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Big Skills, Big Brains, Big Futures

This group of five SkillsUSA members and 2021 Presidential Scholars smashes the myth that the skilled trades and academics don’t play nicely together. In fact, as these students exemplify, they’re the best of friends.
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Photos used with permission.

The SkillsUSA Framework — the foundation for everything SkillsUSA does — is comprised of three equally important components: Personal Skills, Workplace Skills and Technical Skills Grounded in Academics. Five career and technical education (CTE) students recently underscored the “Academics” portion of that trifecta by becoming the latest in a long line of SkillsUSA members to be named U.S. Presidential Scholars. These 2021 high school graduates studied a wide range of disciplines, but they all set career goals early and demonstrated high levels of personal commitment to propel themselves forward on their chosen paths. It’s a “Fabulous Five” that’s truly worth getting to know a little better.

Julie Canuto-Depina, SkillsUSA Massachusetts

Photo courtesy of Julie Canuto-Depina.

Julie Canuto-Depina studied medical assisting at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School in South Easton, Mass. A four-year SkillsUSA member, Canuto-Depina was introduced to the organization  while attending the SkillsUSA Massachusetts Fall Leadership Conference as a freshman. She started blazing her academic trail immediately, and by the time she graduated, she’d earned just a few honors. Here’s a partial list: class valedictorian, Outstanding Vocational Technical Student of the Year award, Most Outstanding Student in History award, a perfect attendance record, a gold medal in an oratory competition with the ACT-SO Brockton branch of the NAACP, a legacy award from SkillsUSA, four scholarships and entrance into the Health Professions Recruitment and Exposure Program (HPREP) at Harvard Medical School.

Oh, and she was also a cheerleader who was voted the “most dedicated athlete of the season.”

“I feel more academically ready for my future because of CTE,” Canuto-Depina says. “Taking CTE classes prepares us for the rigorous course work of college. And it definitely teaches us time management skills and better study habits.” Canuto-Depina is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Boston College. Her long-range plan is to become a pediatric nurse practitioner.

“In all my years in education, I have never met such a driven student,” says Southeastern Regional’s principal, Leslie Weckesser. “Julie’s student leadership attributes have inspired me to be a better leader. Her warm-hearted, caring nature has been at the forefront of her student leadership style, which makes her so deserving of receiving the Presidential Scholar recognition. I look forward to seeing her future accomplishments.”

Sahil Patel, SkillsUSA Maryland

Photo courtesy of Sahil Patel.

Sahil Patel studied cybersecurity at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md., while serving as the SkillsUSA Maryland president for 2020-21.

A four-year member, he says his experiences with SkillsUSA and CTE helped him build skills that will benefit his future. “Being a CTE student was key to my success in becoming an ambitious member of my community,” he says. “SkillsUSA was the gateway through which I was able to utilize the knowledge I gained in my cybersecurity program while simultaneously building my leadership skills through being a Maryland state officer.”

Carrying more than a 4.0 GPA, Patel graduated summa cum laude, one of North Point’s top 10 students for the Class of 2021. Other awards piled up, too: he was an Advanced Placement Scholar with Distinction, earned a Charles County Certificate of Merit, was a member of the National Honor Society and earned the Principal’s Award.

North Point’s cybersecurity instructor Melody Stahl says she was also inspired by Patel’s involvement in the CTE program. “His meaningful participation and questions encouraged me to a higher level of ‘lead learner’ over the years,” she says. “I’m sure his involvement enriched other classes and clubs, as much as it did mine.”

Asked if the pandemic affected his participation or learning this past school year, Patel says that the inherent sense of community within SkillsUSA helped him and other students weather the unusual circumstances. “Even with the tremendous setback we had due to the pandemic, it was the resilience of the organization that attracted me to SkillsUSA at the beginning, and it was the community that kept me there.”

Patel has some advice for students who want to do better in school. “Studying is easier when learning is enjoyable to you,” he says. “If you enjoy a subject, you will have the desire to learn more about it. When I encounter a subject I don’t enjoy, I talk to friends or acquaintances that love the subject matter, as they will explain it in a much more digestible manner.”

Patel is now studying computer science and machine learning at the University of Maryland, College Park. He spent the summer working as a pharmacy technician and tutoring other students in math. When he has time, Patel enjoys both chess and tennis.

Andrea Maizy, SkillsUSA Michigan

Photo courtesy of Andrea Maizy.

The child of immigrants from Iraq, Michigan CTE scholar and SkillsUSA member Andrea Maizy is a 2021 graduate of Center Line High School (CLHS). There, she studied emergency medical services, her first step toward becoming a doctor.

