom.

Dancing Dreams

2023, Liberty High School

If it seems like Alexis Minnich was born to dance, maybe that’s because she started dancing at age 3. “As much as I remember, I’ve always been a dancer,” she said. “As I grew up, it just became more and more a part of who I am.”

She tried other physical activities such as gymnastics, lacrosse and soccer, but they didn’t stick. “I was never much of a runner,” Minnich admitted, “so I just played goalie and ended up twirling around in the goal.” Evidently, she couldn’t stop dancing.

Although she has tried other dance forms such as jazz and tap, she chose to focus on ballet because “with ballet, there is this timeless elegance and energy that feels so magical and special,” she said. “Everything about it … the movement, the music, the stories, the expression … it just takes my breath away.”

It is breathtaking, but also grueling. Minnich, who is a sophomore at Liberty High School, practices six to seven days per week, anywhere from 20 to 50 hours weekly.

She trains at Carroll County Dance Center and Ballet Conservatory. Not surprisingly, all of that practice time means that, “the [studio] has become my second home,” she said.

For a month and a half during the summer though, Minnich’s second home was a ballet studio in New York City, where she participated in the Bolshoi Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program. The program provides rigorous training for young ballet students aged 15 to 22, by audition only.

“There are several different methods of ballet training,” Minnich said, “and the one I have always studied is Vaganova, which is the Russian method. So, the Bolshoi Ballet, being one of the biggest theaters in the world, I’ve always been in love with it and it seemed like some faraway dream to dance with them. To be honest, I never actually considered auditioning for this program because I never imagined I would be accepted. But, the Bolshoi is my teacher’s favorite company and she pushed me to audition, so I thought why not at least try?

The Bolshoi Ballet Academy Program is conducted in Russian with the help of translators, and Minnich admitted that she was a little nervous about living and training in New York rather than in Carroll County, if only for a short time.

But she was also excited and approached it not only as an opportunity to get to know people from all over the world, but also as a special opportunity to gain some world knowledge and insight.

“This was a huge opportunity,” Minnich said, “and I am a better dancer and a better person because of it. I wanted to get every little bit of knowledge and experience out of it so I would have a greater chance of reaching the rest of my goals in life.”

And yes, as you might have guessed, Minnich wants to be a professional dancer. She doesn’t have a particular company in mind because she knows how difficult and competitive the auditioning process is. “All I know is that I need to do this for the rest of my life,” she proclaimed.

Trees & Bees

2022, Westminster High School

Everybody knows one — one of those high-achieving students who is involved in everything. Well, there is the person you are thinking of and then there is Nicki James.

James, a senior at Westminster High School, is (take a deep breath here) president of the Class of 2022; an executive board member of the International Thespian Society; vice president of Rho Kappa, the social studies honor society; treasurer of the National Honor Society; executive board member of Stand Up!, an organization that fosters a community of kindness, unity and support; a co-founder and executive board member of the Environmental Action Club; and a student marshal. She also does morning announcements, and she served as an intern this summer at Together We Own It, a Westminster nonprofit.

James and fellow co-founders Alex Robinson and Elsa Schoberg established the Environmental Action Club (EAC) their freshman year at Westminster because they wanted to impact climate change at the local level.

In the three short years of the EAC’s existence, the group has already improved the Wakefield Valley area, with James stepping up to lead the projects.

When the EAC completed a stream corridor assessment on Copp’s Branch, the stream that runs through Wakefield Valley, James and her fellow members discovered that there was a lack of vegetation in the riparian buffer—the plants at the edge of a stream bank. “There is an easy way to repair the riparian buffer,” James said, “and it is a win-win situation: planting trees!”

James and Schoberg presented this information to the Westminster Town Council and also explained that the health of Copp’s Branch directly affects the Chesapeake Bay. “The excess phosphates and nitrates left over from when Wakefield was a golf course cause detrimental algae blooms,” James said. “By planting trees, you are not only supplying habitat for native animals but you also prevent erosion along stream banks, remove excess nutrients and provide shade and clean air for those who live around Wakefield.”

James is currently doing an independent study to identify trees at Wakefield and to perform an ecosystem study to determine the ideal plants to install in the riparian buffer. In addition, she and other EAC members are planning a 5K for Sunday, Nov. 7, to raise money for purchasing the trees.

