Lives can change a lot in 10 years — and go in unforeseen directions.

Some 2012 Long Island high school valedictorians Newsday caught up with said they couldn’t have predicted their paths, like the full-time activist who said, “Everything about my life has surprised me.”

Others trace what they’re doing now back to childhood, such as the physician assistant whose dad liked to teach her anatomy using a model skeleton in his office when she was 5. Another changed direction during the pandemic, to the career her grandpa always said she was going to pursue.

We cast a wide net reaching out to Long Island’s 2012 valedictorians and heard back from a good number of them. They told us about college and beyond, work, significant life experiences — and the details that can really tell a story.

See what these 29 valedictorians have been up to, a decade later.

Eric Caliendo: 'I was put on this Earth to be a doctor'

Eric Caliendo in 2012, left, and now.

Eric Caliendo in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Phyllis Caliendo; Elaina Atallah

High school: St. Anthony's High School, South Huntington

College: Haverford College

Today: Resident physician at Emory University

Lives in: Atlanta

As far back as he can remember, Eric Caliendo has wanted his chosen career.

“I feel confident I was put on this Earth to be a doctor, and I feel so very lucky to be afforded the privilege to do what I do,” he said.

Caliendo, 28, is a first-year resident in internal medicine at Emory University.

“I was drawn to the service aspect and the respect afforded to physicians in our society,” he said, and always wanted “a career that was directed towards the care of others, a humanistic profession.”

He found comfort in the set path towards medicine, which “allowed me to focus on one thing at a time instead of feeling lost trying to find my way in a more open career path. While the path is difficult and moments of burnout are real, I am thankful each day that I chose this route.”

The Manorville native said his four years at St. Anthony’s High School — which “holds dearly the Franciscan value of service to those in need” — “fostered my innate drive to make a career out of helping others.” It also sharpened his science and math skills to channel his charitable intentions into medicine. Now, he said, "Working in one of the largest public hospitals in the country, Grady Memorial Hospital, which serves vulnerable populations in Atlanta, has allowed me to care for those who truly need my help the most.”

He majored in biology and played varsity lacrosse for four years at Haverford, in Pennsylvania.

The night before graduation, he had a panic attack.

“I was in such bad shape that I was unable to attend the ceremony the next morning. The stark difference between giving the valedictorian speech just 4 years earlier and sitting at home during my college graduation made everything even worse,” Caliendo said. “At that time, I was worried about the future and nervous I was not going to live up to the high expectations I had set for myself.”

He overcame those feelings, he explained, “by leaning on the support of my family, focusing on my mental health, and finding healthy ways to destress. This low point taught me the importance of living a gracious life,” and appreciating the positive.

In his gap year before medical school at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, Caliendo worked in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities in Quogue. He graduated from Weill Cornell in 2021, moving to Georgia last June.

“What has really stood out to me about Atlanta and the people I have met down here is the slower pace of life and how much more laid back everyone is,” he said. “It is a welcome departure from the hustle and bustle of NYC.”

He said he’s been truly surprised by how quickly the past 10 years have gone by “and how much life has been packed into that seemingly short period.” It has included many blessings, and “moments of tragedy and despair.” Caliendo said he has learned to cherish important moments, good or bad — and “to appreciate each new day and make the most of the time we are given because the future is guaranteed to nobody.”

He’s also learned “that the greatest returns in life come through relationships with your family, friends, and partners.”

Accomplishments like being valedictorian offer fleeting satisfaction, he said.

“You can’t put your arms around them, build a connection, form a memory with them. It’s the humans in your life that matter most and with whom you will have the opportunity to derive lasting joy and true connection.”


Pamela Hickey: Making and creating a healthy life in Chicago

Pamela Hickey in 2012, left, and now.

Pamela Hickey in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Pamela Hickey; Katheryn Hickey

High school: St. Dominic High School

College: Boston College

Today: Property marketing specialist, CBRE

Lives in: Chicago

Pamela Hickey has a job she loves, where she gets to make and create things.

