Neighbors: 2018 valedictorians

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By Kenzie O'Keefe | Editor

Photos by David Pierini


Azhae'la Hanson, North High

Azhae’la Hanson is an aspiring photographer and accomplished volleyball player who is known in her school community for her empathetic, accepting presence. In the Fall, she plans to attend Xavier University in New Orleans, LA on a scholarship.

You’ve had a very successful high school career. What has kept you motivated to succeed? I don’t like letting people down. My mom has super high expectations of me for my education. So do my grandma and my uncles. I know I can do it, and I don’t want to let myself down either. 

Why have you decided to go to Xavier University in New Orleans for college? It’s an HBCU. I didn’t want to stay in MN. I wanted to get away from the weather. I needed a change for my life – an escape. I just want something new and different. I don’t know what it’s like to be down South; I think going down there will be nice as a black woman. New Orleans is a very historical place and I’m kind of a history junkie. Move in day at Xavier is Aug. 11. I wish it was tomorrow.

Hanson have the graduation speech at North High on Saturday, June 9. “I wish I had a mic to drop. …Much love to all of the support. Let my unorthodox speech be an inspiration to all who encounter it. Let it bring change to my school and hopefully the people in it,” she said on Facebook afterward.

Tell us some fun facts about you. I have six siblings, and I live with my mom. I've been all over the country, most recently D.C for the protest. I left the country twice last year: Paris, France with Project Success and Ecuador for volunteer work. This June, I’ll be going to New York to visit Wall Street. My hair is natural, and I only shop at thrift stores. I am learning guitar. 

Tell us about a high school accomplishment you are particularly proud of. Being on the A honor roll since I was a freshman and being a student athlete. I’ve been playing volleyball since I was in eighth grade. I missed Xavier’s tryouts. I might do a walk on if they let those. If not, I’ll try to be a manager. I think in high school you can get lost in drama and cliques and crowds. Being myself allows me to be friendly with everyone. I’m proud of staying true to myself in order to find myself.

What has challenged you the most in high school? Sometimes I procrastinate. Sometimes I let my own brain get in the way of how I function. I just got a planner – I think that’ll help me be more organized in college. I have had a couple of life setbacks outside of school. Pushing through that has been kind of difficult. 

What advice do you have for next year’s class of incoming freshman at North? High school is what you make it. If you go in telling yourself it’ll be difficult, it will be. It’s all about your approach. If you try to be like everyone else, you’ll fail. People pay attention to your individuality.  I think kids can get lost in just getting good grades to go to college. You need to be able to have a mind outside of that. People need to think about life situations and different aspects of that too. Don’t kill yourself over school. It’s ok to fail. It’s a lot easier to get into college than you think. Kids put so much pressure on themselves. 

Who do you look up to? I’ve been struggling with that my whole life. My mom is a big role model, but she’s always told me that I can be better than her. I take a piece of everyone I meet with me and use different aspects of them as motivation of who I want to become. 

What are your professional goals? I don’t know. I’m hoping to get more established in photography. I was thinking about double majoring in college – in mass communications and business. I want a business foundation in case media doesn’t work out. I want to have a side hustle of photography in college. I want to provide photography for people who can’t necessarily afford it. You don’t see a lot of diversity in stock images. Photography isn’t accessible to people without a lot of money. I want to take on the responsibility of providing that.  

Describe you dream media project. I love visual arts with messages behind them. I just watched Childish Gambino’s video – the perspective of the camera is insane. I would love to work with someone that brilliant who can convey a message without actually saying it. That’s my goal with photography. I want people to get my message without being directly told the message. 

What message do you want to get across? Beauty in general. Recently, I was supposed to take this girl’s pictures, and she canceled because she found out I was over North. That was heartbreaking. It just sucks when you’re the butt of the joke. I think people discredit the Northside’s beautiful things because it’s the Northside. We have a lot of success around here and people brush it off because we’re here. I believe it’s because we’re a low income community of color. A lot of times people are like “you live on the Northside” and I say “Yes I do, but it’s not terrible. Buildings aren’t on fire like you think they are. We’re just normal people.” I’ve been working on a project about single mothers with my friend Damon. We’re trying to change the narrative about teen mothers in North High School now. I’m still discovering what I want to say about that, but it’s about love. I want people to be empathetic. It’s so easy to be like “oh my god she’s pregnant” and tear her down. But they’re moms with kids, and it sucks that people are so judgmental. 