The EAC’s next project was a sunflower/pollinator garden. “I contacted the city of Westminster and Bee City USA, and we got teams together and planted a sunflower garden at Wakefield Valley! James said. The garden is beneficial to bees and other pollinators. We hope to set up a donation and education program at the sunflower garden to expand EAC’s reach in the community.”

James also finds time to be involved in Westminster’s drama program, both as an actress and stage crew member. Although she participated in virtual productions during the COVID school closure, she is excited to be back in front of a live audience during the upcoming season.

Whether the audience is play attendees or town council members, James makes an impact. She hopes to attend Salisbury University and earn degrees in social work and education. “I want a job that connects me to people in my community and allows me to have a positive impact on others’ lives.”

Agent for Change

2022, Manchester Valley High School

Manchester Valley senior Cooper Unkle might best be described as a student of the world. His thirst for knowledge led him to an extremely rigorous academic schedule and dual enrollment at Carroll Community College. Despite the academic challenges, Unkle builds in time to volunteer in the community, and for personal growth and enrichment.

“I started in the dual-enrollment program as soon as I could,” Unkle said, which was at the end of his sophomore year. “I explored the community college’s course catalog and found classes that were never open to me before. I felt like I had hit the jackpot!” he exclaimed. “The first class I took was criminology because I’m interested in the justice system. Besides providing new learning opportunities, it was a great summer activity and kept me sharp before my junior year.”

Unkle noted that participation in the dual-degree program didn’t just translate into college credit. “Being able to further my education in several different areas has increased my sense of self and my ambitions.”

He explained that because he enjoyed the two Western history classes he took at Carroll so much, he has decided to major in history in college. And, “classes like personal finance and speech communication have taught me so many tangible skills that will benefit me as I approach adulthood,” he added.

Unkle approaches his academics with an eye to the future and realizes how important biliteracy can be. He has passed three of the four tests required to earn a Seal of Biliteracy in Spanish and he plans to take the final test this year.

“In college I want to expand my conversation skills and learn more about the culture and history of the Spanish-speaking world.” It is a dream of his to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country where “it would be a perfect opportunity to put my Spanish knowledge to the test.”

In addition to his super-charged academics, Unkle carved out time to be involved with Manchester Valley’s newspaper, The Valley Voice, which allowed him the freedom to write about almost any topic. He also explained that it was a good way to stay connected while attending school virtually. “Not only could I catch up on what was going on in the community as a whole via the newspaper, I was able to see how my peers were handling the pandemic, virtual learning and the events of the year.”

He is also involved with Caring For Our Climate, for which he researched a variety of environmental topics, then formatted them into Instagram posts twice a week to help followers understand climate issues. He also helps plan projects and organize partnerships including webinars for members with local government leaders.

Unkle helped to organize a meeting with Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ashwani Jain and he is helping to formulate a proposal requesting that Carroll County Public Schools explore installing solar panels to power its schools.

Although it was a tough year for someone who enjoys school and learning so much, Unkle said, “This past year has really changed my perspective on things and in the future my dream is to become a lawyer and public official to foster dramatic social progress in the world.”

Learning on the Field

2023, South Carroll High School

“Participating in sports is honestly the best thing I could ever do,” said South Carroll junior Lauren Chesney. “I would not be the same or as successful without it.” For all that athletics means to her, however, Chesney has already made a big impact on her school’s athletics.

As a sophomore, Chesney was named to Carroll County Times All-County Soccer First Team and was a member of the 2020 indoor track and field state championship team as a freshman.
A center defender, Chesney plays for Soccer Association of Columbia’s Baltimore Armour Academy team, which competes in the Girls Academy, a national league. League play has taken her to tournaments in Virginia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and California.

On the state championship-winning track team, Chesney was the lead-off leg of the 4×400-meter relay. The relay team finished first in their heat and third overall, helping to clinch the team’s state championship title. Her 59-second split puts her among the top 400-meter runners in the state in Class 2A.

Lettering in two sports wasn’t quite enough in her young high school career. She also played one season of lacrosse at South Carroll despite never playing club lacrosse and having had a bit of a rocky start in the sport. Her kindergarten age group didn’t have enough girls for a team so they mixed her team with a team of older girls. “I remember having to hold my stick straight up over my head to defend since everyone was so much taller than me,” she recalled.

Although soccer is her priority — she has been playing since age 3 — and she plans to play in college, she will continue to run indoor track and play a spring sport, although she isn’t sure if it will be lacrosse or outdoor track. Either team would be happy to have her.

