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Long IslandEducationGraduations

Long Island's 2009 valedictorians 10 years later

Read about their stories, the lessons they've learned over the last decade and their advice for today's graduates.

Michael Moritz left, in 2009, and right, in

Michael Moritz left, in 2009, and right, in 2019. Photo Credit: Michael Moritz

10 years ago they were studying for exams, going to prom and asking to borrow the family car.

Since graduation, Long Island's Class of 2009 high school valedictorians have worked behind the scenes for David Letterman, crafted strategy for the New York Jets, and developed drugs to treat aging-associated diseases.

Their journeys from high school to college and their professional careers have seen them change job aspirations, cities and perspective. These experiences have covered fields from law to medicine and taken them all across the country.

Newsday caught up with some former valedictorians a decade after they tossed their graduation caps in the air. Read about their stories, the lessons they've learned and their advice for today's graduates.

The following images were provided by the valedictorians.

Matthew Chu Cheong: Choosing his passion

High school: General Douglas MacArthur High School in Levittown

College: Princeton University, Class of 2013

Today: PhD candidate at The University of Texas at Austin

Lives in: Austin, Texas

Did MacArthur High School’s valedictorian Matthew Chu Cheong know what he wanted to do with his life when he graduated? “I didn't, and I knew I didn't.”

And looking back on the extracirricular activities that may guided him along the way, he noted, “I never got drafted by the NBA so what was the point?

"Kidding."

Chu Cheong enjoyed reading and solving problems, “but it felt like there was too much that was interesting. I didn't really know how to choose,” he said. He ultimately ended up at Princeton University, where he thought he discovered what he wanted to do. But Chu Cheong said he changed his mind a few times along the way.

He studied mechanical and aerospace engineering, along with engineering physics. “Around my third year I found that I was more interested in the math side of science and engineering than I was in actually designing or building things,” he said. “So I did research on modeling particles in fusion reactors, I studied fluid vortices, and I thought I would sort of go wherever the mathematical winds took me.”

“Along the way I had to ask myself what I find interesting, and I had to really think about what I find enjoyable or fulfilling,” Chu Cheong added. “To me, that process has itself been valuable as a means to understanding my own happiness.”

Now, Chu Cheong is focused on earning his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s working on modeling and controlling power systems to better incorporate renewable technologies. He says that after he finishes school, he’s looking forward to really starting his life.

“Even now, I still don't know what it exactly is that I want to do after I finish graduate school,” Chu Cheong said. “But I think I've gotten closer to understanding the type of work I enjoy, and the type of environment in which I enjoy it.”

Thomas Galassi: Learning in the classroom and on the field

High school: Floral Park Memorial High School

College: Tufts University, Class of 2013

Today: Patent agent, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Lives in: Long Island City, Queens

Thomas Galassi didn’t know it at the time, but playing football and lacrosse in high school would eventually lead him to a career in science and technology.

“Football and lacrosse taught me dedication, discipline, focus, and how to work hard,” he said.

Galassi took what he learned on the athletic field with him to Tufts University in Boston, where he studied biomedical engineering.

In 2013, Galassi entered the PhD program at Weill Cornell Medicine/Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and earned a doctorate in physiology and biophysics. He is now a patent agent at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which provides legal services to technology, life sciences and growth enterprises around the world. He assists with patent prosecution, freedom to operate analyses and due diligence.

Galassi’s advice for high schoolers graduating this year is simple: Be proactive. “When you find something that interests you in college, get involved. Whether it be a sport, club, the student paper, scientific research, etc. Extracurricular activities in college are very important when it's time to look for your first job.”

“Also enjoy your summer breaks,” he added. “You'll miss them when they're gone.”

Katelyn Jeffreys: From soccer and flute to actuarial science

High School: Plainedge High School in North Massapequa

College: Boston College, Class of 2013

Today: Actuary at Liberty Mutual Insurance

Lives in: Boston

Katelyn Jeffreys graduated from high school knowing that she wanted to pursue mathematics, but unsure of where that would take her. She had never heard of actuarial science as a career.

