They graduated at the top of their class 10 years ago — but what have they done lately?
Quite a lot, actually. We caught up with 15 of Long Island’s 2010 valedictorians and found out their work ethic and creativity have taken them to places like Egypt and Honduras and perhaps someday, outer space.
They’re also fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, creating art and helping high school students get into the college of their dreams.
One followed in her parents’ footsteps, while another created her own path after working at the New York Stock Exchange and the New York City Ballet.
The former valedictorians opened up about the twists and turns of their careers — and the advice they’d give to the Class of 2020 as they get set to take on college in the age of COVID-19.
High school: William Floyd High School
College: MIT, Class of 2015
Today: PhD candidate at the University of Washington, and co-founder and chief operating officer of Wave Motion Launch Corp.
Lives in: Seattle
James Penna’s company is looking to create a cannon to “send cheap cargo into orbit.”
Penna, co-founder of Wave Motion Launch Corp. says, “Right now, space launch is completely dominated by rockets,” he said, adding that the method is very expensive. “We think it’s a big gap in the space industry that no one has figured out how to launch things for very cheap.”
Cannons, he explained, aren't as "complex" as rockets, which need to be refueled and refurbished constantly.
"With a cannon you can pretty much reload it," he said. "If you’ve designed it well you should be able to just fire it over and over again."
Penna and his company are still in the process of filing paperwork with the Federal Aviation Administration and Bureau of Land Management and trying to raise seed money for their project but hope to conduct some space launches this summer.
The William Floyd valedictorian created the startup a year ago with a classmate from the University of Washington, where he is finishing his doctorate in nuclear fusion.
“I’ve always known I wanted to work in science. I wanted to learn about intricate things,” Penna said. “When I learned about space travel, I saw it as humanity’s future. There’s really no place to go but up at this point.”
From a young age, Penna found himself reading, writing and watching science fiction. “I think that science fiction was very important for cultivating my interest in space,” he said. "Starship Troopers," by Robert A. Heinlein, was one of his favorites. "It's a war story in the future. It has a lot of lessons that society today could learn from," he said.
After graduating from William Floyd, Penna attended MIT, where he got his bachelor of science in physics. He was a part of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space organization on campus. As an undergraduate, he worked on research projects at General Atomics and at the U.S. Department of Energy labs, including taking time off from school to work at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
“I’m definitely interested in going into space [one day] as a private citizen,” he said.
High school: Our Lady of Mercy Academy
College: Johns Hopkins University, Class of 2014
Today: Senior online editor at Scholastic Inc.
Lives in: Manhattan
Catherine Wilshusen wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduating from Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset, but she knew one thing: She never wanted to stop learning.
“I knew I wanted to work on interesting, creative projects that sparked my curiosity and kept me learning my whole life,” she said. “I also wanted to be able to give back to others in some way.”
Wilshusen said there were subjects she gravitated toward throughout school, but she didn’t know how to make a career of them. She studied at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, majoring in applied math with a minor in computer science and music. She worked as a teaching assistant and tutor on the side.
“I loved hearing students’ stories and using what I had learned to help them reach their goals,” Wilshusen said. “Those experiences solidified my desire to do something meaningful and to pass on the gifts I had been given.”
At first, she planned to go to graduate school for teaching. “But my plans changed during my senior year,” Wilshusen said.
“Around that time, I discovered the world of educational technology, a field that seemed to combine my creative and tech sides in such a way that I could help even more students.”
Now, Wilshusen is the senior online editor for Scholastic’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classroom magazines. She creates digital projects for students that intertwine those subjects, plus art. She says online resources like these have been “even more important to educators and parents in the light of COVID-19.”
“I'm really glad to be a part of the online learning efforts because parents really need resources to work with their kids, and teachers [need them] as well,” she said.
Part of her job involves adapting classroom lessons to at-home activities, such as identifying different shapes throughout the house. Wilshusen said the objective is to make learning fun and applicable to daily life.