She lives in a great city, where she has “a wonderful partner and friends.” She bakes, and ran the Chicago Marathon.

She’s halfway across the country from her family and many friends, whom she misses dearly every day — “but I've also built a life here that I adore,” Hickey said.

The 27-year-old doesn’t believe “the me from 10 years ago would have found Chicago a likely spot. I am very happy with how my life is now but it certainly does not look how 17-year-old me thought it would!”

Hickey grew up in Huntington. Coming out of high school, she was convinced she wanted to be a doctor. Then she switched her major from biology to psychology, aiming to be a therapist with a focus on child and developmental psychology. She also fed her love of art, taking many such electives at Boston College, including courses in digital design and photography. Hickey discovered she really loved graphic design. She says “making and creating things is the true thing that makes me feel fulfilled.”

She worked in marketing at a construction management firm in New York City — applying the digital design skills learned through her electives — before moving to Chicago in 2019. She works at the biggest commercial real estate firm in the world, CBRE, where she was promoted recently and manages property marketing projects “from all over the Midwest.”

“I get to make and create and provide art & design direction for projects in all sorts of commercial real estate sectors in different markets — every day challenges my skills and creativity and presents new projects and I am learning so much from the process and from my incredible colleagues," Hickey wrote.

She volunteers for Icing Smiles, baking celebration cakes for children with severe illnesses and their families.

She ran and finished the Chicago Marathon in 2018 after almost a year of training, raising over $2,500 for a Chicagoland charity that supports people with Down syndrome and their families. “That will always be one of my favorite achievements and possibly the most accomplished I've ever felt,” she said.

Hickey said depression has been at the center of a very formative and challenging personal journey in the past 10 years. She has experienced symptoms since around age 9 or 10.

“It got worse and worse when I was about 15 or 16; throughout high school I was very involved in academics and school activities (in hindsight, I was probably stretched too thin) and that distracted me from my depression but it was a very impermanent solution — a Band-Aid over a wound that really required medical attention and continuous maintenance care for a long time,” she wrote.

It worsened in college “until nothing could really distract me from it, and I started to have horrible anxiety as well,” Hickey said. She credits a phenomenal therapist “with almost single-handedly teaching me to manage my anxiety.”

Hickey had to stop seeing her after graduation, and her depression kept worsening. She felt “pretty hopeless” when a medication didn’t help at all, but agreed to try a different one. “After just a couple of weeks I truly felt like myself again,” she said. She’s been taking it for several years, “and I've come to feel immense gratitude for it and how I can live the life I want to because of the medication making me healthy again.”

She said she has learned her depression “is a chronic illness that will more than likely never go away.” She said she treats it — managing symptoms, communicating with her doctor, and taking care of body and mind.

“I am open about my mental health journey because I want other people who were suffering in hopeless silence like I was to understand that there is no shame in having a chronic illness just because it is considered mental rather than physical,” Hickey said.


Helaina Regen-Tuero: From researching drug addictions to breast cancer

Helaina Regen-Tuero in 2012, left, and now.

Helaina Regen-Tuero in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Helaina Regen-Tuero

High school: George W. Hewlett High School

College: Brown University

Today: Incoming radiology resident at NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Lives in: Manhattan

When Helaina Regen-Tuero became a high school graduate, she said her passion for science helped her realize “medicine would be the most rewarding way for me to apply this passion.”

But she wasn’t certain on what to expect for the journey ahead.

“As the first in my family to go into medicine, the path in front of me upon my high school graduation felt daunting,” she said. “But I focused on one challenge at a time, and before I knew it it was time for my medical school graduation.”

After graduating from George W. Hewlett High School in 2012, Regen-Tuero got into Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, or PLME, an 8-year program with the Warren Alpert Medical School.

