Top Denair High Students Carlos, Wenstrand Reflect on Quality of Education, Academic Success

Jacob Carlos is the Denair High School Class of 2020 valedictorian thanks to his 4.25 grade-point average. The salutatorian will be Brigg Wenstrand, who compiled a 4.22 GPA in his four years.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduation ceremony on Friday, May 22 will be a drive-through event beginning at 7 p.m. at Jack Lytton Stadium. Each graduate will ride in a vehicle with up to nine family members; everyone must stay in the car at all times. Diplomas will be handed to students through the car window.

The ceremony will be streamed live on the Denair High School Facebook page,  on DESPN’s Instagram live page and on the NFHS network free of charge for families to watch, starting at 7 p.m. The nearby Church of the Nazarene also will put it on its YouTube channel.

Carlos and Wenstrand recently took time to answer some questions about their high school experiences.

Question: Obviously, the Class of 2020 will have a much different graduation experience than any in many generations. How do you think that will shape you and your classmates? 

Carlos: Obviously, this experience isn’t what we expected. I think it will help my classmates and I to appreciate the things in life that we have. This whole experience is an example of the phrase “anything can happen.”

Wenstrand: I think the situation that we are facing will make us all stronger for the future. Yes, right now it hurts that we can’t be together these last few weeks at things like the senior trip and even graduation parties, but five years down the road, it won’t matter as much. The lessons we are learning and the acts of kindness we are seeing around the world will be far more beneficial.

Q: What are the key things other students should know about your academic success and how you achieved it?

Wenstrand: My main piece of advice for any student wanting to achieve this academic recognition is DON’T STRESS. I would constantly be telling myself, “There is no need to worry because this will all get done.” Even if it seemed like there was no way it could, it always did. Because of this mindset, there was no need to freak out and panic. That doesn’t achieve anything and just keeps it so you can’t focus. All your work will get done. Just relax, put in the effort and focus.

Carlos: My academic success required me to make some sacrifices that not everyone is willing to make. Although it wasn’t easy being No. 1 in my class, it definitely wasn’t as difficult as I had thought. I went about it by making school my No. 1 priority at all times.

Q: How much time outside of class did you spend studying or doing homework?

Carlos: It all depends on how much homework is assigned and when it is due. The biggest thing is not procrastinating, especially when teachers assign homework that is due at the end of the week. It is easy to blow it off for the first few days.

Wenstrand: Outside of class, you will need to find a balance between schoolwork and life. I averaged about two hours of homework a day. There were definitely days that I had much more. I would work from the moment I got home up until my family had dinner and then I would get back to work right after. And there were, of course, days that I had maybe one thing to do and that was that. Only like 30 minutes of reading or notes or something else small. There is no rhyme or reason to the time for homework and studying. It all depends on the classes you take and how well you manage your time. 

Q: Which classes and/or teachers at Denair High had the most influence on you?

Wenstrand: There were a few teachers who had a big influence on me. The first one is Mrs. Hilton, my math teacher. This year, I took her AP stats class, which was one of the most challenging classes I’ve taken. But she pushed me and helped me to be my best, whether that was answering countless questions in class, responding to an onslaught of emails or even staying after class to help me work through problems I had with the assignments. Ms. North, my AP English teacher, also was a big influence during these last few years. Like my stats class, English was extremely challenging — not necessarily the concepts, but the workload. I have never had so many assignments throughout a two-year period. But because of this, I am now used to it and know how to manage it, so next year at UCLA I won’t be as taken aback by the college-level workload. The last teacher who had the biggest impact on my high school years was my ag mechanics teacher, Mr. Hultgren. Being someone who had no idea what to do in a shop, I was a little bit intimidated when I signed up for his class. But thanks to his patience and willingness to help me every step of the way, I have taken a liking to the shop. I am in my third year of a shop class and I was even on the ag mechanics competition team until the shutdown happened. I will forever be grateful that I got to experience his classes and learn in an extremely knowledgeable hands-on environment. 

Carlos: I would definitely say Mr. Cumberland has had a huge impact on me at Denair even though I never had him as a teacher. Mr. Wagner and Ms. North are two others who held me to a high standard and forced me to produce quality work.

Q: How many Advanced Placement classes were you able to take? Were you challenged?

Carlos: Last year, I was able to take two; this year was the same. It was definitely a challenge to balance sports, academics and social life, especially with having two AP classes breathing down my neck. If I had to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing. The AP classes gave me a glimpse of how college is going to be.

Wenstrand: I was able to take eight AP classes here at Denair. As a freshman, I was able to take Spanish. It is very uncommon for a freshman to be in an AP class, let alone a foreign language class. This I credit to Denair High’s schedule flexibility and the willingness to accommodate all students and their goals. As a junior, I took online biology, online U.S. history and English Literature with Ms. North. My senior year was my biggest year. I had online chemistry, statistics with Mrs. Hilton, English language with Ms. North again and macroeconomics/government with Mr. Wagner. I was challenged in each class in a different way – some from the concepts, some from the workload and some from the self-motivation to stay on track (the online courses).

