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‘Focus on the good:’ Forsyth Central High School showcases academies, student talent at inaugural symposium
Jia Shah, a senior biotechnology student in the STEM Academy, won first place at Forsyth Central High School's inaugural Academies Symposium for her speech on how to use stress for good. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Forsyth Central High School recently held its inaugural Forsyth Central Academies Symposium to showcase student talent within its STEM, Humanities and Film Academies.

The symposium, FOCAS 2022, was organized by Humanities Academy Director Antonia Alberga-Parisi, who worked to invite community members and families out to the school's auditorium to watch as students from six different academies gave TED Talk-style speeches around this year’s theme: “Focus on the good.”

She wanted to host the event at Forsyth Central to give community members a chance to see students' talents and work that they have developed in the academies over the last several years. Junior humanities students Suhani Dey and Cary Bannon, the main emcees of the event, said the symposium is meant to help emphasize the “brilliance of academy students and celebrate what young leaders have accomplished."

Students were each judged on their speeches, and the top three winners were awarded scholarships provided by community sponsors, including Boling and Rice, Mathnasium and Oglethorpe University.

Alberga-Parisi, STEM Director Marla Hatfield and Central Film Academy Director Dan Grass each took to the stage following the speeches to announce the three winners.

Jia Shah, a senior biotechnology student in the STEM Academy, earned the first-place prize for her speech titled, “How Stress Can Make Stress Less Stressful.”

“I think we can all easily come to the conclusion that life is stressful,” Shah said during her presentation. “Like very, very, incredibly, extremely stressful.”

She pointed out that stress is known to be a contributing factor in many of the known leading causes of death in the U.S., and impacts most everyone regardless of age, status and other factors.

“But what if I told you stress is not all bad?” Shah asked the audience.

While searching for a research topic for her senior capstone project, Shah found a University of California, Berkeley study where researchers briefly subjected rats to stressful situations. After two days and two weeks, they conducted memory tests on the rats to measure brain cell growth.

She said the brief exposure to stress had caused stem cells in the rats’ brains to form into nerve cells, and within that two-week span, they had matured into functioning neurons that actively improved the rats’ mental performance.

Shah said the study shows a moment of stress “leaves the body and mind stronger and more able to face future stressors that would otherwise contribute to increased mortality risk.”

Despite this, she said many still avoid stress at all costs.

“As a society, we largely fail to see stress as something that can possibly do good, and therefore, we often miss out on opportunities to learn from our most stressful moments,” Shah said.

Jia Shah, a senior biotechnology student in the STEM Academy, won first place at Forsyth Central High School's inaugural Academies Symposium for her speech on how to use stress for good. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

While she said no one should overly stress themselves or view all stressors as a positive, small stressors like stepping briefly out of one’s comfort zone could help individuals more easily overcome stress.

“If we can all understand to recognize these different forms of stress and our responses to them, then we can all move towards learning how these stress responses can be embraced as a powerful tool to overcome the challenges that life is so well known for,” Shah said.

For her first-place prize, Shah received $500 and a $5,000 scholarship to Oglethorpe University.

Jack Ramu, a senior humanities student, won second place for his speech, “How to be Mature, as Told by a 17-year-old,” earning a $300 scholarship prize. Camryn Aguilar, a senior engineering student in the STEM Academy, took third for her speech, “Motivational Mechanisms and the High Schooler’s Thought Process," earning a $200 scholarship.

The second and third place scholarships were donated by Mathnasium, Boling and Rice Law Firm and Derrick Freeman of Voya Investments.

Other speakers included Humanities Academy students Zackary Furbush and Heidy Lopez-Rangel along with STEM Academy student Emileigh Elwood. Central Film Academy students were also featured in a video they created for the event.

The three top winners of the inaugural Academies Symposium stand on stage with bouquets while Humanities Academy Director Antonia Alberga-Parisi announces their scholarship prizes. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

During the event, each of the participating speakers took a moment to honor one of their teachers who has helped them through their journey in the academies at Central.

Furbush honored Jonathan Henderson, a humanities and journalism teacher; Lopez Rangel honored Brittany Pope Thomason, a literature and writer’s workshop teacher; Ramu honored Alberga-Parisi; Shah and Elwood both honored Laurie Karickhoff, a STEM Academy teacher; and Aguilar honored Cristina Stevenson, a STEM Academy teacher.

City of Cumming Mayor Troy Brumbalow took to the podium to speak to students and community members about the power of “focusing on the good,” reading from part of his commencement address from his own high school graduation.

He told the crowd that each person has two different voices in their heads — one negative and the other positive — and that each person has the choice of which voice to listen to.

“Starting today, choose to listen to those positive thoughts that lift you up, give yourself the gift of believing in possibilities, inherit in your greatest hopes, your biggest ideas and your wildest dreams,” Brumbalow said.

Alberga-Parisi said the symposium was a huge success, and she and the other academy directors hope to continue the event annually.

From the left, STEM Academy Director Marla Hatfield, Central Film Academy Director Dan Grass and Humanities Academy Director Antonia Alberga-Parisi announce the top three speakers from the night's events.