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Profile Of A Super Teen

They’re more than great students, they’re superstars among their peers. Here’s what makes them special

There’s no doubt that many teenagers in New Canaan, Darien and Rowayton are downright amazing—gracious and generous, smart and capable, athletic and kind. But what takes some of them over the top? What characteristics differentiate a high-achieving teenager from a Super Teen? To find out, we turned to a couple of experts, as well as to ten local Super Teens themselves.

“I’ve seen thousands of teens over the years, just a few of whom are superstars,” says Alan Haas, who holds graduate degrees from Harvard University in counseling, psychology and educational administration. He was the first principal of New Canaan High School, then moved to the same position at Weston High. These days he runs Educational Futures in New Canaan, an advisory service for those planning to attend boarding school or college.

Each year a parade of parents and teens seek his services, hoping to divine the secrets to standing out in a sea of college applicants. Sometimes they bring a portfolio full of accolades: near perfect SAT scores, all-state honors in a sport, mastery of a musical instrument, charity work. All of these accomplishments are admirable and commendable, says Haas, but they’re not the sole ingredients of a Super Teen. For that, you need more in the stew. “You can’t rely on a single definition,” Haas says. “It’s a combination of superstar qualities.”

One of Haas’s recent clients earned high honors throughout high school and scored above 700 in each section of his SATs. “He’s an achiever in the sense of academics and his ability to take tests, but he’s not a contributor who is willing to share himself to serve others,” Haas says. And therein lies a critical characteristic of a Super Teen: altruism. “Superstars are not just tethered to credentials, gold ribbons and a shelf full of trophies. They share their great talents for the good of others.”

Take New Canaan’s Molly Flynn, for example. Molly, 18, loves all things science. It’s in her genes. Her father is a pediatrician, like his father before him. Her mother is an advanced practice registered nurse. Molly, a 2013 graduate of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, aspires to be a surgeon. “Medicine attracts me because I can see the tangible evidence of everything I’ve been working toward put to good use. If I were a surgeon I could see the direct change in people’s lives and be happy with that,” she says. To get a jump on research and medicine, when Molly was 16 she found a mentor at the Yale Children’s Diabetes Program and volunteered in New Haven, helping children with weight and exercise. “I have a responsibility to give back using the gifts I’ve been given,” says Molly, who is now a freshman at the University of Connecticut.

Giving back seems like such an overused phrase. Does a teen even understand the concept? Super Teens do, Haas says. “It’s not that my mom wakes me up in the morning and says, ‘Okay, time to help the world,’” says Molly. “But there’s an understanding in my family that that’s a big part of it.”

The same goes for Lizzy Burke. The senior at New Canaan High School learned by her sister’s example to share her knowledge, time and expertise to help others. Lizzy stars in soccer and lacrosse, but would she consider walking five miles carrying a 30-pound jug of water on her head? “I couldn’t imagine doing that every day. But that’s what the mamas do,” Lizzy says. She’s referring to mothers in Kenya whose plight she came to know as president of the high school’s Free the Children club. Lizzy helped organize the annual Water Walk, in which participants carry containers of water through New Canaan’s Waveny Park in order to raise money and awareness of the challenges faced by African women.

Life can be exhausting for a teen who practices a sport six days a week in addition to being on the Model U.N. club, the newspaper and the literary magazine, but Lizzy makes time to help others. And that’s her definition of a Super Teen. “The driving factor is the desire within to help other people instead of just helping yourself,” she says.

Fellow New Canaan schoolmate Gita Abhiraman embodies that description, too. She has a GPA over 100, is an accomplished member of the math and debate teams, and is an award-winning pianist. Although she spends many hours practicing and performing each week, she finds time to visit an adult day care center or nursing home to serve tea and play the piano. “They’re the most encouraging audience and I love performing for them,” she says. Gita also employs her strengths as a documentarian to effect change among kids. “All the films I’ve made say something about youth empowerment,” she says. She and her friends were awarded a Wilburn Fellowship for their film Widening the Scope, which celebrates international community and diversity. Being a Super Teen, Gita says, “is about taking something that one loves and making it something bigger, helping us all make sense of our purpose.”

