Saluting Our Vals & Sals

We invited Valedictorians and Salutatorians at the eight high schools in the towns we cover to tell us a little about themselves on a questionnaire we provided, which originated with Laura Belfiiore of Peekskill City School District. We published edited versions in the June issue but below you will find the complete, unedited versions as they were submitted. Congratulations to all our 2020 Valedictorians and Salutatorians.

One additional note, due to an error on our part, we did not publish the responses from Sarah Clayton, Valedictorian of Sleepy Hollow High School in our June issue. Our apologies. Sarah’s responses kick off the Q&A’s below.

Sarah Clayton

Sarah Clayton, Sleepy Hollow High School Valedictorian

1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?
At school, I was involved in the Digital News, I edited the school newspaper, I played in Wind Ensemble and Pit Orchestra, and I ran track. I was also a member of SAGE Club, Ski Club, and the GSA, as well as several honor societies. Outside of school, I used to teach a circus arts class at the JCC, before it closed.

2. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)
I’ve been keeping up with homework, watching Netflix, playing guitar, learning to bake bread, spending time with friends while socially distancing, and taking a lot of walks.

3. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.
I think an exceptional teacher is someone who goes beyond just preparing students for a test at the end of the year. I have really appreciated teachers who make learning feel exciting and rewarding, and who create a sense of community in class. I’m lucky to have had many of these exceptional teachers throughout high school.

4. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?
I am going to attend Northwestern University in the fall, and I plan on majoring in film. My dream is to work in the film/TV industry as a writer or director.

5. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?
I’d like to tell underclassmen to take advantage of the opportunities available at SHHS and to surround themselves with positive people. The activities I was involved in and the friendships I made really defined my high school experience. I would tell my fellow graduates to try to use their strengths to make the world a better place, and to register to vote!

 

Matthew Silver

Matthew Silver, Sleepy Hollow High School Salutatorian

1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

I threw shot put and discus for track and field, played trumpet for wind ensemble and jazz band, and I volunteered as stage manager for the most of the music department

2. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

Mostly studying for AP exams, working out to stay in shape for track, and playing guitar.

3. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

An exceptional teacher is one who makes sure class is fun and interesting while still covering all the material. They understand that some kids don’t enjoy the subject and take the class as a requirement, so the teacher makes sure they at least learn something fun and interesting.

4. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

I plan on going to the Honors College at UConn to study Chemical Engineering.

5. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Daniel de Castro

Daniel de Castro, Briarcliff High School Valedictorian

1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

Aside from my participation in Varsity Soccer and Track and Field, my most fulfilling extracurriculars are refereeing youth soccer matches through the Westchester Youth Soccer League, coaching at youth soccer clinics through Eastern FC, and volunteering at a myriad of events put on by Special Olympics New York, which serve to provide those with severe learning disabilities opportunities to play sports and stay active. All three activities allow me to channel my love for soccer and other sports into efforts that benefit the community at large, especially helping kids that share the same love for staying active.

2. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

These last two months, I’ve filled my time with a lot of reading and a lot of working out; I’ve also been continuing my study of Italian, which I began in the fall through WCC, almost every day. Listening to music has been another activity that has helped me relax, and my quarantine playlists have now grown to absurd lengths.

3. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

Exceptional teachers are those that inspire in their students a love for the subjects that they teach; they are also often consistent sources of motivation and advice throughout one’s high school experience. In my four years of high school, I’ve had three such teachers: Dr. Kenney, my English teacher for three years, whose knowledge of literature is incredible and whose love for books even surpasses my own; Dr. Shen, my physics teacher for two years, who has inspired in me a love for math and physics that will continue in college and beyond; and Mr. Bordonaro, who as a teacher and a soccer coach has for three years pushed me to be my best self both on and off the field.

4. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

Next fall, I will attend Harvard College, where at the moment I plan on majoring in Applied Math, with a minor in either Spanish or Italian. Beyond that, I am really unsure where the future will take me – there are just so many possibilities, and I am incredibly excited to explore all that Harvard and the future beyond have to offer.

5. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?
To my fellow graduates and underclassmen, I would say that we have been blessed with the opportunities we’ve been given, and it is up to us to seize them and make with them what we will; as young adults, there has never been a time to be more ambitious.

Michael Tu

Michael Tu – Briarcliff High School Salutatorian

1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

a. I’m involved in a number of extracurricular activities. I’m a part of many musical organizations, I’m the co-principal cellist of the Westchester Youth Symphony and I help manage Concerts on the Slope, a chamber music concert series in Brooklyn. I’m also involved in the Asian American community, as I’m the president of my school’s Asian Club and of the youth chapter of OCA – WHV (Westchester-Hudson Valley). I am a captain of my school’s tennis team and Academic Challenge team as well.

2. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

a. I’ve been keeping quite busy during the school shutdown. Besides schoolwork, I’ve been continuing my work with Concerts on the Slope and have been developing some skills. I cook almost every day for my family and have started making handmade noodles. I’ve also been tutoring an elementary schooler at Todd School. I make time to practice cello and get outside and exercise as well. In my leisure time I’ve been watching a few Korean dramas and a lot of opera.

3. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

a. My time at Briarcliff High School has been blessed with many good teachers. There are many qualities that make an exceptional teacher: patience, understanding, wit, etc., but my idea of an exceptional teacher is perhaps best personified by Ms Samantha Boyer, my former French teacher. Aside from being a pedagogical master who has an expansive understanding of her material, she truly cares for her students and believes in learning. The best thing a high school teacher can do is inspire a love of learning in their students, and she does that exceptionally well.

4. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

a. I will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, and I hope to not only continue pursuing my passions from high school, but also expose myself to new fields and activities. I don’t know what I’ll end up pursuing as a career, but I hope that I’ll have a better idea once I get more of a taste of what the world has to offer through college.

5. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

a. I would say that it’s important to take the time to think about all the good things in your life. Most of the time, what we have is only made apparent when we have lost it. If you take the time to be grateful for what you have on a daily basis, it’s easier to see the big picture and be happy.

Gil Halevi

Gil Halevi, Briarcliff High School Salutatorian

1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

Most of my activity came through school clubs: Debate Club, Coding Club, Student Coalition for Human Dignity (human rights club), and others. I also volunteered helping teach science to 5th graders in the IBM Family Saturday Science Program. Those are really great in allowing me to explore my passions around like-minded people, and being able to help people in the community because of it makes it even more valuable.

2. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

Other than schoolwork, I have been reading some, as well as watching a ton of Youtube and Netflix. It’s… not very productive.

3. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

A good teacher should have the skill to clearly explain subjects, the passion to get students interested in these subjects, and the know-how to be able to provide more advanced information / challenge the students who want to learn more about it.

4. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

I am attending Northeastern University for Computer Science. I think I will probably become a researcher one day, but my general goal in life is to apply computer science to solve political issues.

5. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

Think about what is really important or enjoyable in life to you, and spend your time doing that. Don’t let life go on auto-pilot and then regret what you have done.

Ella Erskine

Ella Erskine, Croton-Harmon High School Valedictorian

  1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

Most notably, I have run varsity cross country since the beginning of high school, and have been a captain for the last two years.  I was also the student liaison to the Village Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and the treasurer for the Chinese Club.

  1. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

During this school shutdown, I have been taking time to pursue interests that I did not have time for previously, such as painting and learning French.  I have also been helping the local Croton Face Mask Making group by transporting materials throughout the village, as well as sewing masks for essential workers.

  1. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

Exceptional teachers not only have a true passion for the subject, but also are dedicated to instilling that passion to their students.  Mr. Bradley, Ms. Ballina, Mr. Bohuniek, and Ms. Schoenleber all made their students enthusiastic about learning and put an unquantifiable amount of effort into their lessons.

  1. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

I will be attending Tufts University after a gap year.  Hopefully, I will be able to contribute to the relief effort surrounding coronavirus.  Specifically, I plan to volunteer at local food banks and the Backpack Program.  At university, I plan on double majoring in environmental science and biology.  This will prepare me for an eventual career working with disadvantaged communities that are threatened by natural disasters.

  1. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

At the risk of sounding cliche, your time in high school will fly by.  Make sure to spend it doing what you love, with people who genuinely make you happy.  There are so many ways to be successful, so celebrate the small victories and never forget the people who helped you get there.

Rowen Gesue

Rowen Gesue, Croton-Harmon High School Salutatorian

1. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

Yes, I am involved in a number of extracurricular activities. I am the founder and student advisor for Chemistry Club in my district’s middle school. I created this club to expose younger kids to more specific sciences. I make lesson plans, buy materials, and perform experiments with them. I am the treasurer and a founding member of the Croton Awareness for Research and Education (or C.A.R.E.) Club in my high school. I helped found the club in 10th grade, and each year we focus on a different disease to raise awareness and fundraise for. I am also the acting treasurer and co-leader of the high school’s spirit club. Additionally, I act as a volunteer algebra tutor for my calculus teacher’s Intro to Algebra class. I help answer the student’s questions, go over lessons, and review previous tests and quizzes with them. Outside of school, I dance at Dance for Joy studio, where I take an Advanced Ballet class, an Honors Ballet class, and a jazz class. I am not a part of any specific volunteer groups, but I have volunteered for the middle and elementary schools’ PTAs often, and I am a part of the high school’s PTSA.

2. How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

During the school shutdown, I have been studying for my AP exams (BC Calculus, English Literature, and Macroeconomics), catching up on the “unread” pile on my bookshelf, and exploring new recipes to bake. I am also excited to start my virtual internship as a part of the Animal Assisted Therapy program at St. Christopher’s Inc. at the end of May.

3. What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

My idea of an exceptional teacher is someone who is there for you in and out of the classroom, someone who really listens to their students, and the first person who comes to mind is my Spanish teacher of three years: Ms. Ballina. She is someone I know I can go to about whatever is on my mind whether or not it is related to Spanish class. She is a wonderful teacher who is more concerned about learning and understanding than grades. She makes class fun and interesting, and she has helped me further not only my understanding of the language but of Spanish and Latin-American culture as well.

4. What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

I have always struggled with envisioning my future. I haven’t found my “calling” or my answer to “what do you want to study in college?” I can’t even narrow it down to a general subject like science. However, my admission to Princeton University clarified certain aspects of my future. The university’s informal motto is “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” which reflects the school’s commitment to helping others. I realized this is my educational and professional goal: I want to help those around me, even if I don’t know what form it will take.
The recent outbreak has opened my eyes to how interdisciplinary study can provide options are when it comes to helping others. I could study biology or chemistry and go on to work in medicine or pharmaceuticals to help people with their physical needs. However, there are other, less obvious ways to make a positive impact. As I approach my first opportunity to vote, I have become increasingly interested in politics. With a degree in politics, I could go into public policy and turn political ideas into real actions and outcomes. Additionally, I have always enjoyed working with children, as a camp counselor, during the summer, babysitting every week, and tutoring younger students. If I major in education, I would be able to shape the minds of the next generation of world leaders.
So, while I still don’t know what I will study or the specific path I will take in the future, I do now have an educational and professional goal: no matter what I do, it will be in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.