As a neuroscience major in college, she had interest in “the neurobiology of addiction, particularly as addiction is so stigmatized by society and not traditionally viewed as a disease.” She spent two summers at the Medical University of South Carolina researching methamphetamine and cocaine addiction.

After finishing her undergraduate in 2016, she took a gap year and worked for the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown, before starting medical school in 2017.

“I helped evaluate the success of a statewide program aimed at improving people's access to treatment for opioid dependence while incarcerated,” she said.

At the end of her first year of medical school, she worked on a research project with a breast imaging radiologist, drawn to the project's focus on breast cancer since it had affected a family member.

“My research mentor arranged for me to shadow her in both the reading room and while performing biopsies and I loved it,” she said. “It never ceases to amaze me how radiologists can interpret seemingly slight variations in imaging features in a way that significantly impact patient care and management, and I feel privileged to be entering this field.”

Now Regen-Tuero will start her radiology residency at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in July.

Regen-Tuero’s advice for current graduates: Find people who can become your mentors to help navigate the path in front of you. She described radiology as a “predominantly male-dominated field,” but was able to find female mentors to help her find her way.

“Don't be discouraged from entering a field just because you don't see people that look like you,” she said.


Max Berenson: He found his longtime workplace in high school

Max Berenson in 2012, left, and now.

Max Berenson in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Max Berenson

High school: Vincent Smith School, Port Washington

College: Queensborough Community College

Today: Administrative assistant, Commonpoint Queens

Lives in: Queens

Max Berenson first started working at Commonpoint Queens — then called Samuel Field Y — in 2011 while in high school.

“They needed someone to run the computer room because no one was computer-savvy enough to do it, and I growing up knew my way around computers,” Berenson said, and he went there after school to do the work.

In the decade-plus since, he’s continued to work at that same organization through its eventual merger, while graduating as valedictorian from the Vincent Smith School and taking college classes for two years. He began at the nonprofit as a computer specialist, later became a food handler and has been an administrative assistant since July 2021.

Berenson, 28, grew up and lives in Whitestone, Queens. He said his high school “really helped change my perspective on learning, especially.”

“I had severe ADD as a kid and I was so anti-classroom that I wanted to be anywhere else but there,” he said. What helped him the most at Vincent Smith were its very small class sizes — and those smaller sizes helped him realize he doesn’t learn the same way other people do, he said. “So, honestly, I do say that being at that school really saved me.”

He was a student at Queensborough Community College from 2012-2014, but did not finish. Why is “a little bit of a story,” as Berenson put it. Short version: He left school to pursue a pharmacy technician certificate but it fell through. He says he’s been focused on working ever since.

But he said he decided recently to go back to Queensborough, and already reapplied. He plans to study part-time to complete an associate’s degree and keep working full-time.

“It’s important to go back, just because I was so close to being done, and you don’t want to leave things unfinished,” he said.

He’s found that he enjoys writing — and has been doing what he called “weird amalgamated poems.”

Berenson takes much pride in the co-op he owns in Clearview, saying it is “a fairly major achievement” given how young he is. He called it a “very interesting family helping family kind of thing,” and said he intends to pay back his mother for it.

His office is in Little Neck. Commonpoint Queens serves people of all ages in the borough, including senior citizens.

When the pandemic happened and seniors couldn’t come in to eat for their food program, “we had to adapt, and so we decided to start a food delivery system for free. If people were in desperate need of food, we would get [it] to them,” Berenson said.

Seniors could pick up food or have it delivered.

“That was my project, was organizing that whole thing. Because my boss was working from home, so it was really just me in the office,” he said.


Francesca Giammona: Failing 'simply means you have some more learning to do'

Francesca Giammona in 2012, left, and now.

Francesca Giammona in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Jennifer Reilly; Francesca Giammona

High school: North Babylon High School

College: Cornell University

Today: Fifth-year PhD candidate at Wake Forest University, studying terrestrial locomotion of fishes

Lives in: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Francesca Giammona knew she wanted to be a marine biologist at 5 years old — and has followed through.

