Three seniors selected as 2023 Presidential Scholars in the Arts


MeJo Liao, Layout Assistant and Staff Writer

Photography Editor Raisa Effress ’23, Presentations Managing Editor Fallon Dern ’23 and Alejandro Lombard ’23 were chosen as 2023 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, selected by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars.

The program was founded in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to honor the nation’s top high school students. Since then, the program has celebrated achievements beyond the academic field to include the visual, creative and performing arts. This year, there were over 5,000 candidates qualifying for the program and 20 finalist winners.

Presidential Scholars Award recipient for photography Raisa Effress ’23 said her works were centered around sharing the stories of Holocaust survivors, and winning the award was especially impactful to her because of the current rise in antisemitism.

“Waking up on May 10 as a Presidential Scholar was an unforgettable moment, and I was incredibly honored to be chosen at every step of the selection process,” Effress said. “However, at a time when antisemitism in the U.S. has reached a record high, the significance of this award is much bigger than me; it represents a national recognition of Jewish histories, straight from the highest office in America.”

Effress said the artistic process of documenting a Holocaust survivor was rewarding and inspiring.

“The crown jewel of my application was my multimedia series, Mended (Nes Gadol Haya Sham),” Effress said. “ I began traveling to the homes of Holocaust survivors from across the country to document their stories and make intimate portraits of them. Then, using vintage thread, I meticulously embroidered a part of each photographic print, creating a pop of color to highlight an aspect of each survivor’s life that brings them joy. The physical act of weaving something new and beautiful from the remnants of the past represents the painstaking efforts of families like mine to heal after the Holocaust, and the wonderful fruits of those efforts. In the second half of the series, I explore the legacy of the Holocaust in my own family with additional portraits of myself, my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather, a survivor himself.”

To aspiring photographers, Effress said she encouraged them to pursue the stories that seemed the most difficult.

“With Mended, I experienced every obstacle imaginable, from dealing with the geographical distances between me and my subjects, to condensing generations worth of valuable stories into just ten photographs,” Effress said. “The difficult stories end up being the most worthwhile ones.”

Dern said she created her submission, American Boy, in response to a Video Art II assignment about culture and that it touches on race, masculinity and the media.

“I’d made a documentary on the Asian American experience that highlighted 50 Asian students the year prior, so, when I saw the assignment, I thought, ‘Oh no. I already put my culture on display. Now what?’ Dern said. “I then looked to a culture I’ve always grown up around, and I think my really deep and meaningful friendships with many of the interviewees at different points in my life informed me of how best to platform their struggles with the pressures of masculinity.”

Video Art instructor, WestFlix Co-leader, SLIDE Mentor, and DEI coordinator Mx. Reb Limerick said she was proud of the students and excited to see their films recognized by such a high honor.

“I’m just so incredibly proud of [the students],” Limerick said. “When I looked at the list. it’s incredible because there’s 20 students in the nation, three of them are Harvard-Westlake students, two of them are my film students. I have gotten to see them grow as filmmakers, [and] artists who want to affect change through their filmmaking. It’s exciting to see that two films that are socially engaged are being recognized by the White House [and] by the President.”