Meet Our New Crew

YAJI Class of 2023 | April 13th, 2023

Meet Our New Crew

Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  Youth Arts Journalism Initiative


The YAJI Class of 2023 at Madeline's Empanaderia in the Hill, where students ate lunch Thursday. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Welcome to the Youth Arts Journalism Class of 2023! We are so excited to have 11 of America’s future journalists learning with us this week. For a first writing exercise, all 11 of them split into groups to learn to write short bios of each other. Read on to meet these young people, and please greet them with open arms if you run into them on assignment!

Jordan Cagle is a 16-year-old junior at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven. As the third oldest of four daughters, Jordan enjoys dabbling in fashion and makeup in her free time. She currently takes classes in business and marketing at her high school, but plans to study pre-med or biology at Howard University in pursuit of a nursing-related career. 

Jordan finds in journalism the opportunity to reach new audiences and change biases and beliefs. After learning about the program through her journalism teacher, Stephen Staysniak, she applied to tell the stories of Black businesses and nonprofits that are making change in New Haven and Hamden,   

Now that she’s a part of YAJI, Jordan wants to write uplifting and positive stories that revolve around the movements, businesses, and happenings of groups led by people of color, and particularly Black people, in New Haven.

Nevaeh Lugo

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Jordan Cagle and Nevaeh Lugo.

Kristine Figueroa is a 16-year-old junior currently attending Metropolitan Business Academy. After being a wallflower for the majority of her middle school years, Figueroa started coming out of her shell as a promise to herself to change for the better. She is constantly making new friends and doesn’t shy away from anyone anymore. 

This aspiring artist has been doing visual arts for as long as she can remember. Since the third grade she has been using a pencil and paper to bring her creativity out to the world. Figueroa knows that art will be with her for many years to come. “My biggest passion is art. All I know is that in my future I want to do something that connects with art. Whether it be with graphic design or journalism like this would be cool,” she said. 

Kristine recently joined the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative or YAJI to help develop her understanding of New Haven. “I want to try and learn more about my community and the communities that surround me,” she said. 

Kristine wants to shed light on the developing climate crisis and how it will affect the New Haven community. She fears the rising sea levels will raise many problems for Connecticut’s coastal areas, she said. At Metro, she has worked on a documentary bringing the issue to light. “I think that if more people knew about this and we showed how important this issue is we can prevent these things from happening.” 

Kiomi Rincon 

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Belén Meneses and Dontae James.

Fourteen-year-old Dontae James is a freshman at Wilbur Cross High School and the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), where he is working to improve his skills as a saxophone player. Born and raised in New Haven, Dontae attended Francis Walsh Intermediate Middle School before stepping into ninth grade at Cross and ECA this year.

As a student in the 2023 Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), Dontae is interested in improving his writing skills and gaining a better understanding of New Haven. His first assignment is close to his heart: he is interested in learning more about the artist and sax player Wayne Escoffery. “It’s nice, not going to lie, compared to other cities,” he said of New Haven. “There are times when it can be bad but not all the time.”

Dontae has a deep passion for music and has been playing the saxophone since middle school. In the future, he wants to do something with music, and is interested in trying out conducting. 

Belén Meneses 

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Maria Teniza and Juliette Lao.

Juliette Lao is a 17-year-old senior at New Haven Academy. While an early interest in the kryptonian superhero Supergirl led her to journalism, she has also developed a love for education. In college, she plans to create a K-12 curriculum around mental health and wellness in schools, meant to help students get through college and navigate stressful situations. She is currently considering the University of Connecticut (UConn) for her college studies. 

She views the world as “all over the place,” but looks for the good, she said. Last year, Juliette first took interest in YAJI while trying to work on her writing skills and learn something new as a New Haven Academy intern with the Arts Paper. It is one of her many interests, including animation and visual arts, reading (she recommends the book True Biz), retro styles, grilled cheese, and American Sign Language or ASL. 

After high school, she hopes to travel to the “hidden gems” of the world.

Maria Teniza

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Fifteen-year-old Belén Meneses aspires to improve her understanding of her city and its citizens through YAJI. "I want to improve my writing skills," said Belén, a student at the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative and a sophomore at Hill Regional Career High School. 

Born and raised in New Haven, Belén now attends Hill Regional Career High School, and is a flutist in the Yale All City Wind Ensemble. Belén enjoys spending her free time listening to music, helping her mom cook, and playing her flute. She also enjoys deep cleaning when bored. 

Her love of music is especially vast. Belén enjoys a variety of genres including jazz, classical, and Latin-influenced styles like Mariachi, Cumbia, and Bachata. For Belén YAJI is a new experience, and she's all for it. 

Dontae James 

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Alanis Morales with YAJI alum Abiba Biao. 

Seventeen-year-old Alanis Morales wants to become New Haven’s next big true crime journalist—and is building the chops to do it. A junior at James Hillhouse High School and student in the Youth Arts Journalism Intensive, she has been gaining a variety of writing skills to achieve her goals.  

