Aarohi Motwani

After the ceremony, the top students line up on stage with their teacher honorees and look out into an auditorium full of their proud families. “[The students] are confident, passionate, they work hard, but they don’t compete against each other,” Principal John Duellman said. “They’re just genuinely good human beings.”

Phoenix Exceeds in Education

On Dec. 6, the top five percent of the graduating class of 2023 were congratulated and celebrated for their academic academic excellence at a banquet in the cafeteria and auditorium.

December 16, 2022

In the main hallway,  22  fresh faces,  newly mounted on the wall, greet Rock Ridge visitors. Each photo holds a different story of how they rose to the top of the graduating class. Every year, after countless hours of homework and studying, the top five percent of students in the graduating class get the honor of having their picture hung up in the entryway and a banquet and awards ceremony celebrating their accomplishments. 

Sruthi Sakala and Aarohi Motwani via Canva

On Dec. 6, the school recognized the top five percent of the graduating class of 2023 with a celebratory awards ceremony and banquet. Students celebrated their four successful years of high school,toasted to future academic successes, and reminisced on  four years of high school.

Principal John Duellman kicks off the banquet by congratulating the students and providing a catered dinner for all. For the past 40 years, it’s been a tradition in Loudoun County Public Schools to honor excellence in students. “It is the greatest sign that we as a school community are making great strides in growing excellent citizens,” Duellman said. (Sruthi Sakala )

The first Excellence in Education banquet was held at the Leesburg Baptist Church in 1983 and was sponsored by retired teacher Alvin Sowards. As LCPS grew, this event became a large two-day event with 17 high schools and nearly 400 students. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic, the banquet has become smaller and is now an individual event for each school. This allowed for a more personalized and intimate experience for families and teachers alike.

In preparation for the banquet, Duellman met with each student individually during the school day and attempted to learn more about their personalities and likes by asking lighthearted questions that brought out the students’ natures. Duellman was impressed with their responses. “The most common adage – gratitude – resonated for me,” Duellman said. “Our students spoke of our staff and teachers, recognizing the challenges of this role and how much effort is expended in creating substantive experiences and establishing powerful relationships.” 

Another common subject in the interviews was empathy and parental inspiration. “Many of you [parents] are first generation families  – waging financial and personal risks in order to come to America and raise your children – and your [children] know and respect this risk and have so much love and appreciation [for you],” Duellman said, addressing the families gathered to celebrate the students. 

Every student attending the event left their mark on the school and its students. While all of them reached the same goal of being in the top five percent of students in their class, their journeys to get there were vastly different from one another.


It is the greatest sign that we as a school community are making great strides in growing excellent citizens

— Principal John Duellman

Avishi Gupta


Aarohi Motwani

Sitting in between her mom and dad, senior Avishi Gupta enjoys pleasant conversation and polite banter with her teacher honoree, social studies teacher Danielle Donovan, and her classmate, senior Parv Gosai. Gupta took initiative for her own education as soon as she started high school. “She is totally independent and we don’t need to tell her what to do,” her mom, Vandana Gupta said. “She knows what’s best for her and she is aware of what her goals are.”

Through the endless AP courses, Avishi Gupta maintained diversity in her achievements. She managed the girls lacrosse team and volunteered as a tutor for over 200 hours for the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Nest4US, and the library. She was also Vice President of an organization known as Grief Buddies and Head of Marketing for an organization known as Girls Code It.

Gupta plans to study software engineering in college and pursue a masters degree in business administration or science. 

She is totally independent and we don’t need to tell her what to do. She knows what’s best for her and she is aware of what her goals are.

— Vandana Gupta

The preparations leading up to her big college plans were hectic but fulfilling. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, contrary to what most students experienced, Gupta’s learning skills were enhanced during the year of online learning. Gupta got experience many things leading up to graduation, making the five to six hours of studying every day after school worth it. “I got to do what I wanted to do, and be who I wanted to be,” Gupta said. “It was overall such a great experience.”

Her teacher honoree, social studies teacher Danielle Donovan, impacted and improved Gupta’s high school experience significantly. She chose Donovan because since Gupta’s junior year, Donovan proved to be a pillar of strength in her life. “I can go to her whenever I want to talk about something and she supports me and helps me both with school and my personal life,” Gupta said. “She is a safe person for me.” 

