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Pinellas graduates set sights high

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Published:   |   Updated: June 2, 2013 at 10:08 PM

CLEARWATER Christian Nattiel has his eyes set on the presidency, but until Wednesday his only concern will be getting to Tropicana Field on time to graduate from Boca Ciega High School.

“If I was president, I would really want to motivate kids to know how important school actually is instead of going because your mom tells you too,” Nattiel said. “Most kids want to be a basketball player or an entertainer, but the chances of that happening is really slim, and when you get to senior year you realize you're going to have to bust your butt to be successful. I'm so glad I'm finally there.”

High School seniors throughout Pinellas County will put on caps and gowns this week as they prepare to leave high school. For some, it's all about college, but for others, such as Nattiel, the draw is a future career.

Nattiel, a 17-year-old, 6'6” basketball player at Boca Ciega High, has a full scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with nominations from Sen. Marco Rubio and Congressman Bill Young after a grueling application and interview process. Answering questions like, 'Why are you fit to go to West Point?' and 'How do you think your character will hold up while you're there?' was daunting at first, but he was honest, he said. Nattiel doesn't want to be an Army officer, but use his connections to get into politics, he said.

“I just got lucky,” he said. “I want to go to West Point because it's just regal, it's amazing. There they say, 'The history we teach is made by the people we taught,' and once I heard that I knew that was meant to go there. I'm going to be humbled, because everyone at that school is a top dog.”

Nattiel's stepfather is an Army major who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wasn't thrilled about the idea of Nattiel going into the Army, but everyone recognizes his determination to succeed, said his mother Samantha Ridley. His stepfather has been stationed in Chicago for the past three years, but the family stayed behind in Florida so Nattiel could graduate with friends.

“We're moving to Chicago right after we drop him off at West Point, so his graduation won't be as grand and ceremonial as I had always envisioned,” Ridley said. “We're just going to celebrate his accomplishments. He's always been driven and disciplined and this is his dream. I really think he could be president, and I'm not just saying that as a mom. It would be natural for him.”

Mason Valentine, 18, graduates from Osceola Fundamental High School at Tropicana Field today, and has dreams of becoming an airline pilot. He plans to enroll in St. Petersburg College and continue on at the Florida Institute of Technology to become an air traffic controller as a back up plan. Weighing options for how he wants to spend the rest of his life has been a difficult task, he said.

“You don't really need to go to college to be a pilot, all you need are flight hours, but it's very easy to become grounded if you get injured or something and then you won't have a job,” he said. “My dad flew helicopters in the army, so I've always loved aviation, but everyone knows you'll make more money if you go to college. But then there's always the chance that you won't get hired right out of college because it's an oversaturated work field.”

The youngest of three siblings, Mason's father Mark Valentine said graduation will be bittersweet for his family. From watching his son become an eagle scout, a member of the dive team and a lifeguard at the new Highland Recreation Complex in Largo, the future seems promising, he said. With a 32-year-old sister and a 31-year-old brother, Mason has long been the baby of the family, Mark Valentine said, and now that he's graduating filling the empty hours will be a difficult task.

“He's going on to college, which has always been expected, and he's definitely on the right path. We're very proud,” Mark Valentine said. “This is the last of the graduations, so it's definitely been hard on us as parents. He's always been adventurous – hiking in New Mexico and on the Appalachian trail, scuba diving – so I'm excited to see what he'll do next.”


adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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