“That was my career goal from then on. In high school, I continued to pursue this career path, and today, I can happily say that that my childhood goal has been achieved,” the 27-year-old said.

Her ultimate career goals have changed slightly in the past few years, however.

“I had always envisioned myself staying in academia and eventually becoming a professor, but I have recently changed gears a bit, and now want to work in a museum or aquarium in a curator/collections management capacity,” she said.

But though she’s known the career she wants, getting into graduate school was hard. She didn’t get into any in her first round of applications straight out of undergrad from Cornell — “a large disappointment.”

“It was a huge blow for me, as I had made a plan in my head of what I wanted my post-college life to look like, and it was then completely thrown out the window,” Giammona said. “After taking a bit of time to feel upset about this, I picked myself up and decided I would just apply to more graduate schools the following year, and make myself a more appealing applicant in the meantime.”

On her second attempt she was accepted at two.

“This experience slightly worsened the imposter syndrome that I already felt, but I work to overcome that every day by trying to break tasks down into manageable pieces, and by remembering that if I did not have what it takes to complete my degree, I wouldn’t have made it this far in academia,” she said.

At Wake Forest, she studies “how amphibious fishes move on land.” The main fish she studies is the mangrove rivulus, a tiny creature that can survive out of water for more than two months, and is found in the U.S. in Florida.

Giammona has made it where she is now after majoring in biology with a minor in marine biology at Cornell. Her academic journey has covered studying the immune response of sea fans, researching sea grass wasting disease — and starting “a project studying the comparative anatomy of the jaw-closing muscle in Pacific Salmon,” data that she used for her honors thesis.

She researched on sea grass and Pacific Salmon while spending six months at Friday Harbor Marine Labs, in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. There she had an excellent mentor, Nick Gidmark, who “was never anything but patient and compassionate.”

She also studied the feeding biomechanics of elephant-nose fishes as a volunteer at a Hofstra University lab, before being accepted at Wake Forest.

Giammona said high school had a large impact on who she is today, from great lasting friendships to work ethic to extracurricular hobbies she pursued “that still currently enhance my life, such as playing viola, being involved in theater, and doing volunteer work.” In North Carolina she has volunteered with an animal shelter, which has been “very enriching.”

“I have also moved in together with my long-term partner, which has been a new and exciting chapter in both of our lives,” she wrote. They adopted a rescue puppy.

In the past decade, Giammona said, “I’ve learned some extremely valuable lessons about failure and rejection, and how to accept both graciously and move on from them.

“Failing at a task doesn’t equate to a failure in your character — it simply means you have some more learning to do. I’ve learned to be a little more open to new experiences, knowing that while not every new thing I try will turn out amazingly, the feeling of trying something new and scary is far better than the feeling of regret from having never tried at all.”


Casey Vieni: Valedictorian twice over now getting his MD/PhD

Credit: Casey Vieni

High school: Plainedge High School

College: Stony Brook University

Today: MD/PhD student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Lives in: Manhattan

Since Casey Vieni was in high school, he knew he wanted to go into the medical field. But he wasn’t sure of which route he’d take to get there.

“I knew I wanted to do medicine, but I did not know I wanted to do research and the MD/PhD program,” he said.

“Looking back, I never thought I would have been able to accomplish what I have been able to do in my medicine career and my PhD.”

Vieni’s path since graduating from Plainedge High School has been marked by research. He went to Stony Brook University to study physics and worked with Dr. Subramanyam Swaminathan at Brookhaven National Lab, which he says ignited his interest in biophysics research.

There, he studied “weaponizable bacterial toxins in order to develop inhibitors that could be rapidly deployed in the case of a bioterrorist attack.”

Vieni graduated in December 2015 with his undergraduate degree from Stony Brook — also as valedictorian — then enrolled in the MD/PhD program at New York University School of Medicine.

