For the Class of 2024, Irvine’s Master Plan created a foundation for success.

Eddie Chen is a high school superstar, a Stanford-bound hip-hop dancing pro recently named among 20 Presidential Scholars in the Arts throughout the U.S.

He gives a lot of credit to Irvine schools.

“I owe so much to the empowerment they gave me to get me to where I am today,” Chen says.

The city’s accomplished class of 2024, whose many stars we profile inside, testifies to a high-achieving educational system, including one of California’s top 10 public school districts and a public university ranked 10th in the nation. That, in turn, owes to more than 50 years of foresight, beginning with a master plan.

An intellectual proposal

In 1971, Irvine Company gave Orange County leaders a blueprint for the new city of Irvine. It was designed from the start as a “city of intellect,” with villages surrounding public schools and radiating out from the new University of California campus. Eight years earlier, when the Master Plan was still on the drawing board, a Time magazine cover story praised its visionary design of a new “center of learning.”

Thus began a virtuous circle for a city that has drawn an unusually well-educated population. Roughly 7 in 10 adult residents of Irvine have a college degree, while the city continues to attract parents who prioritize high-quality education for their children.

“My parents heard about Irvine while they were still living in Kansas City, Missouri,” Chen says. “Our relatives in California had told them about Irvine’s great schools, so they stopped here when they were looking for a new home. The schools were definitely a reason for their decision to move here.”

Happy parents make for energetic school boosters, and in Irvine’s case, they have joined local businesses in providing key financial support for the Irvine Unified School District.

Over the past two decades, IUSD has received more than $140 million in private donations, including Irvine Company’s nearly $50 million commitment over 20 years to the Excellence in Education Enrichment Fund, which supports art, music and science education in elementary schools.

Those resources help the district afford important extras, such as after-school and summer programs and college and career-readiness counseling. And outside of the district, other academic opportunities abound. Heather Chen, Eddie’s twin sister, says she took eight classes at Irvine Valley College while attending Irvine High, pursuing interests including sign language.

Stellar recruits

The reputation of Irvine’s education helps attract world-class teachers.

Eddie Chen vividly remembers the difference skilled teachers made for him at Westpark Elementary School.

During recess in fourth grade, while fellow students were playing sports or socializing, he’d be practicing his dance moves. “I had always gravitated toward this art, but it was harder for my peers to understand the joy it brought me,” he recalls.

That changed after his fourth grade teacher, Cathy Turner, took time out from the class schedule to gather Chen’s classmates to watch him dance, he says.

Turner, a UCI alumna who has since retired, had previously worked at Sierra Vista Middle School and Greentree Elementary School. “Irvine schools did an amazing job of training us when we were popping out of grad school,” she says. “The early leaders had a clear idea of what they wanted excellence to look like, and it was all about academic rigor. They especially did a good job of making sure we knew how to work with gifted kids.”

“The early leaders had a clear idea of what they wanted excellence to look like, and it was all about academic rigor.”

Cathy Turner, retired Irvine teacher

Turner, who now lives in Sun City, Arizona, remembers Chen as very precocious and animated.

“One of the things that mattered to me was trying to find that spark. What do they love? What matters to them? And how could I find a way to make that important?”

Chen recalls his performance as forging a bond with his friends and his teacher. “The cheers and support from my classmates made me beam and showed me how art can bring people together.”

Camille Roussel, Woodbridge H.S.

Yale University: Global affairs and Russian, East European and Eurasian studies

Passionate about different languages and cultures, Roussel has already studied abroad in Peru and Kyrgyzstan to learn Spanish and Russian. “I learned so much linguistically and culturally,” she says, “finding second homes even thousands of miles away from my family.” Roussel aims to work for the State Department as a foreign service officer specializing in relations with the Russian-speaking world. She has also studied ballet for a decade, enjoying its physical and artistic demands. “I love being able to give back and inspire young dancers.”

Julianne Wu, University H.S.

Harvard University: Chemical and physical biology, and history and literature

This Research Science Institute Scholar intends to become a physician and a medical journalist. As a doctor, she envisions herself “developing new therapeutics for diseases,” while as a writer, she plans on “advocating against health care injustices.” When she’s not winning one of eight gold medals at Southern California Science Olympiads, she enjoys scuba diving, playing piano and studying plants. “Don’t be afraid to try something new and unexpected, and embrace failure – they’re inevitable signs on the road to success,” she says.

Michael Shen, Portola H.S.

UC Berkeley: Statistics

Shen is passionate about helping others – whether it’s a new player on the baseball team he co-captains or a transfer student eating alone. As Key Club president, he led support for veterans’ centers and animal shelters, while at church he assembled food boxes for families in need. Last summer, he worked with UC Davis professors with the goal of helping struggling groups across the globe – research he plans to continue in college. His advice to freshmen? “Get involved in new activities to find where your passions lie – and don’t forget to have fun.”

Cayla Besnard, Beckman H.S.