5. What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

To underclassmen (although this is important for everyone) I would advise them of something I learned the hard way: taking breaks isn’t a weakness, it is a strength. It took me a long time to learn that doing your best is not the same as working yourself to exhaustion because at that point, it is no longer your best.
To my fellow graduates, I don’t have any words of wisdom to pass on, other than this: we are still young. You don’t have to know where you want to go from here, and you have a lot of time to still figure it out and change your mind again and again.

James Reilly

James Reilly, Hendrick Hudson High School Valedictorian

 

Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

For the past six years, I have been involved in a number of extracurricular activities and community organizations. Currently, I am the president of the Hendrick Hudson Leos Club (member for 6 years). The Leos Club is a community-service-based organization that plans and participates in a plethora of volunteer events in our area. Through this club, I have volunteered with over fifteen different community groups and events–including Midnight Run – NYC, Meals-on-Wheels, Vets-to-Church, Relay for Life, and multiple local service activities. Some of the most rewarding work that I have done thus far has been through SPARC Inc., a locally-based organization that organizes events and activities for children, teens, and young adults suffering from developmental and neurological disorders. I developed great connections with many of the participants in this organization, even exchanging social media contacts. The children and teens I personally worked with inspired my science research project that I have been working on for the past three years. My research focuses on elucidating the molecular interactions between human gut bacteria and brain function (specifically the dopamine transporter) in hopes to develop a more natural treatment method using probiotics for people diagnosed with mental illnesses and neurological disorders. On top of this, I have been an active member of many school-sponsored groups, including the Green Team (my school’s environmental activist club–current president), Health Occupations Students of America, Group 19 Science Club, and Mathletes. I am also the president of my school’s chapter of the National Honor Society and Italian Honor Society, and a member of the Mathematics Honor Society. Lastly, I have been a member of the Hendrick Hudson High School Varsity Track and Field Team for the past five years (since eight grade), where I have been honored as a twelve-time All-League recipient in six different events, All-Westchester County Team pick, and a Con Edison Scholar Athlete of the Week recipient. 

 

How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position).

During the school shut down for the past twelve weeks, I have been spending a lot of time with family. This lockdown has given me the opportunity to spend time with my family by eating dinner together every night and going on walks and hikes when the weather is nice. Between my very busy academic schedule filled with virtual classes and online assignments, I have been trying to find time for myself by working out in my backyard, going on runs at local parks, and doing activities that I find enjoyable, including playing saxophone and basketball. I have even started to learn how to play the piano! (Although I am still not very good). Usually, at this time of year, I would be starting my job as a lifeguard at local pools, however, do the statewide executive order, my employment position is still up in the air. Although quarantine could feel lonely at times, this unique circumstance has given me the chance to be with my family and focus on myself in these last few months before I leave for college (hopefully).  

 

What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

Every day, teachers come to school for nearly eight hours to educate their students. However, there is more to just teaching that simply pouring knowledge onto students. Exceptional teachers inspire their students to be confident in their knowledge and in themselves to pursue their dreams in the future. Teachers and other school staff become a student’s second family with many students spending more time in the classroom with their teachers than at home with their own family. Therefore, exceptional teachers foster a healthy, supportive, and comforting environment in their classrooms to allow students to reach their full potential; they make connections between students and establish trust between them as a parent or other family member would. Lastly, exceptional teachers enjoy the material they teach and share this enjoyment with the class, creating a fun ambiance for students to thrive. I would like to recognize Mr. Zink, my AP World History teacher, Mr. Confrey, my AP Chemistry and Introduction to Engineering teacher, and Dr. Rogers, my AP Biology and Science Research teacher, as they exemplify and exceed the characteristics of an exceptional teacher I described and had a great influence on my life and my peers’ lives that can never be forgotten. 

 

What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

This fall I will be attending Johns Hopkins University where I plan to double major in molecular & cellular biology and economics with a minor in computational medicine on the pre-medical track. I will also join the Men’s Track and Field team at Johns Hopkins University this fall. In the future, I plan on earning a Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.) in molecular & cellular biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree (B.A.) in economics. After undergraduate study, I plan to enter medical school and achieve a medical degree (MD) while also pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree (MBA). With these degrees, I would like to become an orthopedic surgeon and eventually serve on the executive board of a hospital or other medical practice.

What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

American writer William Arthur Ward once said, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” If you told me in September that schools will close and everyone would be told to stay at home during the final few months of the academic year, I would have told you that you are crazy. But here we are, stuck inside, not knowing how our academic plans in the future will unfold. Although this change in our lives was most definitely unexpected, we must choose how we respond to such changes to ensure our future success. Currently, the world is faced with one of the most difficult challenges humanity has had to deal with in modern history. Society is changing rapidly right before our eyes during one of the most important times in our lives. Ultimately, change is inevitable, but growth in response to such changes is optional: we can either sit idly by as this crisis occurs, absorbed in our own negative emotions, or we can use this time as a period of self-reflection and self-improvement to assure a bright future for generations to come. Realistically, the latter is the only real option. As high school students looking toward the future, we are the next generation to enter the real world, except we will have experiences and knowledge that no other generation before us has ever had. We must use these experiences to acknowledge what we have been blessed with and work toward bettering society so these blessings become a commodity across the world. With continued motivation and good winds filling our sails, our generation united will accomplish endless feats.