During the very uncertain and often scary times we're in, Wilshusen says, “Encouraging kids to read and to know they’re not alone is very important, too."
Outside of work, Wilshusen plays clarinet in the evening division at The Juilliard School, taking nondegree courses, and attends Hunter College, where she is studying music composition in the graduate program.
Her advice to the Class of 2020: Don’t be afraid.
“In particular, don’t be afraid of the unknown or to go on new adventures,” Wilshusen said. “Plans may change, and life may unfold in ways you couldn’t have imagined, but you will find where you need to be.”
High school: Manhasset High School
College: Princeton University, Class of 2014
Today: Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine, Class of 2021
Lives in: Stony Brook
Nitasha Gupta’s parents are physicians, but she’s the youngest in her family with two siblings “who wanted nothing to do with medicine,” she said.
“I always thought about becoming a doctor,” Gupta said. “After all, I was my parents' last hope!”
But she wasn’t sold on the idea and headed to Princeton University to see what else was out there for her. Gupta said she tried to keep an open mind, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. She studied for a semester in Kenya through that department, which also offers a study-abroad program in Panama.
“I was drawn to Kenya,” Gupta said. “I had been there with my family several years prior; I thought it was an amazing country and I knew I wanted to go back.”
During her senior year, Gupta applied for jobs in the finance and consulting industries, landing a position at a small boutique investment management firm. “Something I knew nothing about,” she said. She found the experience eye-opening.
“I soon realized that though I liked my new work friends and appreciated the great deal of responsibility that I was given early on, my heart was still with medicine,” Gupta said. “I missed science. I missed the hustle and bustle of volunteering in the hospital, and I missed working directly with patients.”
So, Gupta started over in 2017 and just completed her third year of medical school at Stony Brook University. She’s interested in women’s health and is exploring a physician-scientist career. Before her final year of school, Gupta is completing a yearlong research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.
In the meantime, Gupta is studying for board exams and spending time at home with her family. Her father is battling COVID-19 as an ICU doctor at NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island in Brooklyn.
Gupta plans to focus on obstetrics and gynecology when she returns to work at a Long Island hospital in June as part of her studies. “Being in a hospital will be very different,” she said. “But I’m looking forward to getting back and curious to see what it’s going to be like.”
Gupta said she has learned that there are many possible trajectories for those open to new opportunities. Now her sister runs a college consulting company, and her brother is a math professor at Lindenwood University in Missouri.
For her, Gupta said, “I guess the whole doctor thing is panning out so far!”
High school: Portledge School
College: Dartmouth College, Class of 2014
Today: Diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo
Lives in: Cairo
Chelsea Estevez has at one point called Tunisia, Jordan, France, New Hampshire, Maine, New York and Washington, D.C., home.
“I have always possessed an itinerant spirit and a passion for languages, so I knew I would find myself eventually living and working abroad,” said Estevez, who lives in Cairo and works as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy there.
“Since high school, I had always wanted a career using languages to help people,” said Estevez, who is fluent in Arabic and French. She also studied Latin, Hebrew and Spanish.
At Dartmouth, she majored in Arabic and French, and she studied abroad twice during her college career, one year in Paris and another year in Amman, Jordan.
“These experiences helped strengthen my language skills and expand my understanding of the regions that speak these languages,” Estevez said. “Learning languages unlocks new doors of communication and understanding with the world.”
After graduating from Dartmouth, Estevez spent two years in Egypt conducting work in sustainability through The American University in Cairo. She returned to New York, where she worked as an international project manager with the Justice Resource Center in Manhattan, helping to coordinate civic and law-related education programs citywide.
In 2017, she landed a job as a foreign service consular adjudicator for the U.S. State Department in North Africa in Tunisia. She worked there for more than two years before moving over to Egypt in the same position.
Her advice for graduating seniors: “Focus on making each day worthwhile. Keep evolving every day and be grateful for what you have and who you are.”