She discovered the field — which uses mathematics and statistics to determine risk assessment — during her junior year at Boston College. Jeffreys then went on to take her first actuarial credentialing exam.

“I applied for summer internships, but was too late to the game for most and rejected from the rest,” she said. “I continued to focus on becoming an actuary by taking applicable college courses and prepping for my second credentialing exam.”

Jeffreys interned at The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. before taking on a full-time actuarial role there. She later accepted an offer from Liberty Mutual in Boston and has been working there ever since.

Looking back on her high school years, Jeffreys recognized that she had to play three roles as a student: the academic, the musician and the athlete. She ran track and played soccer and the flute.

Although she was busy, being a triple threat during her school days ultimately helped her propel her career forward and network along the way.

“Networking isn’t only chatting with higher-level executives within your field of interest, but also forming connections with your peers, even those pursuing a different career path than you,” Jeffreys said. “These relationships can prove beneficial, especially during times of need, such as working on a challenging project or looking for a new job.

“Being able to call upon my high school activities has been a great way to find commonalities with others and kick off conversations.”

Michael Lueckheide: Once 'socially withdrawn,' now seeing the world

High School: Valley Stream North High School

College: Vassar College, Class of 2013

Today: National Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology

Lives in: Rockville, Md.

Many high school students feel like they'll never need to use calculus ever again in life.

But Michael Lueckheide disagrees.

“It is not immediately apparent to them that it is the different ways of thinking, analyzing, and processing of information required by different classes that are the most generally important skills,” he said.

Knowing that he wanted to pursue scientific research, Lueckheide graduated from Vassar College in 2013 with a degree in chemistry and physics and then went to the University of Chicago to pursue a PhD in chemistry. He graduated there in 2018.

As part of his graduate research, he traveled out of the country for the first time in 2016 to Switzerland, and since then has also visited China, France, London, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Now, he works on the National Research Council as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

Moving away from Long Island was difficult for Lueckheide at first, but he learned to embrace the change.

He considered his younger self to be more "socially withdrawn," but found his circle when he went to college.

His advice to others is to not be afraid of meeting new people.

“So much of what I have learned — the friends I have made, and the opportunities I have had — have come from talking to, respectfully engaging with, and working with new people, especially people from different places and with different lived experiences,” he said.

Amanda Makowsky: From fan to front office

High School: South Side High School in Rockville Centre

College: Princeton, Class of 2013

Today: Senior manager, strategy at New York Jets

Lives in: Manhattan

Amanda Makowsky grew up rooting for the New York Jets and now is working for them.

Makowsky works as the team’s senior manager of strategy, helping to run annual business planning and lead cross-functional projects throughout the year with a focus on forward-thinking initiatives.

"I love the team atmosphere that permeates all areas of the organization. I get to work with every lines of business and all in the service of my favorite sports team," she said.

A basketball player in high school, Makowsky knew at an early age that she wanted to work in sports, but didn’t know what specifically she wanted to do.

“I want to continue to work in sports and remain flexible with the way sports teams and leagues are growing and innovating,” she said.

She graduated from Princeton in 2013 with a degree in economics. During her time there, she was a manager for the women’s basketball team.

After graduating, she was a part of the NFL Junior Rotational Program which allowed her to experience the Digital Media Business Development department which oversees the League's TV and digital relationships, the Club and Labor Finance department which manages national and local revenue streams, the Club Business Development which focuses on consulting for teams to maximize fan engagement and Consumer Products which manages the relationships with licencees and retailers for licensed NFL products.

“Having experience on both the League and team side of the NFL has been invaluable in my career thus far,” she said.

Princeton wasn’t her first pick. Her top college choice was Williams College but didn’t get in after applying for early decision. But she says that she “wouldn’t trade (Princeton) for anything.”

“Everything happens for a reason and you will end up where you are meant to be,” she said.

Molly McLean: Kenya, Ireland and the cows in between

High School: East Islip High School

College: Middlebury University, Class of 2013

Today: Graduate student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

Lives in: Aurora, Colorado

Molly McLean admits that as a high school senior, she envied her peers who seemed to already have it all figured out.