San Diego State University: Psychology

A member of the Associated Student Body and Varsity Dance Team, and president of Passion 4 Pencils, Besnard strives to make a positive impact on her community. Through the National Charity League, she uses her time and skills to give back to others, serving organizations like Laura’s House and the OC Rescue Mission. Having experienced the benefits of therapy, Besnard intends to make a career in clinical psychology. “Be as outgoing as possible, and put yourself out there,” Besnard advises freshmen. “You never know the opportunities it will open up.”

Alec Apelian, University H.S.

UC Irvine: Mechanical engineering

A born leader, this CIF Southern Section Student-Athlete of the Year helped his varsity volleyball team achieve First Team All League and win the league championship for the first time in 25 years. Apelian also applied his leadership skills at the American Legion State program in Sacramento as Senate Majority Leader last summer, where he took home the Outstanding Citizen Award. “I’m passionate about leadership and mentoring,” he says. “No matter what career path I follow, I want to develop these skills, seeking out mentors and mentoring others.

Katherine Hua, Woodbridge H.S.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Electrical engineering and computer science

A finalist in five international business and entrepreneurship competitions (including the Microsoft Imagine Cup and MIT Solve), Hua hopes to develop innovative tech solutions to solve real-world problems, including designing robotic interfaces to address mobility issues. Her award-winning device designed to assist the visually impaired garnered praise from several organizations.

Hua’s numerous awards and accolades include placing first in the Congressional App Challenge in her district and receiving three Presidential Volunteer Service Award gold medals. She encourages freshmen to keep an open mind and explore new opportunities, which might lead to discovering future passions.

Vishaal Krishan, Beckman H.S.

UC Berkeley: Business administration and political economy

When Krishan entered high school and discovered it lacked a debate team, he built a nationally ranked team from scratch. Krishan founded Debate 4 All, a student-led nonprofit that provides public speaking resources to over 600 students across the globe. He and his teammates consistently ranked among the top teams in the nation. “We had to work twice as hard to win against private schools with well-funded programs and experienced coaches,” Krishan says. He advises freshmen to be passionate about their endeavors and not squander time on things that don’t excite them.

Matthew Lin, Northwood H.S.

UC San Diego: Economics

An avid artist, Lin did a lot of volunteering to learn what career path to choose. He organized art shows and designed websites for nonprofits. He directed fundraising for the student-run nonprofit Laugh Out Together, which raised $3,000 for underprivileged youth. Through this, he realized how much he enjoyed helping others. He hopes to work in economic research and policy to “create opportunities and resources for others – one of the best ways to help people,” he says.

Rory Miller, Portola H.S.

UC Berkeley: Political science

“My goal is to become a foreign service officer and work as a diplomat,” says Miller, who lived in the Netherlands, London, Northern Ireland and Ohio before her family moved to Irvine in her sophomore year. Adjusting was a big hurdle, she says, but she dove in, acting in plays, singing onstage and volunteering as a writing tutor. “Once I immersed myself into all the opportunities that my school and the community had to offer, I really settled in,” she says. Next up? “My goal is to make a positive impact on the world and help people in any way that I can.”

Mallory Venezia, Northwood H.S.

Claremont McKenna College: Philosophy and public affairs

As president of Northwood’s mock trial team, Venezia led the team to its best finish since 2017, noting that her proudest moments were helping underclassmen “become their best selves,” able to “speak their minds without backing down.” The aspiring lawyer also captained the varsity sprint team and was named Northwood’s Track and Field Athlete of the Year in both 2021 and 2022. “I wasn’t the fastest on the team,” she says, “but I had determination and a passion to succeed.”

Niloufar Forghani, University H.S.

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign: Aerospace engineering

Following in her father’s footsteps, Forghani aspires to work as a design engineer in rocketry and spacecraft projects. “Space remains one of the biggest unknowns,” she says, noting that she grew up watching aerospace documentaries with her dad. Forghani’s family immigrated to the U.S. three years ago from Iran. The challenging move proved rewarding as she met people by tutoring in math and physics, volunteering through the Youth Action Team, and winning the Presidential Volunteer Service Award. Forghani’s favorite quote? Let’s go rattle the stars! “It always reminds me to push through.”

Kevin Chang, San Joaquin H.S.

Cornell University: Science and technology studies

“I believe that I’ve been dealt a good hand, and with that comes a responsibility to make the most of it,” says Chang, a technology buff who’s studied artificial intelligence since OpenAI released GPT-2 in 2019. He’s already launched his own nonprofit, Med Veta Inc., that connects students to technology programs, research opportunities and virtual job shadowing. And as an avid reader (he estimates he’s read over 70 million words in the past two years), he volunteers as a storyteller for elementary students – part of his lifelong goal to “make a positive impact on society.”

David Palacios, Irvine H.S.

Northeastern University: Business administration

Palacios plans to use college to “grow and learn about myself and the world” – and how to make both better. An Irvine Spur Award winner for showing outstanding character, he’s proud of his wide circle of friends, which extends far beyond his graduating class. He’s passionate about volunteering and world travel, something he’ll do more of as a Global Scholar at Northeastern. His advice to freshmen: “Talk to as many people as you can. That’s the only way you’ll make friends. And those interactions lead to the best things in life.”

Wesley Zeng, Woodbridge H.S.