During his first two years of medical school, Vieni’s research focused on “how we process MRI images to learn about the underlying pathology in neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and MS.”

As part of his doctorate in microbiology and structural biology, Vieni worked in the lab of Damian Ekiert and Gira Bhabha.

“I used cryoEM to study how double membraned bacteria build and maintain their cell membranes using MCE proteins,” he explains. “My work specifically looked at MCE proteins in M. tuberculosis and E. coli and was able to use protein engineering and design in order to understand more about how these proteins function, with the ultimate goal of designing novel therapeutics.”

He completed his doctorate, and is now in his final year of medical school. Next, he’ll apply for residency — he said he’s leaning toward pathology.

Vieni says he credits his high school experiences for getting him interested in scientific research and his field. But the past 10 years have brought him some challenges, too — such as working in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Working in the hospital during the COVID surges has really changed my outlook on what it means to be a doctor and what it means to treat underserved populations,” he said.

Vieni said while he couldn’t have predicted everywhere his path has taken him so far and he feels “happy and lucky to be where I am today.”


Jessica Murphy: She dreamed of becoming president and ended up in Washington, D.C.

Jessica Murphy in 2012, left, and now.

Jessica Murphy in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Jessica Murphy

High school: Copiague High School

College: American University

Today: Property manager, Bozzuto

Lives in: Washington, D.C.

When Jessica Murphy graduated from Copiague High School in 2012, she had aspirations to become president of the United States.

“Funny thing, that is still a goal of mine,” she said, a decade later.

Of course, Murphy hasn’t made it to the White House yet — but she did make it to Washington, D.C. And her life has taken her on a few different paths since leaving Long Island.

She attended American University in D.C., graduating in 2016 with a degree in political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Afterward, she spent about two years working for Running Start, a nonprofit organization that helps prepare young women seeking elected office.

“I traveled across the country providing young women with hands-on training to develop the confidence, connections and capabilities that they need to run for political office,” she said.

Using the connections she built at Running Start, Murphy transitioned to working in a different field: D.C. real estate. She got a job as a property manager at Bozzuto, a real estate company that “has developed, acquired and built more than 45,000 homes and apartments,” she said. She’s been working there for about three years.

Deciding to go away to college was a good decision for Murphy — she said over the past decade, she’s learned “the best thing you can do to grow is leave your hometown.”

“You can always come back. Just know there is so much world and life outside of your town,” she said.

Another lesson she’s picked up over the years: Travel often. In 2021, Murphy said she got to visit Chichén Itzá in Mexico and the Colosseum in Italy.

“In high school, I was always so interested in history and the world. I finally followed through and saw two of the 'new seven wonders of the world,'” she said. 

The past 10 years have gone by quickly for Murphy, and she said there’s still so much she wants to do — including running for Congress. While she’s unsure where life will take her next, she said she “couldn't be more happy.”

Among her advice for current graduates: “Take every opportunity you can and make this life the best life it can be. Don't stress the small things. Remember to smile." 


Evan Rosati: Chain of small decisions led engineer to build life in Indiana

Credit: Evan Rosati; Jenn Rosati

High school: Division Avenue High School, Levittown

College: Northwestern University

Today: Process engineer at Covestro

Lives in: Indianapolis, Indiana

Evan Rosati grew up in Levittown, living “in the same house my entire life.” 

So when he was a student at Division Avenue High School, the thought of living hundreds of miles away barely crossed his mind.

Fast forward 10 years after graduating, and he’s living and working as an engineer in Indiana in a home he bought with his wife.

“To think about living halfway across the country permanently would have seemed crazy to me,” he said. “It is truly amazing how small decisions or changes can have a huge impact on your life path and how unpredictable it all really is.”

Rosati followed his passion to study chemical engineering at Northwestern University. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s and master’s in chemical engineering and a minor in energy and sustainability.

He now works on process engineering initiatives at an acrylic emulsions manufacturing facility in Frankfort, Indiana, for chemical company Covestro.