“I had some pretty lofty goals that I threw around nonchalantly, like ‘solving the crisis in the Middle East’ or ‘working towards a cure for cancer,’” she said. “I knew I always wanted to ‘do science,’ but this interest changed courses many times.”

McLean also knew that she loved to run, and wanted to continue in college. From there it was full speed ahead to Middlebury College in Vermont, where McLean says she met “incredible people, people so different from myself.”

“My eyes were opened to other cultures and foods and ways of life,” she said. “I took advantage of opportunities to study and live abroad [in Kenya and Ireland].”

As for her career, she figured it out along her way.

“At first, I was really interested in research and lab work, studying cow reproduction in college,” she said. “Then I started working at an adult day care center and fell in love with working with people on a day-to-day basis. I ditched the cows and started focusing more on human health.”

McLean is currently studying to become a physician assistant at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Looking back, the importance of her high school years isn’t lost on her, adding that they shaped her into who she is today.

“A decade is a long time to remember the particulars of high school classes and sports and clubs,” McLean said. “However, I haven’t forgotten the love and support I felt from teachers, friends, and teammates in high school.”

Leah Michaels: Inspired by 'Buffy,' working on 'Late Night'

High School: Long Beach

College: Brown University, Class of 2013

Today: Freelance video series producer

Lives in: Brooklyn

Ten years ago, Leah Michaels wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Now, she’s a video producer. She discovered her new calling as a freshman at Brown University.

“After taking the introductory neuroscience course my freshman fall, I decided I didn't want to be a doctor anymore,” Michaels said. “I enjoyed the class, but I realized the lifestyle and career path of medical school and becoming a doctor wasn't for me.”

Michaels said that at Brown, you can declare a major up until your junior year, so she felt free to explore and take other classes she was interested in. She set off on a path toward television and media production. Michaels was passionate about television and video games growing up, noting her favorite series of all time is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

During her junior year, Michaels was an intern on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which was her “introduction into the production world.” Michaels worked five days a week in the research department over the summer between her junior and senior years.

She would do background research on Letterman’s upcoming guests to determine the questions and topics covered during the interviews. “If they had a new book out, we would read the whole book and highlight interesting things,” she said.

After graduation, Michaels went on to land jobs as a production assistant on several television shows, commercials and video projects. She went on to work as an associate producer for shows on networks including Vice, A&E and PBS. For PBS, she produced the finale of “The Great American Read,” an eight-part documentary series featuring Meredith Vieira.

Now, Michaels is a freelance producer and loves to travel — she’s set foot in Holland, France, Japan and many more countries.

“Everyone's life moves at its own pace,” Michaels said, “and while the instinct is usually to compare yourself to others, you'll be a lot happier if you just focus on your own accomplishments and journey.”

Michael Moritz: Sharp turn on the career path

High School: Lynbrook

College: Duke University, Class of 2013

Today: Attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

Lives in: Manhattan

During his years at Lynbrook High School, Michael Moritz’s best subject was math. So he figured he’d pursue that, in some way, as a career.

“I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but it's not what I ended up doing,” Moritz said. “I thought I was going to work in finance, but as time went on, I realized I was more interested in becoming a lawyer.”

So midway through his time at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, Moritz dropped his economics major and switched to history and Italian. “I believe my family took a trip to Italy not long before I had to decide what language to take, and it won me over,” he said.

After graduating, he was accepted into Duke’s law school. Moritz studied abroad three times over the course of his seven years at Duke, traveling to Italy, Switzerland and Israel.

“The switch of majors, which allowed me to do significant research and writing, greatly contributed to success down the road in law school and in my career,” Moritz said.

Moritz graduated in 2016. A job offer brought him back to New York shortly after, where he has been ever since, working as an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He calls the firm “an exhilarating environment to start a legal career.” Moritz still travels whenever he can — last summer, he visited Iceland.

His advice for high schoolers is simple: Find what motivates you. Moritz did, and he realized along the way that everything will ultimately work itself out. He added that if you had told him during high school that he would be living in North Carolina for seven years, “I never could have imagined that.”