High school: Mattituck-Cutchogue
College: Davidson College, Class of 2014; University of Virginia School of Law, Class of 2018
Today: Patent litigation attorney at Latham & Watkins LLP
Lives in: Washington, D.C.
In the past 10 years, Ashley Finger: graduated from college, worked for Congress, lived in Luxembourg, worked for NASA, graduated law school, passed the New York State Bar exam, and moved to Washington, D.C. to start work as a lawyer.
When she graduated high school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue, so she said she intentionally went to a liberal arts school to explore different subjects.
“I really quickly fell back in love with physics and mathematics, which were my favorite subjects in high school,” she said of her beginning at Davidson College.
At Davidson, she conducted research on photovoltaics, the process of using solar cells to convert energy from the sun. She won a Fulbright grant to study photovoltaics at the University of Luxembourg.
She then realized research wasn’t for her.
“What I loved about research is I loved brainstorming, talking through the issues, writing articles, giving talks and answering questions,” she said, adding that those things are “not the bulk of your time when you’re a researcher.”
With the help of colleagues and mentors she met at research conferences, she discovered science policy, her new passion, which intersects science and law.
In 2014, she was an American Institute of Physics Mather Public Policy intern, working at the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. She also worked as a legal intern with NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2016.
“We got to go on the roof of our office to watch launches,” Finger said. “SpaceX was really active that summer, it was a really great experience.”
In 2018, Finger graduated with her juris doctorate degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.
She’s now a patent litigator attorney in Washington, D.C.
“It is everything I love about being a scientist,” she said of her role. “It really is like being a student in the sciences all over again with the additional writing challenges as you bring in those legal aspects.”
Her advice for graduating seniors: Practice self-betterment in all aspects of your life.
“Whether it's picking up a new hobby, continuing music lessons, volunteering, or improving your mile pace, working on something solely for yourself is an exercise in balance, discipline and self-expression that can provide a catalyst for long-term success,” she said.
Norah E. Liang
High school: Patchogue-Medford High School
College: Harvard University, Class of 2014
Today: General surgery resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital
Lives in: Boston, Mass.
When Norah Liang was at Harvard, she knew she was going to be a doctor. She also wanted to join a team sport — and wound up on the cheerleading squad to try “something new.”
Surprisingly she saw parallels between the two.
“I really liked the team aspect [of cheerleading]. Surgery is really all about teamwork. You need your nurses, your assistants, your anesthesiologists,” said Liang, a 2014 Havard graduate.
But balancing the hours of cheerleading practice and the rigor of being a premedical student was too demanding, so ultimately Liang left cheerleading after her first season.
She stuck with medicine and is now a first-year surgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It’s been surreal to be practicing right now,” she said of the coronavirus outbreak. “You’re watching one of the biggest medical issues of our generations and you are looking for ways to help out.”
Though her hospital tries to limit the amount of exposure the residents have to COVID-19 patients, she assists with surgeries and placing arterial catheters in patients.
“Everyone is just trying to find a way to help out,” she said.
Liang credits her chemistry class at Patchogue-Medford High School for sparking her interest in the field and inspiring her to pursue it academically.
She went on to major in chemistry at Harvard University with a minor in global health and health policy as a minor.
During her time at Harvard, she conducted research on cancer chemotherapeutics at The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and did stem cell research at The Gurdon Institute at Cambridge University.
Liang, a trained violinist, violist and pianist, performed with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra on tour in Cuba, Jordan, and Israel.
It was also at Harvard where she met her fiance, Steven Banik.
Liang graduated in 2014 and had plans to attend medical school but she wanted to take a gap year to focus on research and “pull together” all the pieces needed for her application.
“It helps to have a little more time to process before you jump in [to medical school],” Liang said.
She then moved to San Francisco where she worked on cancer research at the University of California San Francisco and eventually attended medical school there in 2015. She conducted research on pediatric anesthesia and postoperative outcomes for minimally invasive cardiac surgery.