While he was at Northwestern, Rosati met his now-wife, Jenn, whom he married in 2019. They bought a house together north of Indianapolis and in 2020 adopted a “cute and opinionated” dog that they named Kemper — named after the building in which they met.

Rosati credits his high school experiences — such as being on student council and his science olympiad team — as well as teachers and administrators for getting to where he is in his career, and in his life.

“Their help was crucial for my acceptance into Northwestern and, without that, I wouldn’t have met Jenn and my life would look very different today,” he said.

When Rosati thinks back to his time at Division Avenue, his AP Chemistry class with Dr. Troy Joseph comes to mind. He said he’s thankful for having him as a teacher — the small class size and his teaching style of “hands-on experiments” and lectures prepared him well for college. He also initially “sparked” his love for chemistry.

“He challenged us while keeping his teachings fun and engaging,” Rosati said. “We accomplished both setting off the fire alarm during the first week of school (during a hydrogen balloon experiment) and completing the coursework at a breakneck speed (we were done by February) because Dr. Joe taught like it was a college course and a college semester.”

Also during the past decade, Rosati and his wife have enjoyed traveling — they had visited 10 countries before going on safari in Kenya and Tanzania in May, and have a cruise to Norway planned for later this summer.

Rosati said he’s learned over the years to embrace new opportunities and the importance of surrounding himself with — and making time for — friends and family.

“Oh, and visit your grandparents — you’ll thank me in 10 years!”


Nicole Bartolo: She found her passion as a chemist and now researches diseases like Alzheimer's

Nicole Bartolo in 2012, left, and now.

Nicole Bartolo in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Nicole Bartolo

High school: Newfield High School, Selden

College: Marist College

Today: Research fellow at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital

Lives in: Boston

When Nicole Bartolo reflects on advice she would give this year’s high school graduates, she says to be open to exploring careers beyond what you already know.

“When I was in high school, I had no idea what a chemist was and what they did,” she said. “There's a huge range of interesting careers out there beyond what a lot of people see in their everyday lives.”

Bartolo, a Newfield High School graduate who's now a research fellow at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital, has lived that advice. 

She attended Marist College with plans to study biology and go on to medical school, but she enjoyed research and studying organic chemistry there. That’s when she concluded “instead of practicing medicine as a doctor, that I would rather be the person in the lab working towards making novel therapeutics,” she said.

Bartolo added chemistry classes to her biology class load and graduated from Marist with a double major in biomedical sciences and biochemistry in 2015.

She graduated in just three years — something she attributes to being able to take AP classes and Suffolk County Community College classes offered at Newfield High School.

Also at Marist, in 2013, Bartolo met her now-fiance, Ryan.

Right after college, Bartolo started a doctorate program at New York University.

“I decided to attend NYU after I met Professor Keith Woerpel, who later became my PhD adviser, at the chemistry department's accepted-student day in early 2015,” she said. “I was really excited about the research his lab was undertaking and wanted to be a part of it.”

Woerpel has continued to mentor Bartolo even after she finished the program, she said, graduating in 2020 with her doctorate in organic chemistry.

In March 2021, she started her current research position at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital.

“In my current position, we are developing radioisotope-labeled molecules that can be used to image proteins implicated in neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, using positron emission tomography,” she said. “These compounds can be used by scientists to visualize the brains of patients suffering from these disorders.”

“The information from these images can help scientists to understand the biological processes through which these disorders lead to cognitive decline in patients,” she said.


Andrew Shapiro: 'It's OK to walk away from something'

Andrew Shapiro in 2012, left, and now.

Andrew Shapiro in 2012, left, and now. Credit: David Shapiro; Sabina Gudmundsson

High school: Commack High School

College: Lehigh University

Today: Battery competitor analyst for Microsoft Surface Products

Lives in: Seattle

Coming out of high school, Andrew Shapiro believed “there was really only one path to take”: high school, then college, graduate school and “dream job/life.”