Michael Klimek

Matthew Klimek, Hendrick Hudson High School Salutatorian

Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

In school, I am involved in a number of extracurricular activities and clubs including the theater program, the senior class, TRI-M Music Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Hispanic Honor Society, National Honor Society, and an after school all-male choral group that I helped form with a few friends called Mensoforte.  Additionally, I am a part of SEED Club, a volunteer group that puts on several events throughout the school year to raise money for a charity of our choice to be donated at the end of the year.  Outside of school, I have been involved with the Hen Hud Leos volunteer organization, and due to my mom’s participation in the Lion’s Club I was able to assist in several Lion’s events as well.

How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown? (If employed part-time, include where and which position)

I started the shutdown working part-time as a tutor for Mathnasium in Cortlandt, in which we started a transition into digital tutoring across students’ and tutors’ screens at home.  However, due to the lack of students signing up to these sessions, the center director was forced to shut down the center and I lost my job a few weeks into the quarantine.  Since then, I’ve typically spent my mornings working on homework assignments and college preparations, while also trying to get out as much as possible in the afternoons.  I think getting out, whether it be for a walk around the neighborhood or simply a drive around town, is extremely important for everyone’s mental health during this time.  I have attempted many “socially distant” gatherings with a few friends in my old elementary school parking lot simply to be able to see their faces again and talk with someone in person outside my immediate family.

What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

I think an exceptional teacher focuses more on the students than the material being taught.  While the material is still very important, my best teachers have exceeded my expectations of a good teacher because of how personable they can be with the students.  A great teacher cares for the students by going at the pace needed, offering as much extra help as needed, and forming lasting relationships with all of their students.  Some of my favorite teachers at Hendrick Hudson High School include Jeremy Tullo, Robert Benzing, and Thomas Confrey.

What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

In the fall I will be attending Rochester Institute of Technology to study engineering.  I also plan to minor in or take classes in music and theater because music is such a major part of my life and I do not want to give that up.  I hope to someday become a mechanical engineer so that I can help people, whether it be on a major scale or minor, I think this career path will allow me to truly make a difference in people’s lives.

What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

High School is like a race to the finish line.  At first it may seem pretty easy, but as you get closer and closer to the end, it gets exponentially more difficult.  But there, as you finally round the corner and see the finish line, you get a burst of energy and you know you’re ready to finish off that race.  Now imagine a giant tidal wave washed over the shore and destroyed the finish line, and you with it; you don’t know what to do because there’s no definitive end in sight.  That’s what this senior year has been like for the Class of 2020.  To the underclassmen, this tidal wave is simply a small roadblock for you, and although you don’t see it yet, your finish line is waiting for you a little ways down the road.  To my fellow graduates I say fight on, pick yourself back up and we will make our own finish line to this race; if we stay strong we will come out of this better and stronger people, ready to face whatever challenges lie out in the real world.

Sarah Garcia

Sarah Garcia, Irvington High School Valedictorian

Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

I am very involved with my church. I have sung in the choir for as long as I can remember and have taught Sunday school for three years. I participate in many community service events through my church such as doing Midnight Run, caroling at Phelps hospital during Christmas time, or helping out at my church’s annual Attic Sale as well . I also am on my school’s cross country and track teams and am an active member of the Latin Club and Empowering Women Club.

How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown?

I have been getting outside each day by going on runs, walks, or bike rides. I have also been reading a lot more. In general, I have just been using this time for some much needed relaxation and have had more opportunities to enjoy myself by spending time with family or communicating with my friends remotely.

What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

An exceptional teacher is someone who is passionate about their subject matter and goes out of their way to help their students, whether it be answering questions related to their class or just to giving advice and support. There are three teachers at my school whom I would like to recognize for being particularly impactful for me. The first is my Latin teacher, Ms. Cella. She is one of the most passionate teachers that I have ever had. It was in her class in freshman year that I truly saw that it is okay to find joy in learning. Her enthusiasm also really helped me develop my love for classics. The second teacher is Mr. Silverman, who also taught me Latin as well as Ancient Greek. Mr. Silverman is extremely dedicated to his job. When I couldn’t fit Ancient Greek into my schedule, he was willing to help me during a free period so that I could continue to study it. This gesture was so kind as he gave up his own time on a regular basis to help me further my interest in Ancient Greek. The final teacher is Mr. Barry, who not only was my APUSH teacher but my track and cross country coach. Like the previous two teachers, he is very interested in the subject he teaches, which is evident when attending his class. Besides being a great teacher, his coaching really helped me to improve and achieve my goals in track and cross country, sports that were one of the biggest highlights of my time in high school. All of these teachers have been so supportive of me and have helped immensely with building up my confidence in myself and my abilities.

What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

I plan to attend Columbia in the fall where I will study classics and possibly psychology. I am not completely sure of what I will do as a career yet.

What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

You should be dedicated to your studies but also try to find balance by not skipping out on time with friends and family or doing activities that you enjoy. If you manage your time well you can do both and will be so much less stressed. It is so important to not burn yourself out by constantly putting in one hundred percent without giving yourself breaks to relax and have fun.

Zoe Jacobs

Zoe Jacobs, Irvington High School Salutatorian

I have been a member of the Irvington Science research program and have spent the past two summers doing research on Acute Myeloid Leukemia at Weill Cornell medicine.I received a generous IEF grant to start a first responder course for students at the high school. I have danced at Westchester Dance Artists since kindergarten and have taught a ballet class throughout high school. I spent the second semester of sophomore year at the Alzar School, a semester school based on leadership, outdoor excursions, cultural immersion, and community service. I am a member of CBF and model UN. I am the treasurer of the National Honor Society. I am a teacher’s assistant and I won the Yale Book Award

During the school shutdown, I have been going on walks with my family and dogs, continuing my schoolwork, catching up on my favorite TV shows, researching opportunities at school next year, teaching ballet class over Zoom, and talking to my friends.