“I’m a super dedicated person,” Maizy says when asked what it takes to earn the Presidential CTE Scholar Award. “I know what I want to do, and I do what it takes to get there. Just being dedicated gets you to where you want to be.”

Ranked 5th in her class with a 4.1 GPA, Maizy received six scholarships, including a full ride to the University of Michigan. She was also a member of her high school’s undefeated varsity volleyball team for her junior and senior years.

Currently attending the University of Michigan, Maizy is studying biology, health and society. She plans to go to medical school and become a hospital emergency room pediatrician.

Surprised that some still subscribe to the outdated myth that career and technical education is for students who “can’t make it” academically, Maizy offers up her own experiences as evidence that just the opposite is true. “It is an application process to get into a CTE school,” she says. “CTE has helped me, and it will make it easier to get into medical school because of my experience. It also gave me the experience I needed to make the decisions about what my career will look like.”

“Even after she graduated, Andrea continued to volunteer and support school activities,” says Christine Akroush, CLHS’s academy coach and CTE liaison. “Andrea is truly a remarkable student and person. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for her.”

“SkillsUSA helped me become a leader and learn people skills, which in turn helped me to help other students find their own skills.”

Raymond Slifer, SkillsUSA Pennsylvania

Raymond Slifer, SkillsUSA Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of Raymond Slifer.

Raymond Slifer, a graduate of Quakertown Community High School and Upper Bucks County Technical School in Perkasie, Pa., studied machining and engineering at Upper Bucks for all four years of high school.

As a SkillsUSA member, Slifer competed in CNC Turning, placing fifth at the state level during his first year. By the time he was a senior, he’d embraced the leadership side of SkillsUSA, serving as chapter secretary. “SkillsUSA helped me become a leader and learn people skills, which in turn helped me to help other students find their own skills,” he says.

Slifer carried a 4.0 GPA for his high school years and won the most dedicated senior award at the Upper Bucks County Technical School. He also won a Young Citizens Award, the Elmer Gates Enterprise award and two scholarships. One of his proudest achievements was reaching the rank of Eagle Scout after being in Boy Scouts since kindergarten.

When Slifer reflects on all the benefits he gained through CTE, he’s still bothered that counselors in middle school actually discouraged him to join the program. “To be honest, that angers me,” he admits. “When I was in the 8th grade, my guidance counselors tried to push me away from going to technical school because my grades were so good. I didn’t listen to them, but the belief that just because you’re smart you can’t go into a technical school is not true. There are great jobs out there, and you need skills to be able to do them. Otherwise, you might end up going into college and graduating and not being able to find a job. When you go to a technical school, you’ll find a job.”

“Raymond is the epitome of today’s career and technical education student,” says Morgan Welding, the guidance counselor at Upper Bucks Technical School. “He excels not only academically and in his technical field, but also in serving his family and community. SkillsUSA helped to hone Raymond’s professional and technical skills through his involvement in competition and serving as a chapter officer.”

Slifer is now attending Bucks County Community College on a one-year scholarship while working full-time for the Bracalente Manufacturing Group in Quakertown, Pa. His goal is to earn a master’s degree and become a manufacturing engineer.

Nathan Ford, SkillsUSA Utah

Photo courtesy of Nathan Ford.

Nathan Ford studied computer programming at Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain, Utah. “My passion is electronics,” Ford says. “It’s really logical and it clicks in my head. It makes perfect sense to me how the wires work and how the electrons flow through them. It’s kind of like a puzzle. I know what I want it to do, and so I fit the pieces together to make the puzzle work.”

Ford earned gold in electronics technology at the SkillsUSA Utah state championships in his sophomore year. While doing his own research to prepare, he realized it would be helpful to gain access to an oscilloscope for that particular portion of the competition. So, he borrowed one from the physics department and used it to practice. “Nathan is a motivated self-starter,” says Darrin Edwards, Ford’s SkillsUSA advisor. “He doesn’t wait until someone tells him what to do. He works on things that will push him. He loves the challenge. Not only is he incredibly intelligent, but he is also a hard worker.”

In high school, Ford was an Aviator Scholar and a Science Sterling Scholar. His 4.0 GPA landed him in the top 10 percent of his class. He also received accolades in “Utah Valley Magazine” for being one of the “High Schoolers Who Will Change the World.” Ford is currently attending Brigham Young University, where he plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. “Through engineering, I hope to invent new technologies to help people lead better lives.” 

The 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholars are comprised of two students from each state as well as 20 scholars in the arts, 20 scholars in career and technical education and 15 scholars chosen at large. Of the 3.6 million students who graduated from high school this year, about 6,000 candidates qualified for the 2021 awards. Visit for a full list of the 2021 scholars.

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