Meet our Soon-to-Be Grads

Students at a table
Meet These High School Soon-to-Be Grads

Two students want to be neuroscientists - one a doctor, the other a researcher. Two others will serve their country - one with a mission to help the environment. A fifth student is already out in the workforce, helping construct buildings.

That’s what just five of the 251 soon-to-be-graduates of the South Milwaukee senior class plan to do when they finish high school.

“It’s weird to me, that after graduation I’m not going to be here next year,” said Lea Papa, a 17-year-old Albanian immigrant who moved to South Milwaukee when she was just four years old. 

“I’ve formed a connection with people in my grade. I’m going to miss them.” 

Papa has received a full scholarship to Yale University in Connecticut where she plans to study neuroscience. She has a passion for history and anthropology in the humanities and anatomy and biology in the sciences. 

“The connection between them is people,” Papa said. “I want to work in a lab where they develop treatments for neurodevelopmental diseases.” 

She will have a home-grown colleague in Nadia Maldonado, 17, who will attend Vanderbilt University in the fall, and who also plans to study neuroscience. A second-generation Mexican-American, Maldonado had her sights set on the Tennessee school and earned a full-ride scholarship.

“The brain really interests me because there are so many concepts of it,” she said. “I want to learn more about the brain, and if I decide to go to medical school I either want to do neurosurgery or get a Ph.D. and study areas of the brain.” 

Whatever subject Maldonado and Papa finally end up studying, they won’t be alone. A full 68% of this year’s graduating class will attend a four-year college or university. Hunter Johnson, 18, has already started his career. Johnson is a Youth Apprentice in the field of industrial Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning and is part of the 24% of this year’s graduates who plan to work right out of high school. Johnson got an early start. He finished his required courses in January and began the high school-sponsored apprenticeship with Lee Mechanical, which has offices in Oak Creek and Kenosha. 

“It’s a great trade,” Johnson said. “I do a lot of cool things. Today I did welding. Right now, we’re welding up plates. They’re 42 inches long and five inches wide.” He’s worked on jobs all over the region, from refreshing school buildings to new manufacturing plants in the area.

Johnson earns $15.50 an hour as an apprentice and will see his annual earnings grow as he gains more experience. That means working half a day and taking skills-based classes at the union hall.

“I think it was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “It’s a career.”

A handful of students are headed into the military, like Anthony Cook, 17. The Army recruit will be the fourth generation of his family to serve. “I’ve been talking to the recruiter for two years now,” Cook said. “I’m going as a combat engineer.” Since school started he’s been working on getting in shape and ready for boot camp. Cook likes to work with his hands and is a Rocket Renegade - part of a club that’s repairing a motorcycle at the high school. He thinks he’ll eventually work in the trades. “I’m going to be (in the Army) for three years,” he said. “If I decide to (leave the military) I’ll be 21 and there’s a ton I can do afterward. … and I’ll be serving my country at the same time.” 

Olga Ortiz Salgado, 18, has also signed up to serve her country, and she’s going to college, too. Ortiz Salgado was recently accepted into the Coast Guard Academy. Her education will be free, and she will be an officer by her junior year. “My goal has been to grow up and help the environment and the people around me,” she said. She plans to study marine science and was attracted to the Coast Guard because of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) focus of the Academy and the Coast Guard’s humanitarian missions. 

Ortiz Salgado, who is of Columbian and Puerto Rican descent, is excited to bring her voice to the military.

“To be honest, I was told earlier this year by a boy that I wouldn’t make it (into the military) because I’m a girl,” she said. She’s proud she was accepted. “It’s an empowering thing. … You just have to put in the work and not worry about what people say.”