He’s changed his mind about that. What has most surprised him about his life over the past decade “was seeing how many different paths there are to take to achieve success and reach the goals you want in life.”

“Now I spend time with all sorts of talented people, with vastly different experiences and backgrounds, all successful in their own right, in so many different ways,” said Shapiro, 28.

He changed direction — and coasts — in 2021 when he left his PhD in electrical engineering program at Princeton University after five years and moved with his partner to Seattle. He worked as a private tutor before joining Microsoft.

Shapiro attended Lehigh University, graduating in 2016, and then went to Princeton to pursue a PhD, researching novel materials for solar cells, LEDs and batteries. He received a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2018.

At Princeton he saw “how toxic of a place higher education can be,” calling that the biggest disappointment he experienced in the past 10 years.

“Research in any form is so valuable to growing as a society, scientifically, culturally and socially. It's disappointing to see that something so collaborative and constructive is marred by people with massive egos, toxicity and disrespect for their peers,” Shapiro said.

For these and other reasons he left academia.

At the same time, Shapiro said his time in graduate school allowed him to explore teaching, work with students and design courses.

One important lesson he has learned in the past decade: “Communication is incredibly important in any relationship,” so “share your thoughts and listen to others, work together.” Another, he said, is “It's OK to walk away from something, if you are able to, because you either no longer want it or because it makes unhappy.”

Shapiro advises those graduating from high school this year to seek out what will make them happy.

“Take time to consider what it is you want and re-evaluate that often,” he said. “It's never too late [to] start something new or change course, and if presented with the opportunity, there is nothing wrong with taking it.”


Tiffany Chang: Once you book your ride on Uber, that's where her work kicks in

Tiffany Chang in 2012, left, and now.

Tiffany Chang in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Chang Family

High school: Ward Melville High School

College: Brown University

Today: Product manager at Uber

Lives in: Brooklyn

Working from home became the new normal for many people during the pandemic. Tiffany Chang took advantage by spending four months working remotely from a corn and soybean farm in Nebraska.

Life in the country on her boyfriend’s family’s farm was quite different from her experiences growing up on suburban Long Island in Stony Brook and living in New York City. It was much slower, and very family-centric, she said.

“It was honestly nice to see that there’s a different way of living, where people are still happy and living their lives completely differently than in New York, where I feel like there is this almost pressure to be always focused on work and focused on your career,” Chang said. “It was definitely eye-opening for me.”

In the evenings, she said, “we would always eat a home-cooked meal with my boyfriend’s grandparents, and then honestly sit on the porch and enjoy the sunset, or take a walk through the fields. It was pretty cool.”

She adopted two kittens from the farm, Tybalt and Juliet.

Chang, 28, is a strong believer in continual learning. She urges this year’s graduating students to keep an open mind and encourages them “to grant yourself the space to explore and pivot your plans.”

She’s followed her own advice. Chang studied applied math and economics at Brown, with summer internships including science research at NASA and Caltech. After graduation, she was a financial data analyst at the quantitative hedge fund Two Sigma for three years, then switched to tech at Uber in 2019.

There she has worked on defining the growth strategy for Uber Eats and on building Uber’s Rider product. She leads a team of software engineers, data scientists and designers to build and improve the experience of its riders across the globe. She said that “right after you book your ride, that’s when my area begins. So I pretty much have responsibility over everything post a request.”

“I never anticipated the numerous career pivots that I made over the last several years before landing on my current role,” Chang said. “However, with each career step, I was learning more about what I wanted to pursue, as well as building versatile skills.”

In turn, she mentors professionals looking to break into tech through a startup called Skillful. She said she’s able to have an impact helping them, and it follows related roles as a tutor at Kumon and teaching assistant at Brown.

She said her teachers at Ward Melville High School were “super wonderful,” and she grew to love teaching from her experience there.

