Notable Teens: These Three Have Bright Futures

Nihar Thakkar

Written by Amber Keister

Nihar Thakkar has always made time for music in a schedule that includes advanced academic classes, taekwondo, community service and extracurricular clubs. “It can be a little difficult at times to manage everything,” he says. “I can really focus my time and split it up efficiently.”

There are two sides to Nihar Thakkar: the scientist and the musician. Underpinning both of these is a desire to be helpful and to serve others.

“Everything that I’ve done so far is because I want to give back,” said the 17-year-old. “I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed, so I think that giving back is just the right thing. It’s my duty. So, at the same time, if I can foster my passions and my interests, it’s just knocking two birds with one stone.”

Nihar Thakkar has been playing clarinet since the third grade. “Being exposed to music at an early age was just really amazing,” he says.

From a young age, Thakkar was interested in science, and when he entered Green Hope High School in Cary, he gravitated toward a club that reflected those interests: the Health Occupation Students of America.

Through that club, he learned about dentistry, and eventually he began volunteering at Wake Smiles Dentistry, a Raleigh clinic that serves underprivileged adults.

As he cleaned rooms, set up equipment and talked to patients, he also had a chance to watch the dentists as they worked. He calls the experience amazing, especially seeing the impact on people who were treated there.

It was “such a great experience, being around all those people and interacting with so many patients,” Thakkar said.

At Wake Smiles, he noticed an oversized, ceremonial check mounted on the wall — $25,000 from the N.C. Dental Society Foundation. Curious about the group, Thakkar found information about its annual dental supply drive. In partnership with the USO, the foundation collects toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and other oral health essentials for military personnel.

The volunteer effort was right up his alley. In the summer of 2018, Thakkar went to roughly 20 dentists’ offices, collecting 35 pounds of supplies.

“I thought it was so awesome being able to feel something tangible and see that your efforts are going toward something for such a great cause,” he said.

Last summer, Thakkar upped his game. He asked several area grocery stores for donations in addition to local dentists’ offices. With the help of staff at the dental foundation, he also applied for grants to buy supplies.

Nihar Thakkar, center, and his teacher Jimmy Gilmore, right, pose with Grant Llewellyn, music director of the N.C. Symphony, at the end of a full-day workshop with professional musicians and other teens, in October 2018.

Thakkar collected 92 pounds of dental supplies and $1,000 in grants. His was the largest donation to the supply drive, earning him admiration and a $150 thank you prize.

“Nihar Thakkar is an exemplary young man, and we have been so impressed with his desire and motivation to help others through our annual dental supply drive,” said Laura Ridgeway, COO of the foundation.

Olivia Leathers, project coordinator at the foundation, says Thakkar was the youngest participant in the annual drive and calls him tenacious in his efforts.

“His willingness to help was just so surprising, for someone so young. He’s really interested in dentistry and helping the community,” she said.

Service to others is important to his whole family, Thakkar says. His sister is also in the healthcare field, pursuing a degree in pharmacy at UNC-Chapel Hill. He calls his parents, who are immigrants from India, the driving force behind all his accomplishments.

“They motivate me for everything,” he said. “They challenge me in positive ways.”

Now a rising senior with a resume packed with accomplishments, Thakkar is proudest of his work with the clarinet. He has performed with the N.C. All-State Honor Band, the Honor Band of America and the All-National Honor Ensemble Concert Band. He is the first chair with the Green Hope High School Wind Ensemble and also performs with the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

Thakkar has performed with the N.C. All-State Honor Band, the Honor Band of America and the All-National Honor Ensemble Concert Band.

“Music, playing clarinet, is the primary thing I use to relax,” said Thakkar, who picked up the instrument in third grade. “Every time I play, it’s just a delve into a completely different world — just getting away from all the stresses from everything, setting an hour to an hour and a half of straight vibing.”

His clarinet instructor, Jimmy Gilmore, is confident that Thakkar could be a professional musician if he wanted to.

“He’s the most mild-mannered kid in the world, just the sweetest kid in the world. But he strikes fear in the heart of his competitors, when it comes down to clarinet,” said Gilmore, who was principal clarinetist with the N.C. Symphony for 41 years.

“He wants to be the best, and so that’s what he does: very quietly goes about being the best.”

Thakkar has been studying with Gilmore since the fourth grade, after an unusual audition that involved a tune from a familiar video game, which the young musician had learned by ear.