My idea of an exceptional teacher is someone who takes the time to get to know you and your passions and who cares about your education and success both inside and outside the classroom. I would like to thank Mr. David Whitehead, my chemistry teacher, for helping me start an EMT class at Irvington and for always being a supportive mentor in all my endeavors.

I am attending Duke University next fall and plan to major in Global Health and Chemistry. I will be on the pre-med track and hope to go to medical school and become a pediatric oncologist after I graduate.

In light of the current circumstances, I would encourage them to cherish the small moments like hanging out with friends, laughing with classmates, and walking to class with your friends.

Pujita Sunder

Pujita Sunder, Ossining High School Valedictorian

Claire Martin

Claire Martin, Ossining High School Salutatorian

Are you involved in any extracurricular activities, such as community organizations, volunteer groups, etc.?

One of the largest parts of my life has been dance, and I’ve been doing ballet since I was five. In dance, I have often helped my peers by encouraging them and reminding them of the steps in combinations. If teachers need to leave the room for a second, they often count on me to lead the class and continue the combination we are performing.

Another group which has had a great impact on my life is my church youth group, which I’ve been a part of since 2013. A group of preteens and teens gather together every Sunday evening to grow spiritually, connect, and play games. As a youth group, we participate in various outreach opportunities including conducting food drives, preparing and serving food for a homeless shelter, and raising funds for different youth conferences. We also participate regularly in church service, go on spiritual retreats, help clean and decorate the church, and lead different parts of the church’s summer Bible camp.

I wouldn’t be complete without being able to act and perform, which I’ve done since 2007. My most recent show over the summer was Oklahoma! at Helen Hayes Youth Theatre (Nyack, NY), where I was nearly always in the front row for the musical numbers. After the show, the director hugged me because he was so impressed by my performance in the show! I participated in multiple OHS plays and I performed in numerous musical numbers of our more recent high school Musical Theater showcase for their fall and spring performances. Nearly every year, I have performed in church productions. Two of the plays were written by a great friend of mine, one of which I co-authored.

How have you been spending your time during the school shutdown?

In the back of my mind, I always knew that our quarantine was temporary and someday things would go back to “normal”. However, I at first hoped we would be able to return to school by the end of May, see teachers, and return to the “normal” rhythm of life. When I heard that schools would be closed for the rest of the year, I was certainly disappointed, but then I reflected on my wish for “normalcy”. Staying home is the new “normal”, being with family is the new “normal”, having time to be creative is the new “normal”, needing to motivate myself and getting a taste of what making my own schedule in college will be like is the new “normal”. Of course, I still have school work with which I can busy myself. However, I’ve come to realize that I’m glad for the change because I’ve felt a little less stressed about assignments and have had time to realize my creative inspirations through drawing, singing, painting, writing, composing, organizing, and more. Taking walks, watching movies, and playing games with my family have also integrated themselves into my new routine. I’m really grateful that my dance classes have been able to continue online, and I have also been working out regularly. I want to give a big round of applause to all our teachers for their quick adoption of online learning and their willingness to reach out and help students, which has ameliorated the quarantine experience.

What is your idea of an exceptional teacher? If there are teachers at your school you want to recognize, feel free to name them and the reasons for your selecting them.

My love of learning and my specific interests have been influenced by my chemistry teacher, my biology teacher, my science research teachers, my English 11 teacher, and my musical theatre teachers. By these teachers, I was pushed out of my comfort zone to think critically, to write at a college-level standard, to present in front of an audience, and to gain confidence. They opened my eyes to my love of learning, my passion for science and the arts, and the joy of sharing my talents with others. Especially now, they have been incredibly supportive through online learning by responding to my questions, meeting online, and providing multiple resources to help me continue learning.

Teachers don’t have to be in front of a classroom instructing students. I am indebted to Kim Maldonado, my youth leader, who guided me on my spiritual journey, shared her life experiences and her home, and supported me in all my endeavors. After graduating, even during college, I want to be like her and offer my resources to help others, always be a part of a Christian community, share my own stories with listeners, and look for ways to bring people together. Also, Ossining High School’s valedictorian and my best friend Pujita has always been an inspiration to me— her eloquence, motivation, critical analysis, and sweetness have been such an encouragement to me.

Because of my teachers at OHS, I’ve been pushed to think more critically and dive deeper into whatever I’m learning. My passion and diligence was crafted through the guidance of their hands. I am ever grateful for their support and love, and so glad for all my experiences at OHS. Through the skills that I have been equipped with during high school, I know that I will be successful at college and whatever future endeavors I strive toward.

What are your future plans as they apply to attending college and a career?

I made my decision to go to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which I’m really excited about! Because of my amazing experience at OHS, I wanted to attend a college which was small, encouraged learning in a wide variety of disciplines, and one that was based on community. Some of the courses that I loved at OHS were SUNY Chemistry, AP Biology, SUNY Science Research, and Musical Theatre, so I would love to major in biochemistry with a major or minor in some kind of performing art. Another aspect that I grew to enjoy at OHS was helping my peers understand a topic, review their paper, or go over a problem. After college, I would really enjoy going into a teaching career, either at a high school or college, where I could teach biology or chemistry and conduct research. On the side, I would love to be part of shows, plays, performances, or even a movie, because I truly enjoy acting, singing, dancing, and finding a family among fellow actors.

What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your fellow graduates and to underclassmen?

