Julie Leopo

An enterprising and award-winning photojournalist in Orange County and beyond. Leopo, as Voice of OC’s Director of Photography, has captured a wide array of photographs visually documenting the news and soul of Orange County local government and community. Her work has also appeared in Vice, KCET, Ed Source, The California Endowment and OC Weekly.

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As Orange County’s high school seniors get ready for a novel back-to-school experience, Voice of OC learned about a remarkable set of young leaders recognized by the Santa Ana Elks Lodge.

Because of Coronavirus, the Elks Lodge wasn’t able to hold their annual recognition banquet.

But that didn’t stop them from telling the story of these students. The organization held a drive up event and reached out throughout the community to showcase the young leaders. 

And Voice of OC wants to share their stories. 

Franklin and his mother in front of their home in Santa Ana. Franklin wanted his mom in the picture because, “she was very supportive of his education.” Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Franklin Guevera, a first-generation graduate from Middle College in Santa Ana has been accepted to Stanford University on a full ride scholarship. He graduated with two AA degrees and was Valedictorian of his class, which he delivered during his virtual graduation. 

The Santa Ana Elks lodge awarded Franklin a $1,750 scholarship.

This year brought many challenges, coronavirus, applications for colleges, and the loss of his stepfather to cancer, who was the only source of income for the family. 

Franklin, plans on studying chemical engineering, and hopes to get a research position, “to tackle big issues like climate change.” 

Franklin worries that, “climate change is an issue that will affect everyone, it will affect us here at home and in underdeveloped nations even more drastically, those areas will not be able to adequately deal with the issues that climate change or global warming will being them or get cheap energy, because distributing cheap energy to those areas aren’t really a priority, and hopefully with some of the research I plan on doing, I can help mediate those problems.”  

During his school applications, Franklin received help from different programs helping lower income students. Throughout his schooling, there was a time when he realized he did not have the same opportunities as others, such as “ private tutors.” 

Living in a multigenerational home, Franklin recalls, “the support my mom gave me was letting me have my own room. My five-year old brother sleeps with my mom and grandma in the garage, and my brother and his fiancee live in the other. I get my own desk in my room to study. I am so fortunate, because I don’t know if many have that luxury in a multigenerational household.”   

Stephanie Zhang with her parents in a video in which she recorded their reactions to her acceptance letters. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Stephanie Zhang, a Portola high school graduate, was awarded $1500 from the Santa Ana Elks Lodge. 

She will be pursuing her bachelors of science degree. 

Stephanie, was accepted to Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, UMICH, and was waitlisted at MIT, Princeton, Penn, and Brown. 

She will be attending Stanford in the fall. 

Her parents immigrated to the United States in their 20’s and were ER doctors and worked on Cancer research here in the states. 

Stephanie, who has been studying artificial intelligence, has been a part of Stanford AI Lab with Andrew NG who is from Google Brain, bisector of Google. Her research includes, “researching deep learning for early detection of gastric cancer in pathology tissue.” She “felt disappointed,” that her senior year was cut short but didn’t waste any time in being productive during a health crisis.

“During quarantine, as someone who is working a lot in tech and epidemiology, I felt an obligation to do something about Coronavirus pandemic.” In response to the crisis Stephanie created a “health hack organization” which she explains is, “a healthcare innovation event that brings people together to innovate and disrupt healthcare through entrepreneurship and digital strategies to scale medicine to solve health problems worldwide including COVID-19.” The virtual hacking event addressed issues like “mental health during quarantine, or how one can optimize testing and PPE.” 

Professionals in medicine, computer science, and public policy businesses all come together and in two to three days created teams among themselves to create “tangible products that addresses a problem in healthcare” says Zhang. 

Stephanie and her team were able to garner 250 participants from 14 countries. “We got a lot of traction with non-profits internationally, medical corporations, and even Irvine companies here in Orange County, as well as some venture capital funds in Silicon Valley were sponsoring our events.” 

One memorable experience from her hack-a-thon was matching plasma donors with coronavirus patients, which could fight off future infections among the general public, with the donation of antibodies. “The plasma collection and collection pipeline is not very well established or promoted, so that project was trying to form a company around a system or a middle man between plasma collection centers and the general public, getting that blood plasma to prevent coronavirus infections from the general public, it was a very interesting idea.” Stephanie plans to continue her research at Stanford and is excited for what the future brings. 

Erica Hsueh a graduate from Northwood High School in Irvine. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, VOICE OF OC

Erica Hsueh will be attending Princeton this fall and recently graduated from Northwood High School. She will have a concentration in Computer Science. She has received many scholarships to help her cover her costs at Princeton. She applied to different scholarships and was glad to receive a handful of them including Santa Ana Elks Lodge scholarship. Erica was very involved in tennis during her freshman year and sophomore year but realized it took too much of her time when she could be working, so she became an assistant tennis coach, which let her enjoy the sport and get paid. When having conversations with her parents she shares. “I sat down with my parents and we said we would find out a way to pay for my tuition.” Erica will combine all her scholarships and receive financial aid from Princeton. 