Q: What kind of culture of learning exists in your home? What has that meant for your success in high school?

Wenstrand: In my home, I have been blessed with two amazing parents. They are both educators in the Turlock district, so the culture of learning at home has always been a prominent one. I have always been on top of my schoolwork and have always been supported toward my academic goals thanks to them and their firsthand knowledge of the education system. 

Carlos: I wouldn’t say there is a unique culture that exists in my home. The only time that my schooling was talked about at home was when my mother would get a PowerSchool notification about a missing assignment. Other than that, it was never brought up. I actually preferred it to be like that. That way, I could do my schoolwork without any distractions. It also allowed me to remain humble about my academics.

Q: What should members of the community know about the quality of education at Denair High?

Carlos: A lot of people have this misconception that since Denair is a smaller school district and there have been funding issues in the past that the quality of education has been lowered. I would say it is the exact opposite. Sure, the smaller the school, the fewer the opportunities, but Denair has just what any high school student needs: great teachers, great staff, small classes and a personalized education experience.

Wenstrand: People should know that a Denair education is as good as any other school. Just because we are an extremely small student body doesn’t mean anything. Our teachers are all very knowledgeable and involved at the school. I think that the small school setting actually works to the students’ credit because you can build individual relationships with your teachers that you might not get at a big school of 3,000 kids.

Q: Outside of class, what kinds of teams, organizations or clubs are you involved in? How important are extracurricular activities in preparing you for college and beyond?

Wenstrand: At Denair, it is super easy to get involved in anything that you want to do. Whether that is sports, clubs and everything in between, if you are willing to put in the work, there is a place for you. For me, I was on the basketball, cross country and tennis teams, as well as a part of Key Club and CSF. It is good to get involved because you can meet and interact with new people who you might not get to on your everyday class schedule. Outside of school, I was also very active in the Denair/Turlock community as a volunteer. My biggest thing I did was volunteer at the Emanuel Cancer Center for a group called Monkey Business. We are a support group for the children and grandchildren of patients. We do a lot of crafts and play lots of games, and seeing the kids happy and getting their mind off the hardships at home is one of the best feelings. I have thoroughly enjoyed this program, so much so I was in my third consecutive year until the shutdown. As far as college goes, yes, they do look at what you do besides schooling. It is good to build a resume, but don’t just do the groups to “play the game.” Partake because you care and want to get involved. 

Carlos: I was part of the football and baseball teams as well as Key Club. Being a part of sports teams was probably the hardest part of trying to get schoolwork done. Usually, practices wouldn’t end until 5:30 or 6 p.m., which already put me at a disadvantage against other students who didn’t play sports. Add on the fact that after every practice all I wanted to do was shower and sleep, and it was definitely a grind to stay ahead. This experience taught me a lot about time management and persistence – two traits that will be essential in college.

Q: What is the right balance for teens busy with school, teams or clubs, and even part-time jobs?

Carlos: Teens always have enough time to balance school, sports and part-time jobs; most of the time, they just can’t find a way to properly manage their time. I think the right balance for teens is giving up social media and smart phones. I wasted a lot of time doing pointless things like scrolling Instagram or watching YouTube. I think the best thing to do is to have a set time at night dedicated to schoolwork where you can turn your phone off completely. Also, I feel that a lot of teens think the weekends are days off. I got a majority of my work done over the weekend since I didn’t have school or sports.

Wenstrand: Each person is different and each situation is different when it comes to balancing school, clubs, work, etc. For me, I would leave the school year closed off to employment and would just focus on school and sports. During the summer, by all means, go and work. During my last three summers, I have been a lifeguard for the city of Turlock as well as a bus boy for Angelini’s Italian Restaurant. As far as my social life, I would create time to see friends by staying on top of my schoolwork and not letting it build up. Because of this, I never really had too much to do at once. This allowed me to go to things like the Friday football games or my girlfriend’s water polo games at THS, all on weekdays. 

Q: What are your college and career plans?

Wenstrand: For college, I will be attending the University of California at Los Angeles next year. I am majoring in biology in the College of Letters and Science. After that, I want to attend medical school. My career plan is to become an obstetrician, like my uncle and aunt. I would love this job because I have always been fascinated by the sciences, I love working with kids (Monkey Business and lifeguarding) and helping people is extremely important to me. 

Carlos: As of now, I plan on attending Fresno State and getting my degree in mechanical engineering with the Lyles College of Engineering. After college, I plan to attend Navy Officer Candidate School, which is a 12-week program that will prepare me for a career in the Navy as an officer.

Q: What themes are you going to talk about in your speeches on graduation night?

Carlos: I am going to focus a lot of attention on family and how Denair has always been a second family to me. Some of my friends I have known for as long as I can remember and I never hesitate to call them my brothers and sisters. Denair truly has been a second home for me and I know if I ever needed help, it would be right there.Wenstrand: For my graduation speech, the main point I am trying to drive home with the audience and my class is to not let opportunities pass you by. There are many doors to be opened throughout our lives. It is of the utmost importance to take advantage of what is presented to you, no matter where you are or what direction you are heading in life.

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