The 2020 Topeka Capital-Journal All-State Academic Team showcases some of the state’s brightest young leaders as they mark their final high school milestones amid unprecedented disruption, separated from their friends and teachers, with activities and events canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those from Shawnee County are approaching the uncertainty with optimism and making the most of their final bittersweet days of high school.

Washburn Rural High School’s Jay Ram is focusing on using the extra time to be as productive as possible and trying not to think about what he is missing, but he admitted feeling sad about the disruption to graduation.

"You don't really know what you have until it's gone," Ram said.

Makenna Orton, of Shawnee Heights High School, is adjusting to the loss of structure from the school day and the time management challenges. But she said the online structure offers some benefits, as well.

"One of my more difficult classes is AP calculus, and I can take more time with that. I can pause her video and make sure that I understand what she's saying," Orton said. "Also, if we're learning something that is really interesting, I can take some time to dig into it a little bit more on my own instead of just breeze by it in class."

Topeka High School’s Irene Caracioni said she is able to get through her assignments more quickly with the self-paced structure of distance learning, but she misses the face-to-face interactions with her teachers and peers.

"It's just getting by. I don't think I'm getting as much out of it anymore," Caracioni said. "I just really miss the conversations."

As they wrap up their high school career online, they reflected on highlights of their time in high school and some of the teachers who have been influential in their lives.

Irene Caracioni

More than any tangible academic achievements or awards, Caracioni said she is most proud of the personal progress she has made during high school.

"I kind of started off as a student that didn't really speak out about things or didn't really talk much in class," she said. "But now I'm someone who really speaks out about issues. I think critically about everything. I want to know more, and I question assumptions."

She attributes much of her success to her involvement in debate.

Caracioni founded the school’s medical club after volunteering at the Topeka Rescue Mission and learning of the need for basic medical supplies like bandages, gauze tape and antiseptic wipes. During the club’s first year they raised $800 and bought supplies to put into medical kits that they donated to the homeless shelter.

She plans to attend Georgetown University in the fall and study applied math and economics.

She pointed to her history and AP seminar teacher and forensics coach Sam Schumann as one of her most influential teachers.

"I really ended up learning how to think for myself and question things, and that's in large part due to him," Caracioni said. "I would spend hours in his classroom after school just talking about random subjects like the state of the economy or what the implications of a universal basic income would be on the economy. He would always push me to really question why I believe what I believed and defend what I believed. He really fostered critical thinking."

Makenna Orton

Attending the High School Leadership Academy with Washburn University led Orton to two of her most proud accomplishments: working as a founding member of the Topeka Youth Commission and revitalizing the school’s food pantry.

The Youth Commission, which sprang from a youth summit Orton was invited to attend after the HSLA, aims to get students more involved in their community, with subcommittees focusing on government, community involvement and outreach.

"Hopefully that'll be a really long-lasting thing and self-sustaining," Orton said. "Hopefully it'll be making some positive change."

Orton learned to overcome adversity in cross country. She suffered a stress fracture in her foot during her freshman year and sat out again during her junior year after breaking her ankle. She came back strong and competed at the state level during her senior year.

Her advice for younger students includes not basing too much of your self-worth on test scores, focusing on time management and acknowledge your emotions.

Orton counted gifted facilitator Robyn Aeschliman among her mentors.

"She's just always very organized and put together and positive, and I feel like she's always a good support and a good example of what an adult is," Orton said.

Orton plans to attend the University of Kansas and study biology with a focus in ecology and evolutionary/organismal biology. Her interest in the environment began as a child watching Steve Irwin, "The Crocodile Hunter."

Jay Ram

Ram is keeping his goals for the future flexible amid the current uncertainty caused by the pandemic. He plans to attend Columbia University and study physics. He’s also interested in exploring economics or computer science as a second major or a minor.

"Research interests me in terms of discovering new phenomenon, but I guess I'm more interested in designing things and sort of the aspect of what can you create using scientific principles," Ram said.

His interests are fluid and he is intrigued by new things he learns, he said, noting a recent report about researchers using DNA to store data.

"So basically they made DNA act like a flash drive," he said. "I thought that was pretty interesting, the potential of being able to use biological processes and scientific principles in order to create something new."

The high school accomplishments Ram is most proud of include his Scholars’ Bowl team and the extended essay he wrote about physics for the International Baccalaureate program.

His advice to other students is to work hard and stay curious.

"Life is short and that you should make the most of it, especially like in times like these," Ram said. "We have a lot of time, and I think it's important that you use it to achieve what you want really want to achieve in life."

Ram has been inspired by his math teacher, Kent Brown.

"He has the type of character that you want to emulate," Ram said of Brown. "He's just such a kind person. I think really everyone wants to be a little bit more like him."