For nearly 25 years Caroline Tucker interviewed applicants to Princeton University, her undergraduate alma mater. She met teenaged athletes and artists, actors and inventors, most of whom had the academic chops to get accepted to the Ivy League school. Top teens, all. But Super Teens? Not necessarily. Tucker, of Dunbar Educational Consultants in New Canaan, can discern a top teen from a Super Teen with a question or two. In January or February, when Tucker chats with students about their summer plans, some offer a vague thought or two but others share a mapped out plan. “These kids get their teeth into something and you can’t stop them,” Tucker says. Super Teens, she contends, have built-in drive. “I don’t think parents can take a child who is not self-motivated and make them so. They’re wired that way. They see things through from an early age.”

Take Darien’s Arthur Doelp, 17, a senior at Greens Farms Academy in Westport. Arthur was a middle-schooler when a storm knocked out the power at home. “That got me thinking, Why can’t we have power and what can we do to get power?’ Unfortunately my age got in the way of answering that question,” he says. “I didn’t have the knowledge yet but I was determined to find out.”

Doelp noodled over solutions at home and in school, convinced that his fascination with magnets would lead to something. A science research program at GFA helped him turn the corner. He’s working on a perpetual motion generator built from a series of neodymium magnets. The prototype is laid out in the family’s garage. “It goes against two laws of thermodynamics and it’s driven by magnetism. I just love to do it,” he says. Working on the generator came on the heels of Arthur’s applications business. (He’s created and marketed three apps so far.) “I had to teach myself how to code. I had to draw all the pictures and the animation—every single frame. The first one took me about six months.” But the second took two weeks, the third, a week. “It was really exciting to see all that work pay off.”

Two events sparked David Maloof’s motivation. The first occurred when David, who lives in Darien, was a freshman at Fairfield Preparatory School. David was determined to earn an A in a class where the average was a C. “The tests covered a ton of material and were really difficult. All my classmates were complaining and giving up,” he says, “but I wasn’t going to.” He read chapters, wrote out terms, spent hours memorizing and met with the teacher after class to clarify material. “I started applying this to all of the classes and I learned to study smarter instead of harder.” Eventually he excelled in the classroom, becoming a member of the National Honor Society.

In the meantime, David was cut from the basketball team and the football team. At 5’7” tall and 120 pounds he was not built for either sport. One sport though, wrestling, pitted competitors by weight class. David had never wrestled, but he’d read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that if you put in 10,000 hours of work over ten years you are destined to succeed. He didn’t have that much time in high school so “rather than learning ten moves and doing each 100 times I learned one move and did it a thousand times.” Freshman year he competed in a tournament and didn’t score a single point. “Everyone destroyed me. But I would try harder and harder and improve.” By the time he graduated, David had helped the Prep wrestlers capture tenth place in the state championship. David is now a freshman at Columbia University.

People like David are not afraid to fail, which is another critical characteristic of a Super Teen, says Tucker. They recognize that failing simply means not attaining something yet; with yet being the key word. “They have a few days of feeling rotten, and then they get over it and make the best of the opportunity they have,” says Tucker. Often this trait coexists with the ability and determination to really see something through.

Consider Darien’s Lizzie Fitzpatrick. The senior at Greenwich Academy has been diving since she was 7 years old. “I love it. I’ve loved it from the first time I jumped off the board,” she says. In 2008 Lizzie won the national championship for her age group. She’s been named an All-American two years in a row and she has her sights on the Olympics. “I’m trying for 2016 or 2020,” she says. Lizzie practices about twenty-five hours each week and every few months travels to Indiana to train with the Junior Elite Performance Team. “At practice I always have a goal to work toward. A goal pushes me through the day.” She doesn’t have expectations of perfection, though. She knows after ten years of diving that a whole lot of misses are the history behind a perfect dive. At elite competitions, she roots for everyone to do the best they can. “Everyone’s goals are different. I just want to keep going at it to get better.”