Since watching movies like Men in Black and The Conjuring, Alanis has been interested in conspiracy theories and horror-related content. “It started off with kids tales like Bloody Mary, then horror legends, and eventually turned into what I’m interested in now,” she said. 

This passion for untangling crime theories combined with a desire to develop her writing skills, led Morales to apply to YAJI. Morales aims to find out the different true crime and unsolved mysteries of New Haven and open up discussions about them. She believes that YAJI will give her the ability to open up new paths of opportunity for her future. 

Kiomi Rincon

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Nevaeh Lugo is a senior at West Haven high school. She enjoys creative writing and poetry, and plans to pursue a career in journalism at the University Of New Haven or a university in New York City. Her interest in journalism started in her sophomore year, when she started taking a journalism class in search of an enjoyable career path. 

This year, she joined YAJI in hopes to gain experience and improve her writing skills. As a student in the program, she hopes to cover inspirational stories, talented students, school safety, and gender and sexuality.

When she’s not writing, she enjoys her school’s gender and sexuality club, which she joined “because it is close to home for me,” she said. She comes from a home with two moms, and considers herself a proud part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Jordan Cagle

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Laila Mohammed, a student at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, is rounding off her senior year with everything from robots to bracelet-selling. The 17-year-old participates in her school’s robotics club, helping to create bots that accurately shoot objects into hoops. She also tends the school garden as part of Career’s environmental club. And although she considers herself a more STEM-oriented person, she also spends free time making and selling her own jewelry and visiting Saver’s. 

Laila intends to attend Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) in the fall, where she plans to study physical therapy. It is a passion that stems from her own experience as someone with a physical genetic condition, she said. Having spent the past four years attending physical therapy, she strives to understand the workings of the human body to help herself and others. 

Laila plans to be part of the Exercise Science program at SCSU, where she can build on what she’s learned from her past classes in anatomy and chemistry. 

“Being in physical therapy has definitely been a blessing in disguise,” she said. “It’s now something I want to pursue as a career and something I'm very passionate about.”

Laila applied to YAJI after having a positive experience in her school’s journalism class, a dual enrollment program through SCSU. She loves to write and talk to people, and hopes she can continue to make more connections through YAJI. 

KeQing Tan

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Kiomi Rincon with fellow YAJI students at the New Haven Free Public Library this week.

Seventeen-year-old Kiomi Rincon moved to New Haven at the start of her freshman year at Hill Regional Career High School, and hasn’t looked back. Now a senior, Kiomi is active in the robotics club and journalism classes, which she has taken an interest in. When she isn’t in the classroom or writing, she enjoys the horror genre, roller skating, and both creative and non-creative writing. She likes to write clean cut non fiction stories in her free time, she said. 

As a student in YAJI, Kiomi wants to improve her writing abilities overall and become a better writer for her future. This spring, she is also balancing the program with her love for robotics. At Career, she is captain of the robotics team, and loves the number of women and people of color are on the team. 

Team members are very close to each other, she said—and sometimes participate in silly antics when they’re not in the stress of competition. "We once critiqued pizzas all around New Haven and ranked the best," she remembered. Although she wants to pressure a career in nursing, she wants to remain close to her roots in robotics in her future. 

Kristine Figueroa

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KeQing Tan.

KeQing Tan is a senior who attends Wilbur Cross High School and the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA). At ECA, KeQing studies visual art, which she has loved from a young age. 

“It really helped me with the natural progression to express my love for art in an academic space,” she said. “I felt limited in my art abilities, so ECA helped open more doors for me.” 

One of the things ECA introduced her to was the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI). Her teachers knew she loved to write, as she is the head of the design team in her school’s newspaper club. They encouraged her to sign up for YAJI, where she hopes to advance in skills that help her school newspaper. 

“I have a belief that you continuously improve your skills as a writer,” she said. 

From 1-4 p.m. throughout Monday to Thursday, KeQing, as well as other students, go to ECA to take arts classes. She has taken a range of classes that include black and white photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture.In the future, KeQing wants to be an architect, with a specific focus on the environment. 

“ECA feeds into my dream to be an architect. It forms a creative mindset for the arts and that’s what architecture is all about,” she said. 

Laila Mohammed

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Maria Teniza at the NHFPL. 

Maria Teniza is a 16-year-old junior at Hill Regional Career High School. Born and raised in New Haven, she prides herself on finding hidden “gems” across the city, including sweet and cream-filled breads and confections at Tous les Jours Cafe and home goods at Üni-Home Life on Chapel Street. When she graduates from high school, she would love to continue to find these gems all over the world.

Maria wasn’t always an adventurous explorer. For years, she considered herself an introvert who was really shy, she said. When she heard about YAJI, she thought it would be a great opportunity to break out of her shell, and she hopes it will lead her to something new and exciting.

“I had to find something new, and I would have to explore everything,” she said. 

 Maria may be new to arts journalism, but she has long loved crafts. Her interest in "Monster High," for instance, inspired her to create miniature cardboard cellphones and furniture and recycled shirts to create modernized clothing for her own monster high dolls.

Juliette Lao