I want to share an excerpt from the graduation speech I’m writing. It’s inspired by my dance teacher who wanted me to give advice to young dancers, and I think the message can apply to all. The core of my advice for graduating students (and something I’m still learning) is to be confident! If you’re like me, the person on the outside of a conversation circle, then I definitely know how awkward being in the center may seem. However, once you are unafraid to make mistakes and take this first step on your new path, you’ll find you gain confidence in many other areas in your life. One of the best ways I gained confidence was through dance, and I realized that I dance because I love exploring the space, I love putting my unique character into the different steps, I love pushing myself, and I love expressing myself through dance. Especially during uncertain times, everyone should discover something they love doing that may remain a safe place to relieve stress and focus on doing their best. If you’re confident and try hard, you’ll feel good about whatever path you’re on and the progress you make!

Sarai Sales

Sarai Sales, Peekskill High School Valedictoria

Are you involved in any extracurricular clubs, sports, or other activities at PHS? Are you a member of any community organizations (ex: volunteer groups)?

At Peekskill High School, I am President of the Science National Honor Society and Math National Honor Society. I am also a member of Mu Alpha Theta, Francisco Jimenez Spanish National Honor Society, Rho Kappa Social Studies National Honor Society, National English Honor Society, the Peekskill High School Chapter of the National Honor Society, and Black Culture Club. Since sophomore year, I was privileged to participate in my high school’s Science Research Program under the dynamic leadership of Mrs. Erum Hadi. This program has given me an opportunity to conduct research at New York Medical College and participate in several science fairs. It was an honor to represent my school district and receive various awards. In addition to my commitment to academic excellence, I have also dedicated my time to participate in several community service endeavors. I serve as Vice President of the Peekskill Youth Bureau’s Youth Advisory Council, Youth Representative for the Peekskill Youth Bureau Youth Board, member of the Hudson River Health Care Youth Health Promoters program, and member of the Mercy College Science Technology Entry Program. This past year, I worked with my family on a project that was birthed from their visit to Ghana. We partnered with Elmina Methodist Junior High School in Ghana to donate approximately thirty computers for their newly created computer lab. While I have strived for academic excellence, it was equally important for me to use my skills and talent to help others.

What was your favorite class this year and what did you enjoy most about it?

My favorite class this year was Advanced Placement Calculus AB taught by Ms. Doris Pichardo. What I enjoyed most about this class is that it gave me the mental fortitude and critical thinking skills to tackle complex mathematical concepts. This class was rigorous and demanding. However, Ms. Pichardo’s unwavering support and dedication helped me excel in this course throughout the year.

What do you think it takes to make an exceptional teacher? Do you have any teachers at PHS you would like to recognize, and if so, what have they done to help better yourself and your fellow students?

An exceptional teacher is one that goes above and beyond to develop relationships with their students while challenging them to be lifelong learners and risk takers.Throughout my time as a student at Peekskill High School, I have been fortunate to encounter so many awesome teachers. However,  I would like to recognize Ms. Doris Pichardo because she always puts her students first. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed our lives in almost every way. Ms. Pichardo has been a positive figure during these tumultuous times. She has personally checked in with me and my family to inquire about our well-being. Prior to the school closure, Ms. Pichardo’s dedication and diligence in the classroom has been immeasurable. At the beginning of the school year, Ms. Pichardo would stay as late as 7 o’clock in the evening working with her students and providing extended lessons in preparation for the AP Calculus exam. I would also like to highlight Ms. Sharon Courtney. Ms. Courtney was my AP World History teacher last year and my Entrepreneurship teacher this school year. Ms. Courtney’s teaching style was unconventional, yet effective. Lastly, I would like to acknowledge Mr. Todd Newby. Mr. Newby was my AP English Language teacher and his class taught me organizational skills, presentation skills, and proper grammar usage that will greatly help me in and out of the classroom. Mr. Newby has always been a friendly face in the building and was extremely helpful to me during the college application process. These Peekskill High School teachers have played an integral role in making me the person I am today.

What is your philosophy as a student?

My philosophy as a student is to always strive for excellence. Natural talent can take you but so far, and then grit and a strong work ethic are necessary to take you to the next level. One quote I resonate with is from the late Kobe Bryant and it says, “Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.”

What are your future plans? Please include where you will be/hope to be attending college and the major you have selected or are thinking about.

While I got accepted to Princeton, Columbia, and Brown University to name a few,  I will be proudly attending Howard University as a member of the Karsh STEM Scholars Program. This is an exciting opportunity, as the scholars are prepared and expected to pursue a PhD or MD-PhD in the science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field. I plan to major in Biology with a dual minor in Chemistry and Mathematics.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by my ancestors who came before me who were denied access to an education and the fulfillment of their dreams. It is my responsibility to honor them by treating every scholastic endeavor with the utmost importance and dedication. My goal and desire is to continue to be my ancestors’ wildest dreams. Additionally, my family has instilled in me core values such as respect, humility, diligence, and discipline.

What do you want to do as a career when you leave college, or what field would you like to work in? Why did you choose this profession/field?

When I leave college, I intend to enroll in a dual MD-PhD program to become an obstetrician and gynecologist with a focus on epidemiology. As a physician-scientist, I wish to open a health clinic that will provide me with an opportunity to create a safe space committed to furthering education, providing treatment, and breaking down barriers. Science has always been my passion because it provides me with the knowledge and expertise to be an inquirer and problem solver. While the global pandemic of COVID-19 has changed our lives, it has also demonstrated the need for future leaders in science, medical research, and epidemiology. I am eager to embark on this journey when I enter college this fall.

What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your PHS underclassmen?