“That was the first time I think I’ve ever had Super Mario Brothers as an audition piece. It was really great,” said Gilmore, laughing at the memory. “I will say he’s come a long way from Super Mario Brothers.”

Despite Thakkar’s talent, his longtime teacher isn’t disappointed at the young man’s chosen career.

“I know that music is always going to be an important part of his life,” Gilmore said. “I wouldn’t put it past Nihar to get his dental degree, and then go and audition for an orchestra and get in. He just has that kind of drive.”

Megan Bader

Written by Alexandra Blazevich

This fall, Megan Bader plans to study at the London Contemporary Dance School, with the goal of becoming a professional dancer and choreographer.

Many girls have an old photo of themselves, wearing a pink leotard and tutu, ready for their first ballet recital.

For many, that’s the start and end of their dance career. For Megan Bader, it was only the beginning.

Bader’s mother had noticed her two-year-old loved to keep moving, so she signed Bader up for classes at a local dance studio. Now, as a 2020 Apex Friendship High School graduate, Bader is taking the first steps toward her dream — becoming a professional dancer and choreographer.

This fall, she plans to move to London to study at the London Contemporary Dance School, focusing on movement, health and nutrition — her greatest passions.

As a senior, Megan Bader joined the Durham-based contemporary dance troupe OM Grown Dancers, a huge opportunity for a dancer still in high school.

Bader’s busy senior year was spent teaching and taking classes at the Academy for the Performing Arts six days a week, keeping up with a demanding high school curriculum, and rehearsing and performing with a professional company.

“She has a very high capacity for work and stress,” said Hillary Parnell, owner of APA, located in Apex. “It’s unique these days, especially with the bad rap that millennials get. She’s proving that that’s all wrong.”

Bader stands strong under the pressure, using dance as a creative outlet.

“I’m able to kind of express all of my thoughts and feelings in a way that feels the most normal to me and most comfortable, without having to kind of put myself into a box of what you should be as an 18-year-old girl or what makes you popular or special,” Bader said.

Megan Bader has been studying dance since she was two years old. An injury sidelined her in high school, but she was able to bounce back after surgery and months of physical therapy.

It hasn’t been an easy road for the dancer. In March 2018, Bader’s doctor discovered a tear in the cartilage of her left hip, an injury that had been previously misdiagnosed and made worse by continued dancing. In November 2018, early in her junior year, Bader had surgery, followed by nine months of physical therapy to strengthen her hip.

“It taught me how to take care of my body so much more,” Bader said. “I was able to take care of my body in a smarter way. I learned how to carry that out through all of my training.”

While injuries are common among dancers, Bader’s determination to come back, despite the timing and severity of her injury, was unusual.

“She had her hip surgery pretty late in her high school career, and she just was so dedicated to coming back stronger and working hard through it,” Parnell said. “A lot of kids at that age would have been like, ‘Okay, I guess dance isn’t for me.’”

Bader didn’t give up, and during her senior year, Courtney Owen-Muir, director of the Durham-based contemporary dance troupe OM Grown Dancers, asked Bader to join her company — a huge opportunity for a dancer still in high school.

Bader accepted the spot, rehearsing and performing with dancers from around the state.

“It was kind of cool to see how that little opportunity turned into something so beautiful,” she said. “Even through quarantine, we’ve been able to connect and still train through some of the classes as well, which has given me that double-community feeling, like I’m able to connect with more dancers from North Carolina.”

Community is important to Bader. Even during her injury, she helped where she could at the dance studio, be it filing papers or assisting with costumes. For a high school internship class, Bader started a cafe for APA dancers and their families at the studio. She hired staff, kept inventory and took care of operations.

“It really encapsulates the kind of person she is,” Parnell said. “It’s just so fascinating to watch a 17-year-old be able to do that, in a lot of ways better than many of the adults that I’ve hired over the years.

“She’s one in a million.”

Parnell and APA co-company director Nancy Andrews Roque also mentored Bader through the college audition process, when dancers are tested on technique, style and endurance. Bader auditioned for many schools, but there was one that she left feeling particularly good about: London Contemporary Dance School. It felt like fate when she was accepted.

“I think that was like a confirming moment for her, where something that she really believed in and something that she really felt connected to, she was able to achieve,” Roque said. “How validating is that as an artist, especially an artist recovering from injury, to have that moment?”