Fabian E. Ortega: 'View the world through others' eyes'

High School: Farmingdale Senior High School

College: Yale University, Class of 2013

Today: Computational biologist at Fountain Therapeutics

Lives in: Redwood City, Calif.

Fabian Ortega planned on going to medical school, but after taking pre-med classes at Yale University, he decided in his sophomore year that he enjoyed the research part more.

He graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. After that, he went on to pursue a PhD in biochemistry at Stanford University. There, he did studied the effects of listeria and conducted a research project which combined the study of cell biology and computer science. He graduated in June 2018.

Now, he works as the lead computational biologist at a startup founded by Stanford University scientists called Fountain Therapeutics. His team uses artificial intelligence to help develop therapeutics to target age-associated diseases that affect the elderly population like cardiac disease and neurological diseases.

He says one of the biggest life lessons he’s learned since high school is to “check my privilege and to try to view the world through others' eyes.”

“It usually helps me empathize with people and treat them more kindly,” he said. 

Ortega, originally from Peru, credits a lot of his successes to his support system, former teachers and attending school on Long Island.

“I think a lot of people, especially immigrants, don't always have access to excellent education and resources, and I did. I think my time in the Farmingdale public school systems was really top-notch and prepared me very well for college and even graduate school,” he said. “I owe it to people who were there to help me.”

He also says it’s important to take time off of work.

“I try my best to not do any work at least one day of the week. I use this time to spend time with my partner and friends, and when possible, to visit my family in New York,” he said.

Ortega’s advice for high school seniors: Pursue your passion, not the money.

Andrea Schukal: Lending a helping hand (or paw)

High School: Connetquot High School in Bohemia

College: University of Connecticut, Class of 2013

Today: Licensed mental health counselor at Advocates Community Counseling

Lives in: Boston

Andrea Schukal didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do upon graduating in 2009, but she knew she wanted to help people.

“I originally thought I wanted to help people more from a distance, through research or policy work,” Schukal said, “but I found that my strengths and interests ended up aligning more with direct care work, so I became a therapist.”

Schukal graduated from the University of Connecticut with a double major in psychology, and human development and family studies. From there, she earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College.

She worked in Boston as a substance abuse clinician in methadone clinics for a few years, and then transitioned into a more broad outpatient community counseling position.

“My goals for now are to continue working on honing my skills and eventually moving into a supervisory or teaching role,” Schukal said.

Schukal moved to Boston six years ago, but she says she still cherishes her memories with her best friends from high school, and specifically Connetquot’s music department.

She adds, “I have a dog, which is the millennial equivalent of a child, apparently, and I volunteer with a dog rescue organization in my free time. I have done some traveling, made lots of friends, and overall have tried to just enjoy my 20s.”

Amy Varghese: 'The West Wing' helped her soar

High School: Brentwood High School, Sonderling Center

College: New York University, Class of 2013

Job: Publicist for Social Good and Advocacy, Sunshine Sachs

Lives in: Brooklyn

Watching “The West Wing” helped Amy Varghese decide what career path she would pursue “long before graduating high school.”

“What I didn't know was how to enter [the advocacy] world, or whether I'd be welcome in it,” said Varghese, who now works in political communications at New York-based public relations firm Sunshine Sachs. She helps to develop and execute media strategies for social justice organizations.

As a south Asian woman, she stressed the need of having representation in government and media — and she credits her school for helping her to see the importance of that.

"Brentwood High School is one of the most beautifully diverse public high schools on Long Island — so many perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds come together in that building," she said.

Prior to that she worked in public affairs for the New York City Council, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Empire State Development. She’s worked in the offices of New York City Council member Margaret S. Chin and former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“New York City is a crash course in the issues we're grappling with as an nation today — affordability, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, LGBTQ and women's rights, and climate change to name a just a few,” she said.

“As a woman of color and a daughter of immigrants, it is an exciting time to work in the political and advocacy space,” the Brentwood High School alum said.

The advice she gives to graduating seniors: “Seek out people and experiences that challenge you. Allow yourself and others the room and grace to fail.”

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