Where do you see yourself in ten years? I graduate in 2022. Then I might pursue a Master’s. I’ll probably just be trying to get a job. If I love Louisiana, which I’m probably going to, I might stay there for a few years. I’ve also always been drawn to Atlanta.  I know a lot of people in Minnesota; maybe I’ll be back here. 



Keaton Clarke, Patrick Henry High School

Keaton Clarke is a dedicated student, jazz musician, mountain biker, and academic tutor for his peers. In the Fall, he plans to attend the University of Minnesota to study mechanical aerospace engineering on a scholarship.

You’ve had a very successful high school career. What has kept you motivated to succeed? I guess just getting things done. My success has boiled down to planning, prioritizing, and proportioning. Those three things have allowed me to get everything done on time, not feel rushed or stressed about it. I break projects down into smaller things. Then I can get everything done, and I can get it done well. One of my goals is to be a Renaissance man, to learn as much as I can about anything I can. 

Tell us some fun facts about you. I love mountain biking and just biking in general, especially at the Theodore Wirth Trails. It looked cool, so I got a mountain bike and started biking. I do a lot of winter biking as well. I run. Anything outdoors really. I play saxophone. I enjoy doing that. 

Who supports you? My family. My grandparents especially. I get along with my grandparents really well. They were extremely helpful in helping to weigh out my future decisions, like college. I was debating going to the U of M or Dunwoody. I chose the U because I got a scholarship – pretty much a full ride. 

Tell us about a high school accomplishment you are particularly proud of. Two come to mind. During my summer engineering internship, I was tasked to learn a new software that no other engineer had – Autodesk CFD. I taught it to myself and then I taught another engineer to use it. Then at the end of my internship on the last day I presented it to the office and corporate managers, trying to convince them to buy the program, and they eventually did. [The other is my] tenth grade personal project. It was unique project because you could literally do anything you wanted. I built a work table, essentially two different work tables that come together in an L form. I learned a lot from it about carpentry and video editing, because I recorded [the process]. I reorganized my room to make it fit. For the second portion of the project I attempted to make a pencil container out of bacteria Kombucha. Unfortunately, I made a physical substance, but I wasn’t able to form it into anything.

What has challenged you the most in high school? I came [to Henry] from Jefferson Community School in South Minneapolis when I was a freshman. Getting to know everyone here was somewhat of a challenge. Academically speaking, my hardest class was AP calculus AB, but the most challenging thing for me was Spanish because language doesn’t come as naturally to me as I want it to. 

What advice do you have for next year’s class of incoming freshman? Grades, GPA, and ACT scores, are not the end of the world. One number does not define you at all. That has been a struggle for me at times. I didn’t do as well as I wanted to or anticipated doing on the ACT. There is more than one way to get to your goal. From my experience so far, intelligence does not define who you are. I think it really boils down to work ethic. This isn’t my advice, but I was at a Target scholarship event and the MC said: “you are a product of the people you place in your presence.” If you hang out with kids who don’t want to do anything with school or achieve their goals, you’re most likely going to do the same things. If you want to learn from others, if you want to progress in a subject, maybe spend more time with your teachers. 

Who do you look up to? There are many people I look up to and admire. I rely on my grandmother the most. I’m comfortable talking to her about anything, especially when I have family problems. Sometimes it’s been rough at home – not awful, but just challenging. My grandmother has been influential. I’ve learned a lot from her. 

What are your plans for this summer? I have an internship at Leo A Daly. It’s only part time. I hope to get another part time job to earn a little more money. I want to move in with my grandparents. There are a lot of things I want to build this summer, like a PC – I’ve been wanting to do that for a while. I’ll be doing the Rugged Maniac in September, a 5K obstacle course race. I have yet to figure out my schedule for it, but I hope to at least volunteer at least 30-50 hours a month as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, telling others about the Bible.

What role has faith played in your life? It has defined much of who I am, my moral beliefs, my standing, and my personality. It’s been a very important part of shaping who I am today.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? It’s not really defined yet. I would like to become an engineer. I’d love to travel the world. I do want to live in London for a bit. I’ll probably be married but no kids. It would take a lot of convincing for me to have kids. 

What has your experience been like at Henry? This is one of the only schools I know that has Engineering and IB. Coming to a school with an engineering program was nice to have. I’ve also learned a lot of life lessons here. Henry gave me the opportunity to go into jazz. Jazz was one of my very first experiences of seeing the product of hard work. [It also taught me] that it’s better to push yourself and hold on by a thread then fall back on something easy. The last one is to not make excuses. It’s better to try and fail than not try at all. 

Kenzie O'Keefe