Online learning during coronavirus was concerning for Erica, “Orange County was pretty late to closing schools, and on the day we were officially on campus, I was actually absent. I personally don’t think my school handled it pretty well, especially hard for the teachers. We met once a week on zoom. It was a mess and didn’t feel like I learned much after I went online so it sort of impacted my AP testing, but I was a senior so it didn’t affect me as much, but I’m sure it would be different for a sophomore.” 

Later this month Erica will be leaving to New Jersey, but it will be distanced, online-learning. She worries that “ online learning is going to be difficult because I learn better in person,” but Erica remains hopeful for the adventure that lies ahead.

Sheryl Ocampo in her barista uniform outside her workplace. Sheryl is currently employed at two different coffee shops to ay for her education. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Sheryl Ocampo, 17, a Foothill High School recipient who won $1,750  for her UCLA schooling plans on studying Nursing. During her high school years, she consistently has been employed because it was up to her to pay for her tuition.

“I got a couple of scholarships and I worked out a deal with my parents. I would put in half of the money I had saved up so far for my tuition, and they would help me out with the rest,” during her college application process she realized “most of the kids in my classes, you know, their parents would pay for their classes, and I mean I’m in a similar situation where I’m fortunate enough for my parents to loan me the money, and I don’t have to pay interests, but it’s also my parents retirement money that they have been saving their whole lives— so there is still that pressure on me to pay it back.”

Her mother who has a chronic autoimmune condition inspired her to become a nurse, “ When I was two years old my mom was diagnosed with mixed connective tissue disorder, and growing up I would go to her doctors appointments and gave her medicine, so that sparked my interest in medicine.”

UCLA will be holding classes online and Sheryl said “I was really looking forward to being in during school in the fall. What I didn’t think was gonna happen but most of my classes are going to be online. I have one class that is going to be hybrid.” Sheryl will be moving to Los Angeles. 

Ethan Johnson in Yorba Linda. Ethan has played lacrosse for many years and has spent a considerable time at the parks around his neighborhood growing up. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Ethan Johnson, a Yorba Linda High-school graduate, is continuing his education at Cal State San Marcos and will be studying psychology.

When asked about his senior experience and offline learning he said, “ I really got to experience how to take care of my school work without any school instructions from my teachers.” Ethan is 18 yr. old lacrosse player has received a $2,000 scholarship, and says, “ I am paying for my college education. My parents are helping me pay for some of my schooling, but I plan on repaying them.”

However, hard work is not new for Ethan, he worked different jobs during his high school years to buy his first car he bought from his longtime mechanic, a used Toyota. When asked how he felt about having non-traditional senior year he simply replied “ Although we didn’t have a regular graduation because of coronavirus, it felt nice to experience what it was to miss certain things in life, because it only makes you appreciate them more.” Ethan’s father is a member of the Elks Lodge.

Michael Simonella, photographed in front of his home. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Michael Simonella, who just turned 18 on May 9, will be attending San Diego State and currently is looking to major in international business.

High School during coronavirus was, “tough because you didn’t get a lot of closure because I still feel like I’m in high school, but it was also very cool to see all the messages and support from the community. It was a very unifying experience, we had to learn how to adapt.” 

Michael, who was in baseball, also didn’t play his final high school baseball season due to coronavirus. Michael, who planned on moving to San Diego with his roommate says “we wanted to experience the college activities but we decided not to because we would most likely just be in our rooms because of the virus.”

Simonella will attend his classes virtually wonders if it will be “hard to adapt to a university mindset because of the online learning.”  The last couple of months Irvine High school classes were vital and Michael thinks of the time when “the last few months it was easy to lose focus because it being online and it was a new thing for teachers and it wasn’t run the best, but that was also my senior year and everything was wrapping off, but in college you don’t wanna lose that focus.” 

Michael thanks his mother for all of her efforts during the college application process and high school.

Natalie Mitchel in her neighborhood. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Natalie Mitchel, turned 18 in May, and lives in Santa Ana. She recently graduated from Foothill High School. Natalie’s father and grandfather are lifelong members of the Santa Ana Elks Lodge, ever since a child, Natalie has attended multiple events at the elks lodge growing up. She found out about the scholarship through her school counselor.

In the fall Natalie will be virtually attending San Diego University and majoring in liberal studies, and “hopes to meet the small group in liberal studies.” She reminisces about her time at Arroyo Elementary where she  was chosen to be “ teacher for a day,” Mitchell explains, “this was the best day ever, this is when I knew I wanted to be a teacher.” 

For her graduation, she will be having her graduation early August, and will celebrate at home.  When asked about her feelings about an online class setting Natalie comments, “I feel it’s weird, I think my mom is a little more disappointed than me because she knows what I’m gonna be missing out on, but it will be weird.”

During her junior year Natalie worked at a summer camp, and she just recently started a new job. To pay her tuition Natalie will be working during her college years, and she is a little concerned about working while going to school. Her college recommends not working more than 20 hours a week while enrolled, “but is up for the challenge and wants to give it a shot.” 

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