Cornell University: Computer science and economics

Artificial intelligence and machine learning fascinate Zeng, who has published several research papers in the field. Applying statistics and the scientific method to aerospace manufacturing, Zeng gained an appreciation for AI’s limitless potential across disciplines. He intends to continue this work at Cornell. Always striving for self-improvement, Zeng founded Students Against Homelessness, which has provided more than 8,000 meals and supplies to unhoused people in L.A. He advises getting out of your comfort zone and not fearing rejection. Even if it’s scary, Zeng says, it’s always worthwhile.

Bernice Hung, Portola H.S.

UCLA: Psychology

Hung plans a career in mental health care policy, hoping to address systemic issues affecting mental health. She organized several post-pandemic community service projects to address student isolation. As president of her school’s Youth Action Team, she oversaw Teen Summit and brought the mayor to speak to over 360 students. Hung also placed second in National History Day, beating out more than 50,000 other submissions. “Don’t let college admissions be the primary motivation for your activities,” Hung says to freshmen. “Choose a college that fits your needs instead of forcing your passions into a mold for college admissions.”

Eddie Chen, Orange County School of the Arts & Heather Chen, Irvine H.S.

Irvine twins and high school seniors Eddie and Heather Chen got good news this spring. Eddie is bound for Stanford, while Heather will attend New York University. It’s not that surprising. The 18-year-old siblings are models of achievement. Heather, among other distinctions, is president of the Irvine High Key Club, a service organization, as well as her school’s student representative on the IUSD Student Advisory Committee, plus a producer, editor and director of films. Eddie, who attends Orange County School of the Arts, dances, teaches hip-hop and was recently named among 20 U.S. high school students selected as Presidential Scholars in the Arts, one of the nation’s highest scholastic honors.

What explains your phenomenal success?
EDDIE: Both of us found our passions really early. I was just 7 when my mom suggested I try hip-hop. After the class, I looked at myself in the mirror, all sweaty, and realized how much I loved it. Today I’m especially proud of creating Two Step Together, which has taught hip-hop workshops to about 600 kids in Orange County.
HEATHER: I agree. In junior year, I got passionate about filmmaking and became more involved. I joined the school’s broadcast team and was a lead anchor, and I won for best show open at the Orange County Film Festival. I chose filmmaking because I love storytelling.

What did your parents do right?
EDDIE: Our parents are very accomplished; they met at the top university in Taiwan before they came to the U.S. Both have been extremely supportive of what we do, whether it’s in the arts or academics. But ever since we were young, they always prioritized grades. School always came first.
HEATHER: They were definitely a crucial part of our work ethic, mainly because we saw them working so hard. They collaborate in a small import business, working at home, where we always saw them at their computers.
They also taught us to be disciplined with our phones and social media. After we got phones, in fifth or sixth grade, we were only allowed to use them a few hours a couple days of the week. Each night, around 9 or 10 p.m., we had to hand them over, so we couldn’t use them at night.

How has your community in Irvine contributed to your success?
EDDIE: We’ve been surrounded by a culture where our classmates work really hard to achieve goals. This past summer, I interned for the mayor and was really impressed by all the activities the city promotes, and how enthusiastic young people were about them.

What’s ahead?
HEATHER: During the pandemic, I became very interested in the politics of food and eating disorders, and I want to study that in college. NYU is a wonderful place to do that. And as a ballet dancer, I’m excited that New York City has a great dance scene.
EDDIE: I plan to major in international relations – maybe going into law or diplomacy – while also prioritizing dance. This summer we’ll be teaching dance and nutrition in Taiwan, through a new initiative called Dancing Moves the Heart.

Julia Shabanie, University H.S.

UC Santa Barbara: Computer engineering

Shabanie played two varsity sports, took 12 Advanced Placement classes, performed at Irvine Talks and invented a medtech device – all while maintaining a 4.6 grade point average. “Surrounding myself with the right people enabled me to grow,” she says of the many mentors who helped her develop a medical device that tracks and reports symptoms of stress to caretakers. She aspires to be a positive force on people, whether through friendships, professional pursuits or “simply treating people with kindness.”

Muhanad Hilal, Northwood H.S.

UC Irvine: Biological sciences

After a relative’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Hilal committed himself to pursuing a career in neurobiology. He’s already working in UCI’s neuroscience lab and serving on the board of a neuroscience-based nonprofit. In his spare time, he serves as Associated Student Body president and enjoys R&B music, travel, reading, independent films, and learning new languages, including Russian and Tagalog. His advice to freshmen? “Prioritize balance above all else. Be open to new experiences, but don’t neglect your responsibilities.

Ashley Niu, Woodbridge H.S.

Rice University: Computer science and cognitive sciences

Niu strives to be a difference-maker and is seeking out a field with the greatest potential for future impact – artificial intelligence. She plans to “participate in this wave of innovation” and positively influence the technology’s direction. “I hope to ensure a responsible application of AI in a way that benefits society and sustains our existence,” she says. As a coding instructor, she educates and empowers the next generation of coders. Alongside teammates from Woodbridge’s Computer Science Honor Society, Niu organized a district-wide hackathon to promote technological ingenuity. “I’m proud of the communities I’ve built and fostered.”