“I started medical school thinking I would pursue a career in pediatric oncology or cardiology before discovering interests in pediatric surgery, surgical oncology and cardiothoracic surgery, which convinced me to become a surgeon,” she said.
In 2019, she graduated and moved back to Boston for her residency. She has four more clinical years and two more research years left in her residency.
“This is honestly what we signed up for. Even when it wasn’t a pandemic. We signed up to take care of people. We signed up to be doctors,” Liang said.
High school: Portledge School
College: Amherst College, Class of 2014
Today: Fellow at Vertex Pharmaceuticals
Lives in: Somerville, Mass.
The next time you take a pill, Christopher Gerry might have had something to do with it.
Gerry, one of Portledge School's two valedictorians for 2014, is a part of a one-year fellowship program at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, helping to create new medicine.
While his company doesn’t work with infectious diseases, he said they do make medicines for cystic fibrosis.
“We have focused all of our efforts to make sure our patients have access to the medications they need,” he said of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I want to have an impact on people's lives,” Gerry said. “When you hear some of these stories about life-changing medicines, the thought that myself or one of my colleagues were one of the first to make it in the lab, if I can contribute to that process, it seems like a really fulfilling way to spend my professional life.”
The Roslyn Heights native attended Amherst College initially not knowing what he wanted to study. He enrolled in nine different departments during his first three semesters to explore his interests.
Gerry has always been “broadly interested” in science so he applied for a summer research internship after his first year. There, he worked closely with an organic chemistry professor and “fell in love with the day-to-day minutiae of lab work.”
The following summer, he did research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and wrote a thesis on organic chemistry.
In 2019, he graduated from Harvard University with a PhD in chemistry.
“At Harvard, I transitioned to a more biology- and therapeutics-oriented approach to organic chemistry, and I became interested in how chemistry could contribute to drug discovery,” he said.
He also found chemistry in the lab at Harvard, where he met his girlfriend, Brittany Petros. The two recently adopted a cat together from the Melrose Humane Society and named her Cashew.
Gerry said he still makes it back to Long Island about two to three times a year to visit his family and for his Fire Island summer tradition.
His advice for high school students graduating this year: Don’t worry if you don’t have a plan yet. Try new things, meet new people, and make lots of mistakes.
“By following your excitement and your curiosity, you have a great chance of finding the right fit for you. At the very least, you'll learn a lot of amazing things along the way.”
High school: Mount Sinai High School
College: Providence College, Class of 2014
Today: Associate actuary at Arch Insurance Group
Lives in: Manhattan
Moira Power may be one of the only college students who have ever interned with both the New York Stock Exchange and the New York City Ballet.
She exercised both sides of her brain, majoring in math and minoring in business and dance.
“I originally thought I wanted to go into finance but had a hard time getting a job when I was interviewing senior year.”
She wound up going down a different path in the financial field. “I thought taking actuarial exams was a great way to use my strengths and become more specialized,” Power said.
So, the summer after college, she took an actuarial exam and landed a job at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston as an analyst.
After spending a few years in Boston, she moved back to New York City in 2018 to work as an associate actuary at Arch Insurance Group, where she is today.
“Insurance has a reputation for being boring but it is actually a really interesting field to work in,” said Power, who works in actuarial pricing for professional liability insurance.
“I get to apply statistics and different actuarial methods to real life data and am always being challenged,” she said.
Last year, Power completed the seven exams needed to become an associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society, an international organization of professional actuaries.
“I want to be an example of a leader for women in a male-dominated field,” Power said.
High school: John L. Miller Great Neck North High School
College: Cornell University, Class of 2014
Today: Associate at AQR Capital Management
Lives in: Great Neck
If there’s anything Michael Dilamani learned over the past 10 years, it’s to not over-plan for the future.
