One is inspired by the Dalai Lama, another by his "always positive" older sister and a third by her grandmother, who went to college.
The 15 finalists in this year's eighth-grade Scholar of the Year competition, sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula, are full of hopes and dreams.
Four of the finalists shared those hopes and dreams in interviews last week. The four, all students at East Palo Alto's Willow Oaks and Ronald McNair schools, also spoke about the contest, in which they had to write essays, obtain letters of support and present a speech.
All the students -- who come every day for homework help and extracurricular activities at the Boys & Girls Club's Center for a New Generation -- said they are applying for scholarships to private high schools such as Crystal Springs Uplands in Hillsborough, Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto or St. Francis in Mountain View. Their public-school alternatives are one of the four high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District -- Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, Sequoia or Carlmont.
Except for two small charter schools, there are no public high schools in East Palo Alto.
After high school, Quron Myles said he plans to attend community college, then study political science at a four-year college and become a criminal-justice lawyer. Dominiquee Johnson, who writes poetry, aspires to graduate from New York University and be a journalist.
"My speech was about being thoughtful, because I have a little brother who has autism," finalist Kaiya St. James, an eighth-grader at Willow Oaks, said.
"I talked about how I have to be mindful about his emotions because of what he's going through at his age."
Kaiya, a fan of Michael Jackson biographies, said she helps younger students with their homework at the Center for a New Generation. At home, she helps her mother, a nutritionist with Kaiser Permanente, with cooking, cleaning and washing dishes.
Her extracurriculars involve dance -- she takes classes in both hip-hop and "praise dance," both offered after school at the Center for a New Generation on the campus of East Palo Alto's Flood School.
McNair student Diego Gregory said both his speech and his favorite essay involved his efforts to become more peaceful and empathetic.
"I used quotes from the Bible about peace, and talked about how it's helped me to become more peaceful," he said.
"I was inspired by the Dalai Lama, when he came to East Palo Alto (in October). By being more peaceful I have more patience and a longer attention span and I can tolerate a lot more unnecessary drama and problems.
"I just try to listen instead of interject and argue."
Dominiquee Johnson, the poet and aspiring journalist, said her best poem is "A Pleasurable War."
The poem is about "a friend that I want to have, but I know isn't good to have," she said. "I know they're going to drag me into things I shouldn't be in, but at the same time it feels like I should be that person's friend, I want to be that person's friend.
"The poem is about giving up the addiction of being that person's friend because I know it's bad for me."
Dominiquee said her hero is her grandmother, who lives with her.
"She went to college, and she's a really good example of someone I want to be like," she said.
"She's really sweet, kind, gentle and patient -- really patient. She endures a lot, because I'm not the easiest person to live with. She empowers me; she's always saying, 'You can do it.'"
Quron Myles, the aspiring lawyer, said his best essay had to do with the Center for a New Generation, and what it means to him.
"It's not just a program, it's like a second home," Quron said. "The mentors are like family to me. They help and guide me through everything.
"I don't feel like I'm left out -- I feel like I belong because of their love and support."
Quron said he shares a volunteer mentor, Lisa Joyce, with a fellow student, Stephanie Smith.
"She comes every Thursday and brings us snacks and helps us with our assignments," he said, adding that Joyce also took them on an outing to San Francisco.
"She's devoted a lot of time to making sure we're on the right path," he said. "She tells us that regardless of what anyone says to you, just 'kill them with kindness -- don't let your bad thoughts interfere.'"
Quron said his hero is his older sister, who went to college and "has a positive attitude toward everything.
"Without that role model, I wouldn't know which path to take," he said.
Diego, Dominiquee, Kaiya and Quron were among 15 finalists in this year's eighth-grade Scholar of the Year Competition.
In a Nov. 9 ceremony at the Boys & Girls Club, Ashley Campbell, an eighth grader at Hoover School in Redwood City, was named this year's top Scholar of the Year.
In her speech, Ashley spoke of moving to the United States from Jamaica with her mother and siblings, leaving her father behind. Her mother now works three jobs to support the family and Ashley considers her a major role model. When she arrived in Redwood City, she said she was teased at school because of her ethnic background and difficulty with English.
"All humans deserve the same respect no matter who they are," Ashley said in her speech.
Peter Fortenbaugh, Boys & Girls Club executive director, said the eighth-grade Scholar of the Year Competition is a local initiative modeled after the high school Scholar of the Year program run nationally through the Boys & Girls Clubs.
"By participating, they gain a set of skills. They have to set goals, figure out what their aspirations are, how to communicate effectively -- life skills that are so critical in preparing them to do well in high school.
"They have to write a bunch of essays about their families, about character, about obstacles they've had to overcome, about their goals and their community. And they have to give speeches in front of a big crowd (of families and supporters of the club)."
Judges include mayors, police chiefs, Silicon Valley executives, principals -- "a very distinguished group of folks," Fortenbaugh said.
The Center for a New Generation was founded in 1991 by philanthropist Susan Ford and then-Stanford University professor Condoleezza Rice. It merged with the Boys & Girls Club in 1996, and runs after-school programs in East Palo Alto and Redwood City.
Other finalists were Tatyana Spears, Stephanie Smith, Ruben Banegas, Ariandy Jimenez, Angel Lara, Jose Lopez, Tania Gabriel, Yesenia Madrigal, Hector Martinez-Lopez and Jonathan Beltran.