“The thing I most enjoy about being an athlete is that I always have an outlet for anything I am feeling — anger, sadness, and of course, happiness. This outlet might be on the field while competing against another team in a game, but it can also be during warm-ups with my teammates, or walking to the car after practice.”

Chesney is one of the top student-athletes in her class, with a GPA well over 4.0, but she admitted that being an athlete also has been a learning experience. “Being an athlete has taught me so much and has made me who I am today. I have learned to work hard, to interact with others to achieve something, to accept criticism, to not be afraid to make a decision, to change decisions that aren’t working and so much more.”

Chesney also acknowledged that athletics is the source of many strong friendships and not just among teammates. “Being on so many different teams has brought some of the best people into my life. And I don’t mean just [teammates], but coaches as well.”

Her academic success has gained her acceptance into the Carroll County Career and Tech nursing program. “I want to go into the medical field,” she said, although she doesn’t know in which direction. The nursing program “is a start to figuring out my future. I love helping people, so I can’t think of a better career that will both satisfy and motivate me.”

A Fine Arts Plan Backed by Science

2022, Francis Scott Key High School

Morgan Osborn-Wotthlie, a Francis Scott Key senior, is a cow-raising and -judging engineer-dancer, and maybe the only one in Carroll County.

Having grown up on a dairy farm, Osborn-Wotthlie developed an interest in applied mechanical engineering. “From working on the farm,” she said, “to keep things running sometimes you have to work with what you have and improvise a solution.”

Those experiences led her to the applied mechanical engineering program at Carroll County’s Career and Tech Center.

It’s a male-dominated program, but Osborn-Wotthlie didn’t give that a second thought when applying. “I thought that it was possible that I would be the only girl in the program, but that never skewed my decision. Some days I wonder why I thought it would be a good idea to work with a bunch of boys every day, but I am glad I chose this program as it’s something I love to do.”

She is indeed the only girl in the class, but she noted that “[it] doesn’t temper my enthusiasm to learn the most I can. Breaking the status quo is important to me as it shows that women can accomplish just as much as men in the industry if only given a chance.” However, she added that, “it is important to me not to be treated differently because I am female or singled out because of my gender.”

Osborn-Wotthlie got her first Jersey cow as a gift from her parents for her first birthday and she has received a cow on her birthday ever since. She shows her cows locally as well as state- and nationwide, and has been a member of her school’s FFA chapter for four years. She has served as the chapter’s parliamentarian and president, and has been involved in numerous FFA activities.

As a member of her local 4-H club, she got involved in dairy judging at age 8, and in her sophomore year of high school was chosen for the Maryland B team to judge in Louisville, Ky.

But there is another side to Osborn-Wotthlie, one she has nurtured almost as long as she has been raising Jersey cows.

She has been dancing since her mom saw her dancing to “I Like to Move It,” from the animated film Madagascar at age 4. She started dancing at their local rec center but then moved to Carroll County Dance Center in Eldersburg for more serious study when she was 6. She is in their ballet conservatory program and also studies jazz, modern and hip-hop.

Osborn-Wotthlie enjoys dance because it gives her the opportunity to “express someone else’s thoughts through my body movements and put my emotions into conveying the message to the audience.”

And although she has a love for raising cows and engineering, “dance is my life,” she said. She hopes to attend a fine arts college where she can focus on dance and musical theater.

“Engineering has always been a back-up plan because dancers don’t last forever and engineers are always needed. No matter which career path I head down,” Osborn-Wotthlie said, “I know I will be happy with my choice.”

Designing His Future

2022, Century High School

For Century senior Caleb Sparks, a random class to fulfill an open credit led to a newfound interest and a possible future career path.

“I was looking for a class just to fill an open credit,” Sparks said, “and while talking to my counselor, found out about a graphics course called Graphic Communication. I wasn’t expecting much but found something I absolutely love to do.”

His success in that graphics class, now titled Principles of Art and Media Communications, caught the eye of the teacher, who told him about a new Interactive Media Production class, which Sparks registered for immediately.

He took the new class last fall and explained that he “drastically improved my web design skills and learned how to model and texture a realistic setting as well as create something along the lines of a video game asset (a tool a character might use) in a different art style.”

Sparks was also enrolled in Carroll County Career and Tech Center’s competitive Project Lead the Way, the school’s two-year pre-engineering program.