He entered Cornell University with so many interests he “barely knew where to start.”
His first year of college was spent exploring different subjects he was interested in, eventually zeroing in on math and economics.
“I picked Cornell because it’s not too far from home. It has a great reputation,” said Dilamani, whose older brother also attended Cornell. “I really liked the fact that it was its own isolated campus, really felt like everything there was really dedicated to the students.”
After an internship with a financial adviser in Great Neck the summer after his first year of college, he decided that he wanted to go into finance.
“I like that [finance] constantly keeps you on your feet. It can get really intense and really challenging. It can be really fulfilling,” Dilamani said.
After graduating from Cornell, he worked at Morgan Stanley in different roles in their wealth management division.
“Experiencing different roles has opened my eyes for more career possibilities than I was originally aware of,” Dilamani said.
In 2016, he started as an associate with AQR Capital Management, working with clients to bring in new investors and managing existing accounts in their hedge fund and other investment portfolios. Prior to the pandemic, he would commute daily to their office in Greenwich but since March, he's been working remotely.
“I was told early in my career that you can never chart out exactly what your career trajectory will look like,” Dilamani said. “One key lesson I learned is to work hard to build a good future but not try to over-plan or be too precise about what that future will look like.”
The challenge of not over-planning for the future is one he faces again now, as he and his fiance, Amanda Esraeilian, plan for their wedding amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. The couple, who went to the same synagogue in Great Neck but met through a blind date set up by family members, got engaged in November.
They were originally planning to get married in May but were forced to postpone it.
“It really brought everything to a standstill,” he said. “We were about to send out invitations, we had them printed and in the envelopes. It put a big pause on everything we were doing for it.”
The couple are still aiming for a wedding date later this summer in Woodbury — but given all the uncertainty have also talked about backup plans.
High school: St. Mary’s College Preparatory High School
College: Adelphi University, Class of 2014
Today: Legal assistant at MetLife
Lives in: Valley Stream
Courtney Heed thought one day she would be a lawyer.
Instead, she helps lawyers.
“I still work in the same industry I originally intended to pursue. I am definitely doing a different role than I originally intended but it’s worked out great for me,” said Heed, a legal assistant with MetLife’s Abamont & Associates in Garden City.
“The thing I enjoy most about being a legal assistant is when one of the lawyers I work with gets a defense verdict. Knowing I contributed to that process is extremely rewarding, and reaffirms my sense of purpose,” she said.
Heed earned a full-ride scholarship to Adelphi University where she majored in English language and literature.
Her first job after college was as a no-fault adjuster with Geico but after doing that role for a year she discovered “it wasn’t something I was very passionate about.”
She transferred into their legal department as a legal secretary, which she enjoyed much better. After gaining legal experience, she worked for various law firms on Long Island and in New York City.
“I’ve learned to look for a mentor at each of my jobs because there is invaluable extra knowledge a mentor may teach you that the traditional training the job offers may not provide,” she said.
She encourages high school seniors to not feel pressured to know exactly what they want to do, but advises them to “give their major a lot of thought so they can go in with a direction.”
“I’ve learned to be open to every experience life throws at you and to be flexible when your plans don’t go exactly as you expected,” she said.
High school: Pierson High School
College: University of Georgia
Today: Recruitment manager at KIPP New Jersey
Lives in: Philadelphia
Amanda Holder says the work she does today is fueled by where she went to high school.
When Amanda Holder graduated from Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, she was ready to dive into a career in science. She started off as a prepharmacy major at the University of Georgia.
But Holder realized she wasn’t engaged in her science classes. This frustrated her — back in high school, she loved this subject.
“I became fascinated by motivation and the psychology of learning, which ultimately led me to my career in education,” Holder said.
She ended up changing her major to psychology, and eventually earned a master’s degree in educational administration and policy. Holder then joined Teach For America and taught 10th-grade biology in Philadelphia while pursuing a second master's degree in urban education at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It was great getting to know the kids,” Holder said. “I loved science so that was so fun, and I built really great relationships with the kids.”