Cameron Van de Graaf would concur. The Darien High School senior spent this summer interning at Yale University using modern biotechnology techniques to try to get bacteria to behave the way he wants them to. Cameron is working to develop a Lyme Disease vaccine. Each day his group inches closer to figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Not failure, per se, but a gigantic process of elimination. “It’s been a bit of a struggle, but a good struggle,” he says.

Last fall, Cameron, who studies debate and rhetoric with eloquence, began e-mailing scientists, hoping to connect with a mentor. “But a lot of them don’t reply. They aren’t the best communicators; that’s the nature of their work,” he says. But Cameron excels at communication, and that’s why Yale scientist Linda Bockenstedt said she invited Cameron to join her team. This year Cameron hopes to be able to draw some conclusions about Lyme Disease vaccine possibilities. His professional goal is to join a start-up in science.

Another Super Teen with his eyes on launching a business is Darien’s Jackson Reynolds, 17. He’s spent many summers exploring different aspects of start-ups. This summer the Brunswick School student interned at Formation 8 in San Francisco, one of the hottest venture capital firms in the nation, researching technology companies. Last summer he researched the effects of drugs on cancer stem cells at the Mitchell Cancer Institute in Alabama. “I just like to know things,” Jackson says. “It’s fun to discover new facts.”

This type of intellectual curiosity is another hallmark of a Super Teen, according to Haas and Tucker. Top performers seek answers not because they have to but because they want to. They stretch their minds to engage in the exercise. Darien’s Melanie Bow is a prime example of this. She has many interests and enjoys learning about them all, from French (she hosted an exchange student, then lived with her in France), to liberal arts (“I love history, English and literature”), to music (she sings with her choir and in an a cappella group and plays classical guitar). “There’s always more you can learn,” says Melanie, a senior at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan. “It’s sort of endless.” She says the online resource Wikipedia is always open on her computer. “Intellectual curiosity is something I value. It’s part of my life, hearing things and going deeper to learn more.”

Melanie credits her parents with stoking her curiosity. “They have indulged every passion I’ve had,” whether that was taking her to guitar lessons or to New York City to explore museums. The experts agree that nurturing a teen’s passion can help that talent to thrive.

Jackson Prince’s mom has nurtured creativity and curiosity in her son throughout his lifetime. (“She is the most adventurous woman,” he says.) But it’s Jackson’s innate intelligence that put him in the Super Teen stratosphere. At St. Luke’s he mastered five AP and honors classes as a senior, was class president and won a number of scholastic honors. But his EQ, or emotional intelligence, in addition to his IQ, is what makes him shine. Says Haas, “IQ is nice, but EQ is necessary to achieve superstardom.”

Here’s an example of how EQ works. Jackson, who is now a freshman at Middlebury College, remembers when his mother read the book Little Princes. “She was howling with laughter one minute, and crying the next,” he says. Jackson then read the book, which chronicles New Canaan author Conor Grennan’s visit to a Nepalese “orphanage,” only to realize the children there were victims of a child-trafficking scheme. Grennan then set out to reunite the kids with their parents.

“I loved the book so much I wanted to help,” Jackson says. He brought the author to his school and launched a fundraising campaign. The author was so impressed that he invited Jackson and his mother to Nepal. Prior to the trip, Jackson sent a letter and the book to sixty acquaintances and invited them to read his blog about his experiences. When he returned, he invited those people to his home and in the process, raised enough money to help reunite one Nepalese girl with her family.

Jackson, like the other teens featured here, says he doesn’t feel comfortable labeling himself a Super Teen but he did have a couple of friends in mind when he came up with his own description of the breed. “Someone who stands out in the community. Someone who does something extraordinarily well. A person who is confident in what they can do. It’s someone who is totally passionate about something and doesn’t care what anyone thinks.”  

Says Haas, Super Teens know who they are, even if they’re different from the rest of us. They have integrity and authenticity. Gita Abhiraman is a teen who embodies those traits. This first-generation American, whose mother is Chinese and father is Indian, appreciates living in New Canaan but also feels the lifestyle here is one of unusual privilege and luxury. So occasionally, she’ll ground herself. In June, for example, she got dressed up, complete with heels, for yet another end-of-school honors induction ceremony. Then she jumped on her bike and pedaled to school to receive her accolades.