During the first year, “We learned about the process of having an idea and making it become a reality,” Sparks said. “I learned how to use a new 3D modeling program to use precise measurements for 3D printing. I also did group projects to solve different prompts, like building a marble sorter using motors and light sensors that we coded.”

Sparks was excited for year two and “working with like-minded students that are passionate about engineering. I love solving problems and coming up with new ways to do a task, and the program has a lot of opportunities to do that.”

As someone who is interested in engineering, 3D modeling and industrial design, Sparks is definitely a hands-on student. So, it’s no surprise that he became involved in Thirst Missions, which sponsors short-term mission trips to areas that need outside assistance.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Sparks’ church youth group wanted to do something to help, so he and the other members reached out to Thirst Missions, which helped facilitate the trip.

While in Puerto Rico, Sparks and his fellow volunteers worked on home repairs such as installing drywall, demolition of storm-damaged components and painting. They also distributed canned goods and nonperishable items to the community.

He also volunteers as a youth leader with AWANA, a faith-based organization that works with children ages 2 to 18. Through the program, Sparks taught children behavioral skills to help them thrive in school and society.

Of course, COVID put a hold on both of these volunteering activities, but Sparks was eager to return to in-person volunteering with AWANA this fall and hopes to continue to make an impact in areas that need it. “I loved my time in Puerto Rico,” he said, “and I would definitely make another trip.”

His college search has also started in earnest now that he is a senior. He plans to either go into the field of 3D design or computer science, “with hopes to work on creating video games for people to enjoy.”

Off to a Great Start

2022,Winters Mill High School

Not many Carroll County students will have high school and community college graduations within months of each other. But not many students are like Winters Mill senior Lucinda Diehl.

A dual-enrolled student, Diehl will graduate from Winters Mill next spring. And in August 2022 she will graduate from Carroll Community College with a degree in legal studies and political science.

After that, her plans include enlisting in the Air Force. “My father served 10 years active duty in the Air Force as an aircraft hydraulic systems craftsman, and is a source of inspiration,” Diehl said. After basic training, she will enter as an active duty E-3 ranking member, with the goal of becoming a judge advocate general officer in the military’s law program.

Beyond that, she aspires to a career in politics. “I know that being a senator or [serving in] any office in state government could mean real progress. The idea of partnership and promotion of the public’s well-being and pursuit of happiness being protected is the main reason I work so hard,” Diehl said.

In the meantime, just as she always has, Diehl will continue to jump at every opportunity that will enrich her life experiences and further the path toward her goals.

This past spring, Diehl was chosen to participate in the World Trade Center Institute (WTCI) Youth Diplomats Program, which gave 30 high school juniors and seniors nationwide a jumpstart toward becoming global citizens.

Running from April until July, members of the cohort met virtually to delve into various topics in global affairs and diplomacy. In addition, participants developed their leadership and communication skills through meetings, workshops and volunteer opportunities with professionals from WTCI’s comprehensive business network and international attendees. At the conclusion of the program, participants are recognized as Albrecht Fellows.

Diehl heard about the Youth Diplomats Program when she was a freshman and knew she wanted to apply by the time she became a junior. “Even though I had to wait, I knew right away I wanted to be there with my fellow peers passionately participating in something I had a knack for,” Diehl said. “I figured even if I wasn’t selected, the experience of prepping and applying would be a good learning experience.”

Prior to being selected for the WTCI program, Diehl was a finalist in the U.S. Senate Youth Program, chosen from more than 1,000 candidates nationwide. Through the program, two students from each state are awarded scholarship money and a week of educational experiences.

And although she wasn’t chosen for one of the spots, Diehl said it was a positive experience. “I did come in as a top 10 finalist for the program and still found myself wanting to get involved in Maryland government. Now I am a contracted volunteer, as the Carroll County representative for the Maryland Center of School Safety Student Focus Group, which works to provide feedback and real student-to-government conversation ranging from Title IX to student rights,” she said.

In addition to these two special opportunities, Diehl is involved in the National Honor Society, Sources of Strength, Cultural Differences Unite and student government, among other organizations, at Winters Mill.

And, as you might expect, she is very involved at Carroll Community College, too, serving as the first-ever intern in the president’s office in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Department. She also recently was hired in the Office of Student Engagement as the Student Government Organization’s vice president.

The tagline quote accompanying Diehl’s email signature is by Samuel Clemens — “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” Lucinda Diehl would make Mark Twain proud.