After doing that for four years, she joined Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) New Jersey's Recruitment Team, where she works to place teachers at four schools in the state. She said her Teach For America experience gave her insight into her current role.
“Teacher quality is a determining factor in successful student outcomes,” Holder said. “You need a great school culture, great resources and great support for teachers.”
At KIPP, she is still hiring teachers with her “flexible and creative” team — “We’re just doing it all virtually.”
Holder met her fiance, John Dobbins, while working for Teach For America. They plan to get married in November.
Looking back, Holder had a revelation about her high school days — and how she got to where she is today.
“I've come to realize that attending an affluent and well-resourced school like Pierson was a privilege,” she said. “This gives me context that fuels the work I do now: building exceptional schools for all kids, regardless of ZIP code.”
High school: Southampton High School
College: Skidmore College
Today: Inventory assistant at Macmillan Learning
Lives in: Quincy, Mass.
Julia Leef graduated from Southampton High School with her sights set on becoming an author. But, she said, “sometimes you need to take a bit of a roundabout path in order to achieve your goals.”
Growing up, Leef devoured fantasy novels, and wanted to pursue that genre as an author. She said she branched out into more general fiction writing as she got older. “I was always very interested in anything that’s not remotely like reality,” she said.
She chose Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs but then came a twist in her story: “I still enjoy writing, but it doesn't pay the bills unless you get very lucky,” she said. “So I decided to pursue publishing positions in order to still remain in that world, but with a regular paycheck.”
During college, Leef scored an internship with a scouting agency in New York City, but was unsuccessful in applying for entry-level positions in the area after graduation. She moved to Massachusetts, where she earned her master's degree in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge. After a “series of temp positions,” she landed an inventory assistant job with Macmillan Learning in Boston, where she still works today.
“I think most young people are under the impression that in order to succeed you need to have a job lined up in your dream career as soon as you graduate from college, but that is almost never the case,” Leef said. “The first job you get won't be the job you work forever, and it's OK if it isn't even a job in your field. Sometimes you need to take a bit of a roundabout path in order to achieve your goals.”
Leef said her experiences working in Southampton’s public library during her high school years played a huge role in building her love of reading. She still finds time to write something new every day.
Leef knows 2020 is a “tumultuous year” to be graduating from high school, but adds, “once this evens out, remember when you're attending your first semester at college or starting your first job, that while your initial post-high school years may help to shape your future they don't have to define it.”
High school: Wellington C. Mepham High School
College: Harvard University
Today: Education policy adviser at Third Way
Lives in: Washington, D.C.
Did Michelle Dimino know what she wanted to do with her life after graduating from high school?
The Harvard graduate says, “I'm sure I tried to make it sound like I did, but I definitely had no idea!”
Now, her job focuses on helping students who may be feeling the same way she did. Dimino is an education policy adviser for Third Way, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Her research and advocacy focuses on getting students accepted into and through college.
“I am deeply grateful for the high-quality education experiences that I've received throughout my life, but while the education system worked just about perfectly for me, I know many students don't have access to those same types of opportunities,” Dimino said. “Flipping that script is what motivates me in my work.”
Dimino earned her master's degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she took an interest in public policy. She tried out a few different career paths over the years, such as working for The Atlantic magazine’s editorial events production team and in the communications department of Georgetown University. Now, Dimino says she loves the work she does and plans “to stay put for a while!”
“In high school, I remember feeling like I had to have everything planned out: classes, college, career,” Dimino said. “But I couldn't be more grateful that I allowed myself that time to explore and try on a bunch of different things to see what fit.
“A lot of the past 10 years for me has come down to learning that life isn't linear and giving myself permission to veer from the ‘plan.’"