I would like to say that it is very important to take advantage of the vast resources at Peekskill High School and never be afraid to ask for help. PHS has so many faculty members that are willing to assist you in tackling any obstacle in your path. There are a plethora of clubs, honor societies, and after-school programs that can enrich your high school experience. I would recommend that you participate in opportunities and activities aligned with your academic and personal interests. By doing this, I was able to identify and focus on my career goals and educational aspirations. Most importantly, avoid unnecessary distractions that will deter you from achieving your goals.

What will you miss most about PHS?

I will miss the support system at PHS. Peekskill High School is dedicated to the success of every student by creating an environment that is supportive and family-oriented. I firmly believe that it takes a village to raise a child and as a PHS student, you experience just that. Throughout my time at PHS, I have encountered numerous teachers, administrators, and support staff  who were eager to see students thrive and succeed. Peekskill High School has instilled in me the importance of community, togetherness and collaboration. As I depart from high school and further my undergraduate education, I intend to maintain the standard of excellence that was set for me at PHS and continue to embody the values that make me a Peekskill Red Devil. While Peekskill High School is the last stop of my secondary education, I would like to acknowledge all of the Peekskill City School District staff that have been instrumental in my journey.

Obviously this year has been unique from those of graduating classes that came before you due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How have these circumstances shaped your final year at PHS and how have you continued to persevere as a student despite these challenging times? Do you have any words of wisdom to share with your fellow seniors regarding these circumstances? What has been, if any, the “silver lining” to this year.

The circumstances that I have faced during this pandemic have shaped my final year at PHS by teaching me better time management and the importance of being resilient in the face of adversity. Although this experience has been unique to the previous graduating classes, this pandemic has fostered a certain level of intimacy, humanity, and empathy between myself, my teachers, and my classmates. We transitioned from being together in our classrooms to working together in our homes. While this has been a challenging year, I have continued to persevere as a student by striving to continue the momentum that I started when I began my senior year in September.  Words of wisdom I have for my fellow seniors would be to remind them that we are graduating from high school during unprecedented times and although this experience is disheartening to say the least, the world is going to need us to be visionaries, leaders, and innovators. I have no doubt in my mind that we will rise to the occasion and become the change agents and global citizens we were destined to become. The “silver lining” to this year is that I have had an opportunity to practice being more mindful, appreciate simple pleasures, and prepare for life’s trials and tribulations.

Samantha Saca

Samantha Saca, Peekskill High School Salutatorian

Are you involved in any extracurricular clubs, sports, or other activities at PHS? Are you a member of any community organizations (ex: volunteer groups)?

I am president of the Latino Culture club and the Sociedad Honoraria Hispanica. In addition, I am the secretary of the Science honor society, member of both the social studies honor society, national honor society, English honor society, and secretary of the class of 2020. Additionally, I am an active member of the Environmental club, Interact club, the Yearbook club, Mercy College Step program, and the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth leadership institute. Regarding community engagement, I am a volunteer at the New York Presbyterian hospital, translator at a Pediatricians office in Putnam Valley and at my church. When I am not involved in school or community activities, I am an intern at New York Medical college via the STAR program and a teacher at Sunday school in my church organizing events for children.

What was your favorite class this year and what did you enjoy most about it?

My favorite class this year was the Peekskill Science Research class taught by Ms. Hadi. While I remained showing interest in science, I was able to take a class that would expand my knowledge and experience in the medical field by conducting research on a public health issue. Ms. Hadi’s passion for research allowed me to develop greater appreciation for research and learn about the importance. Her knowledge in that field enabled the class to grow and strength our skills in different areas that I know will help us in the future.

What do you think it takes to make an exceptional teacher? Do you have any teachers at PHS you would like to recognize, and if so, what have they done to help better yourself and your fellow students?

To be an exceptional teacher is to have and demonstrate a strong passion for the subject they teach while being patient and understanding of the students. During my time at PHS, I have encountered many exceptional teachers who I know I will hold near and dear to my heart. Ms. Myrna Santos, Ms. Doris Pichardo, and Ms. Erum Hadi, all demonstrated their passion and excitement while teaching but also meet students needs to their best of their abilities. The teachers at PHS have demonstrated tenacity and their dedication to aid and guide their students through the time and effort their put in.

What is your philosophy as a student?

My philosophy as student is to always stick with the goals you have set for yourself and not let anyone or anything influence you to change them.

What are your future plans? Please include where you will be/hope to be attending college and the major you have selected or are thinking about.

I plan to major in Neuroscience and minoring in Spanish on the premedical track, with hopes of becoming an oncologist. This fall I will be attending Binghamton University.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by my parents because they had to overcome many obstacles and hardships yet still persevered through everything. My parents have taught me to be courageous, work diligently, and always stand for my beliefs. Despite, their limitations, my parents have always found strength and courage to fight on, teaching me to never give up rather fight harder and seek new avenues and ways that will lead me to my success.

What do you want to do as a career when you leave college, or what field would you like to work in? Why did you choose this profession/field?

After leaving college I hope to attend John Hopkins medical school and specialize in oncology. I then hope to complete my residency at Mount Sinai Hospital, located in New York. My hope is become a doctor and open a walk-in clinic that would grant people the opportunity to seek medical attention regardless of their healthcare situation. I hope to make a change with this clinic as it is evident that there are too many health disparities and my hope is to address them and take action towards health equity by opening a walk-in clinic that would help those in need of medical attention.

What words of wisdom would you like to pass on to your PHS underclassmen?