Donovan also had many great things to say about one of her favorite students. “I don’t normally stay after school [in general], but when Avishi asked me to be her teacher honoree, I knew I had to say yes,” Donovan said. Gupta had Donovan for U.S. and Va. history during her junior year, and immediately knew that Donovan would be a big part of her life.

Rayyan Ansari


Aarohi Motwani

Senior Rayyan Ansari places a medal around his teacher honoree, English teacher Johanna Ayala-Walsh. Walsh and Ansari both appreciate the humor and lightheartedness they share in class. “Mrs. Walsh always makes a great atmosphere,” Ansari said. “She helped me enjoy my high school experience more.”

Senior Rayyan Ansari pushed through high school with positive pressure from his family. Both his elder siblings were in the top five percent of their graduating classes, and that always pushed him to strive to do everything to the best of his ability. “Having those two siblings who were excellent academically was an advantage for me,” Ansari said.  

His parents were always supportive of him and encouraged him to do everything to the next level. The family had a positive relationship; Ansari appreciated his parents’ sacrifices and encouragement, and his parents always appreciated his personality and obedience. “Rayyan accepted what we wanted him to do, and matured a lot since [he was a freshman],” his father, Mohammad Ansari, said. 

Ansari had an enjoyable high school experience through all the work. Having the same friends since elementary school helped him to adjust to high school life. Unlike many of his classmates, Ansari never felt that he had a choice between studying or going out; he simply knew he needed to put in a lot of time and hard work into his studies to be successful. 

He maintained balance through captaining the varsity tennis team and being the co-president of the Muslim Student Association. He also took part in academic extracurriculars like the National Honor Society and tutoring for  Mu Alpha Theta. However, Ansari felt the effects of prioritizing his school work over everything else, because he found that he lacked a strong social life. As a senior, he made an effort to balance academics and social experiences.

Even if he’s always joking around, he never fails to get his work done, and he always does it well.

— English teacher Johannah Ayala-Walsh

English teacher Johanna Ayala-Walsh was his greatest mentor in school, and Ansari was always a joy for Walsh to have in her class; he never fails to improve her day. “If I’m having a bad day, he’ll come in and say something slick and it’ll just make me laugh,” Walsh said. “Even if he’s always joking around, he never fails to get his work done, and he always does it well.”

Akshara Somu


Aarohi Motwani

Sitting next to her teacher honoree, social studies teacher Victoria Webb, senior Akshara Somu enjoys a meal and engages in conversation with Webb and other people sitting at her table. “[Webb] is an amazing teacher, and I think our school is so lucky to have such a passionate history teacher,” Somu said. “It’s amazing that it’s only her second year of teaching.”

Akshara Somu is a scholar student as well as a student who commits herself wholeheartedly to her many extracurricular activities. She is a Teacher Assistant for AP Psychology and found her passion for volunteering as the founder of  NOVA Allies – a non-profit that focuses on obtaining resources, donations, etc. for people in need. Inspiring the student body to do the same and give back to their community, she was named the 2021-2022 Top Volunteer for the Rock Ridge National Honor Society. 

She also worked with Athletic Trainer Cole Powell for two years and built a home in the Athletic trainer Student Aide Program at Rock Ridge High School. “He taught me so much, outside of just medicine,” Somu said. “I [gain] so much wisdom from him everyday and he helped me learn that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”

Somu aspires to find a career in the clinical neuroscience or neurosurgery field.


When I enjoy a class, like AP Psychology, for example, I look forward to going to school and that was really my motivation.

— Senior Akshara Somu

While Somu felt that she could have been better about prioritizing her own time outside of school, she believes that it’s very important that everyone prioritizes their mental health before education and school. But, she believes that school is really her motivation and what makes her get out of bed every morning. “I have always loved learning to an extent; I definitely still hate doing homework,” Somu said. “When I enjoy a class, like AP Psychology, for example, I look forward to going to school and that was really my motivation.”

The class of 2023 has gone through many different challenges, including a pandemic halfway through their high school career and trying to adjust when coming back to school the next year. So many people shined through and proved that their hard work really paid off. “The academic accomplishments of everyone is just radiant,” Duellman said. “We are seeing just decent human beings [in addition to everyone’s accomplishments].”

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