High school: Uniondale High School
College: Tufts University School of Dental Medicine
Today: Dental student
Lives in: Boston
Katherine Ynsinare’s passion for taking care of others has led her to Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica on medical mission trips. But perhaps her most important journey came from choosing which field was best for her.
After graduating from high school, Ynsinare’s instinct was to pursue neuroscience.
“I remember, then, having read a book titled, ‘This is Your Brain on Music,’ written by a neurologist,” she said. “And I was fascinated between how the two fields of science and music combined.”
Ynsinare graduated from Columbia University with a concentration in psychology, and her next stop was premed at Boston University School of Medicine. That’s where she started considering dentistry as her career path — another medical field where she could tie in her interest in art.
“I felt dentistry was what I wanted to be passionate about after learning about what it consisted of, broadly being science, medicine, and art,” Ynsinare said. “A lot of research went into my decision, but I felt like I could incorporate a little bit of every interest of mine into such a career.”
As a dental student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, Ynsinare finds artistry in moments when she works with wax molding and crafting teeth to look pleasing to the eye “in the patient’s smile zone.”
“I view dentistry as very hands-on, so you’re creating things, you’re making things with your hands and with that comes creativity and also an aesthetic aspect to it,” she said.
Ynsinare will graduate in 2021. She says she’s learned what it takes to turn her goals into reality — over the years, she’s found mentors in classmates and professors alike.
“As a Latina and first-generation college student, I’ve learned the importance of good mentorship and how valuable it is to seek resources and information out for yourself,” she said. “I’ve learned the importance of having faith in everything you do. It’s what has helped me to be intentional about what I do and it’s provided me with strength to keep moving forward to reach my goals.”
High school: Connetquot High School
College: Cornell University, Class of 2014
Today: Veterinarian at Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle
Lives in: Seattle, Wash.
Victoria McLean knew she wanted to become a veterinarian when her dog, a yellow labrador named Savannah, died when she was in fifth grade.
“I remember being so distraught by how quickly it happened and how I didn’t understand what was going on,” McLean said. “I not only wanted to know more about the pathology of her condition, but I made a vow to myself that if I ever became a veterinarian, I would make sure to educate my clients to the best of my ability.
Today, McLean is a veterinarian in Seattle, mostly with cats and dogs in the ER setting.
“I wanted to advocate for patients that cannot advocate for themselves,” said McLean, a graduate of University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
After graduating from Connetquot, she attended Cornell University to study animal science. She spent a summer in South Africa in the African Conservation Experience program where she helped to treat lions, African wild dogs, Cape buffalo, cheetahs, antelopes, elephants and many other species.
She originally wanted to become a zoo veterinarian, “but the field is extremely competitive to break into.”
“Ultimately, what I love most about veterinary medicine is the relationship I create with my clients, and I know that I would miss that in the zoo setting,” she said.
She applied to a few veterinarian schools after Cornell but didn’t get accepted to a program in the United States and that’s when she decided to try something different.
“I then decided to pursue my love of animals in a different context, teaching others about animals,” she said.
She attended Harvard Graduate School of Education for a year where she helped to develop curriculum for zoos, museums and college-level courses while studying child and adult development.
She worked at various zoos across the Northeast including the Franklin Park Zoo, Bronx Zoo, Rosamond Gifford Zoo and Binghamton Zoo to collect research for her project on technology as educational materials in zoos.
After Harvard, she moved to Illinois to pursue her doctoral degree in veterinary medicine.
In 2017, she spent a summer in Brazil working in the wildlife department of the veterinary school and at the local zoo in Curitiba. She also traveled to Foz do Iguaçu and worked at two zoos there. She helped to treat local species of birds, reptiles, primates and wildcats.
While McLean loves all animals, she particularly has a soft spot for big cats.
“Maybe I watched 'The Lion King' too many times as a kid,” she said.
She and her husband have a cat, Clyde, which they adopted together in 2015 from an animal shelter in upstate New York.
“He’s definitely the cutest cat in the world, but I suppose I’m biased.”