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Long IslandEducationGraduations

9 life lessons learned from Long Island's Extraordinary Seniors

They're headed to Yale, Stanford and Penn; they volunteer, are all-star athletes and have created opportunities for themselves and others. Those are just a few of the many ways to name the successes of Long Island's 2014 Extraordinary Seniors, selected from dozens of letters submitted by local school officials.

But what can we learn from their success? You can find all their stories here, and scroll down for the nine lessons we learned about life from reading them.

1. Don't accept the status quo

When Ryley Conway returned home from a year
Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

When Ryley Conway returned home from a year studying in southern India, she could have put the poverty and the hardship she witnessed there behind her. But the Hauppauge High School student -- who plans to study in the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Program at Ohio’s John Carroll University next year -- refused to distance herself from what she saw. “I don’t want to get used to poverty,” she said. “I want to do something about it, and maybe I can’t solve these problems, but helping one life is better than none.”

2. Embrace your challenges

Julia Eberhard could accept the physical limits of
Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Julia Eberhard could accept the physical limits of having Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective and growth tissues – but why would she when riding her dirt bike is so much fun? Eberhard had wanted a bike since she was a child, and finally got one two years ago. The Mount Sinai High School student has undergone surgery and last year spent time using crutches or a wheelchair to get around, but it has never deterred her. “I really think it was a necessity that I look at it in a positive way,” she said.

3. Learn from those around you

Few would argue that Kwasi Enin doesn’t have

Few would argue that Kwasi Enin doesn’t have a bright future – the William Floyd High School student was accepted to all eight Ivy League universities this year. But the student who has gained celebrity in his hometown, as well as international media attention, counts family members as his role models rather than celebrities, athletes or politicians. “They are doctors, engineers, just successful people,” he said. “And it’s not just what they do at their job that makes them successful, but they are good people to be around. They make your day better.”

4. Don't take what you have for granted

Tae Hoon Kim had just a couple years
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Tae Hoon Kim had just a couple years of basic English classes under his belt when his family moved from South Korea to Philadelphia five years ago. He was determined to learn. He started out by reading Dr. Seuss, but soon graduated to young adult novels and then by listening to the audio of famous speeches. By the time his family moved to Jericho and he attended high school there, he was a National AP Scholar with a heavy rotation of volunteer work on his schedule. “I realize I was blessed with so many opportunities,” he said. “Thus, I want to give back and serve others who are not as fortunate or did not have as many opportunities as I did.”

5. Take strength in others

In their junior year at Kellenberg High School,
Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

In their junior year at Kellenberg High School, Erin Von Elm, Anneliese Riesterer and Sarah Lyne (pictured from left to right) found out they had more in common than social circles and classwork – all three were diagnosed with serious or life-threatening brain ailments within months of each other. All three required surgery and missed classes, but they never fell behind and each came out of the experience smiling. Having each other was a blessing, they agreed. “Sure, this bad thing happened to me,” Von Elm said. “But it also happened to somebody else, and now we all have each other to lean on.”

6. Think big

When Matthew Giovanniello’s grandmother failed to respond to
Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

When Matthew Giovanniello’s grandmother failed to respond to the form of therapy being used on her after she suffered a paralyzing stroke, Giovanniello didn’t just make the best of the situation – he did what he could to change it. He designed a computer program that used pictures of his family and other familiar images to help his grandmother communicate. It worked. The program, which is awaiting final patent approval, is “in a word, extraordinary,” said Carol Burris, his principal at South Side High School in Rockville Centre.

7. Make it work

When Sodasia Thompson couldn’t attend a summer music
Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

When Sodasia Thompson couldn’t attend a summer music program due to her work schedule, the Bay Shore High School student got the instructor to meet with her every day before her start time so she wouldn’t miss out. Thompson – along with her six siblings, at various times of their lives -- was raised by her aunt after her mother could no longer care for her. But Thompson does not let what could have been obstacles in her past define her, or even get her down. “I am going to be creative and bouncy; I’m going to be myself,” she said. “I can’t help who I am.”

8. Support your community

Eswar Dommaraju finds more satisfaction in helping others
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Eswar Dommaraju finds more satisfaction in helping others than he does in doing things for himself: “It brings me joy and a sense of happiness that doesn’t come from doing things for myself.” The Hicksville High School student (flanked by friends Zaki Ahmad and Joe Olivito, on the left, and Patrick Murray and Saquir Ansari, on the right) helped found a youth group within his family’s Indian cultural association to focus on community service. The group has held a free public health clinic and raised $1,500 for the Red Cross after superstorm Sandy – a donation matched by the cultural association’s executive committee.

9. Combine your abilities with your interests

Reed Ginsberg can’t be described by just one
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Reed Ginsberg can’t be described by just one of his talents. His teachers say he’s a whiz at math and technology, but his abilities in the classroom are not to be eclipsed by those on the soccer field or in Jericho High School’s jazz band. In fact, he has deftly combined his academic prowess with his personal interests. He teaches drumming, coaches hockey and is a tutor, plus wrote an award-winning math paper in which he analyzed the best angles used by successful hockey goaltenders.

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