Robbie Wilson

Written by Lea Hart

Despite a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease, recent graduate Robbie Wilson was Middle Creek High School’s student body vice president, an academic standout and a member of the lacrosse team. Principal Lacey Peckham calls him “just exceptional.”

When Robbie Wilson was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in middle school, he quickly decided he wouldn’t let the disease decide his future.

Crohn’s causes inflammation of the digestive tract that can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.

“It’s been a challenge, but it gives me a lot of perspective,” Wilson said. “I don’t let it get me down, or let it be something that holds me back.”

The proof in that statement is clear in how the 2020 graduate spent his four years at Middle Creek High School. From his role as a leader in school spirit events, to student body vice president, to academic standout, to member of the Middle Creek lacrosse team, Wilson approached his high school years with focus and exuberance.

“This kid is a great athlete, exceptional scholar, daring leader, and he caps off those qualities with a genuine kindness and empathy that can only emerge from enduring hardship,” said Middle Creek High School teacher Michael Prelaske, who knows Wilson well as a mentor and club facilitator at the school.

Robbie Wilson played varsity lacrosse at Middle Creek High School, and he shined off the field too, as one of the student spirit group the Creek Crazies.

Perhaps nowhere is that empathy more obvious than in Wilson’s passion for getting other students involved at Middle Creek. He managed the student section at sports games, encouraging crowds of students to come out to the games and organizing outfits to wear or selling T-shirts to students to promote school spirit. Wilson was heavily involved in other major school events from homecoming week to spirit week to the winter formal.

In his mind, bringing students together for a game or a school event can help build a sense of community.

“Let’s face it, sometimes kids have the mindset that school isn’t really fun,” Wilson said. “When people look forward to school events like a football game or a basketball game, then if there’s a game on Friday, they spend the week thinking about that. It fills them with emotion and gives them a purpose to be in their school community.”

Tied to those events were service opportunities. From food drives to fundraisers, Wilson says he was able to help not only his school, but the surrounding community – something that’s important to him.

“I grew up pretty fortunate,” Wilson said. “I didn’t realize until I was older that a lot of people don’t, and things I can do can help other people.

“If it’s something like a few hours toward a food drive when that would otherwise be free time for me, I liked that I could actually spend that time making a difference in people’s lives.”

Robbie Wilson, left, captained Middle Creek’s Quiz Bowl team, and, as a way to create team unity, he would come up with a theme for each competition. Teacher Michael Prelaske, Karissa Webb and Abbey Rogers appeared in full Hawaiian theme, complete with faux sleeve tattoos.

That commitment to serve others and support school events never hurt his academics, however. A standout student, he captained the school’s Quiz Bowl team, which appeared on WRAL-TV’s Brain Games, and he challenged himself with five to six Advanced Placement courses each year.

Those AP pursuits culminated with the AP Capstone diploma program from the College Board. AP Capstone involves two year-long AP courses – AP Seminar and AP Research – in which the student pursues his or her own research project. Students gain skills in research, analysis, evidence-based arguments, collaboration, writing and presenting.

Wilson drew from his own life experiences, focusing his research on Crohn’s Disease and its impact on students.

“That project was helpful in shaping my identity,” Wilson said. “By writing about other people, it helped me understand more about myself – it offered me a lot of perspective.

“I was dealing with a chronic illness, and it helped to know that other people are too – it makes you feel less alone as you’re dealing with something like that.”

Prelaske worked with Wilson during his AP Capstone project, and noted Wilson’s research was “methodologically complex, sophisticated in analysis and presented professionally.” Wilson was recognized as a Capstone Scholar, of which there were fewer than ten thousand worldwide last year, Prelaske says.

Like so many students, Wilson’s on-campus high school experience was cut short this year by COVID-19. Though it was difficult in the beginning, Wilson says he eventually decided to take it in stride.

“I’m not the only one going through it – there’s millions of seniors that I’m sure are very upset about it,” he said. “At a certain point, being upset about something that’s not going to happen doesn’t do anything. There’s no point in dwelling on it.”

Wilson’s experience with Crohn’s initially sparked an interest in medicine, but he’s most recently considered biomedical engineering. He plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall, with the goal of entering a joint program between UNC and North Carolina State University in biomedical engineering. But he says, as many recent high school grads might say, that his plans are always subject to change.

“The real deal is that with Robbie graduating, MCHS will have lost something special, but the pride that all of us have in helping to put this young man out into the world will assuage the absence of his presence,” Prelaske said.

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