For the underclassmen at Peekskill High School, I want to say that having a balance is imperative. Obtaining good grades is as important as finding time for yourself and doing things that you genuinely enjoy doing. Many of the times we tend to forget and ignore the things that lie ahead of us, yet we should appreciate those things because when you don’t have them no more you will regret the lack of appreciation you showed while you had it. Work diligently but also make sure you put forth time to do things that you enjoy doing.

What will you miss most about PHS?

PHS has impacted my life tremendously, from allowing me to develop new interests, to learning how to speak in large audiences, PHS has shaped me into who I am today. I will miss the many afternoons I would spend with Ms. Santos and my friends as she would encourage my peers and remind us to work diligently so that we set an example for the generations to come but also represent the Latino community. I will also miss the staff at PHS because they were always there to support me and provide me with endless opportunities that perhaps I would not have obtained if it were not for their support.

Obviously this year has been unique from those of graduating classes that came before you due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How have these circumstances shaped your final year at PHS and how have you continued to persevere as a student despite these challenging times? Do you have any words of wisdom to share with your fellow seniors regarding these circumstances? What has been, if any, the “silver lining” to this year.

Class of 2020, although we have experienced and encountered difficult times which took from us many special moments from our senior year, we have lived through a pivotal time in history and can say that we have learned many lessons from this. Prior to this pandemic, many of us were caught up in life in general, however after this time we can acknowledge and appreciate the small and large things we have in life. Although we encountered difficult and sad times, we should always remember that nothing is granted and therefore should take time and show gratitude to those who have always been there to support us. We have all accomplished many things in life and for that we should be forever grateful to Peekskill High school and our families.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to thank Peekskill High school for creating a community in which I was able to explore and grow my ambitions and interests; without them my success would not have been possible. I will forever hold Peekskill High school near and dear to my heart, taking the words of wisdom and encouragement with me as I pursue my dreams and goals.

Amaavi Miriyagalla

Amaavi Miriyagalla, Walter Panas High School Valedictorian

Over the past four years in high school, I have been a three season athlete, participated in the Walter Panas science research program, played the alto saxophone, and volunteered in multiple community organizations. After swimming on the Club Fit Jefferson Valley team for several years, I joined the Lakeland-Panas varsity swim team in 9th grade. In the same year, I also found a new love in long-distance running on the winter and spring track and field teams. Over the summers of ‘18 and ‘19, I carried out science research on the 2-turn 3-mer DNA Tensegrity Triangle at NYU’s Structural DNA Nanotechnology Laboratory, which I later presented at JSHS. I have also spent many years playing the alto saxophone in jazz ensemble, pit orchestra, and at NYSSMA for all-county and all-state auditions. Finally, I have spent hundreds of hours volunteering at the Yorktown Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and Neighbor’s Link in Mount Kisco. At the rehabilitation center, I helped the residents with transportation, laundry, and most importantly, connection to the surrounding area. At Neighbor’s Link, I forged close bonds with members of the Spanish-speaking community through ESL Tutoring. It is the culmination of all of these experiences that has allowed me to be named a 2020 National Merit Scholar.

The school shutdown, although extremely disappointing for the spring of my senior year, has given me much more time to find interests and hobbies that I was never able to pursue during the year. I have been painting colorful rocks to leave outside my house, enjoying nature on walks and runs in the park, practicing meditation, and challenging myself to take online courses in subjects that I hadn’t been able to take while in high school. This time of adversity has proved to have some positives.

An exceptional teacher, to me, is one whose passion and dedication for the subject is coupled with an innate sense of caring for the students’ well-being, both academically and personally. There are so many teachers at Lincoln-Titus, Copper Beech, and Walter Panas that exemplify this that I cannot even begin to name them all. I am proud to have been a student in the Lakeland Central School District for the past twelve years.

In the fall, I will be attending Vassar College, where I hope to pursue a double major in biology and philosophy on a pre-medical track. In the future, I hope to use this knowledge and experience to serve the global community and help bring increased equity to the healthcare system.

I think that as the world around us is shifting rapidly, more than ever before, we are experiencing loss of control over even the simplest things. In these times, I find solace in remembering the words of the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, as he states, “The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do, is who you become.”

Sophie Sax

Sophie Sax, Walter Panas High School Salutatorian

1. In my school, I am involved in the theater company. I play cello in the orchestra pit in the fall productions and dance onstage in the spring productions. I also am involved with the Faith Lutheran Brethren Church youth group, through which I’ve had the opportunity to be a volunteer summer camp counselor and have also participated in World Vision’s 30 hour famine to raise money to help feed malnourished populations. I also have participated in the science research program at my school for the past four years and recently completed a study called “Correlation Between Mental Health and College Experience.”
2. Since the school shutdown, I have been learning how to write computer code in Python 2.7. I have also had the chance to run and practice my cello more often.
3. My idea of an outstanding teacher is one who fosters a passion for learning within his/her classroom. One teacher at Panas who comes to mind is Mr. Marrero, my physics teacher. This year was my second year of taking physics with him, and he has encouraged me and all of my classmates to dig deeper into our interests. He answers all of our questions with enthusiasm, and because of him, we can’t help but get excited about the nuances of physics.
4. I will be attending the University of Pennsylvania this upcoming fall on a pre-medical track. As my full-time career, I want to be an ICU pediatrician, but I also want to travel to underprivileged areas in order to administer advanced healthcare and improve patients’ understanding of how to maintain a healthy and safe lifestyle.
5. Use your time in school to discover hobbies and career choices that excite you. Explore different classes and careers and find things that you’re truly motivated to pursue. High school and college are the best times to learn, contemplate, and grow; take advantage of the opportunities you have during these years.

Thank you again!

 

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