Chang said her parents, who immigrated from Hong Kong, “taught me a lot about perseverance and the value of intellectual curiosity.” Her father, who came to the U.S. to pursue his PhD, is an atmospheric science professor.

“Growing up, seeing my parents build their lives up in this country, where they didn’t really know anyone, they didn’t have the support really of their families, which were in Hong Kong — so very far away — and seeing them build new lives here, working really hard to provide a better opportunity for me and my sister in living pretty much the American dream, was definitely really inspiring to me,” she said.


Julien Noah Brathwaite: ‘Super-open’ career path took him cross-country to Apple

Julien Brathwaite, Westbury High School's 2012 valedictorian, went to the University of Michigan to study electrical engineering. While there, he pivoted career paths and now works at Apple, living in Oakland, California. Credit: Julien Brathwaite

High school: Westbury High School

College: University of Michigan

Today: Business development, Apple

Lives in: Oakland, California

When Julien Brathwaite visited his Uncle Earle's house in sixth grade, he was impressed by "how large his house was" — and wanted to be just like him.

“I asked him what he did; he said he could be categorized as an electrical engineer — and I arbitrarily decided that I wanted to be an electrical engineer,” Brathwaite said. 

The Westbury High School valedictorian indeed went on to study electrical engineering, specializing in semiconductors, at the University of Michigan. But after taking classes and completing research in the field, he quickly learned he didn’t like it.

“The most boring thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It just wasn’t for me.”

Brathwaite switched gears to study industrial engineering and took an internship with Chrysler Group LLC in Michigan as a quality supplier engineer — but still wasn’t hooked on the industry. After his junior year, he interned with J.P. Morgan, doing asset management in New York.

“That truly taught me … business is something you actually want to do a deeper dive into,” he said. “After college, that kind of helped influence the decisions I made post-graduation.”

There’s absolutely no way I could have predicted any of this.

— Julien Brathwaite

Ten years after high school, after trying different jobs and living in three states, Brathwaite has settled in California, where he's in his third year working for Apple Inc.

“There’s absolutely no way I could have predicted any of this,” Brathwaite said.

“If you told Julien 10 years ago … ‘you would be working on subscriptions monetization for the App Store,’ that would have never crossed my mind,” he added.

As for his advice for seniors graduating this year, Brathwaite said to remember to keep an open mind, “as life is about pivoting and adjusting.”

“My career path thus far is evidence of that,” he said. “If I wasn’t super-open, it would have limited, like seriously hindered, and limited some of the experiences I would have potentially had.”

And that applies to experiences he’s had outside of his career, he said. He studied abroad for six months in Manchester, England, took a course in India, and lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, while working for Microsoft Corp. He’s also traveled to Dublin, Prague, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil and London.

Brathwaite fondly remembers much of his high school experience — friends, coaches from when he played basketball and assisted the women’s varsity basketball coach, teachers, mentors and classes he took. He credits Westbury with showing him he had a “passion for learning new things,” he said.

Over the years, he said, he's learned how powerful it can be to give back, to mentor others.

“The youth and people who look like me oftentimes think their goals and dreams are unachievable because they haven’t gotten a chance to be exposed to or see someone who looks like them make it,” Brathwaite said.

“I make sure to bring my authentic self to the table to make sure that they know there’s no reason why they can’t succeed at whatever field they’re interested in.”


Ashley Iype: 'Life is so short and can be taken at any moment'

Ashley Iype in 2012, left, and now.

Ashley Iype in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Ashley Iype

High school: St. Mary's High School, Manhasset

College: University at Albany and Russell Sage College

Today: Intensive care unit travel nurse

Lives in: Geneva, New York

"When I graduated [from] high school, I was dead set on attending medical school. Life had other plans for me," Ashley Iype said.

Her father, Iype Kuriakose, became sick with end-stage sarcoma when she was in college at the University at Albany.

She would travel weekly from Albany to Manhattan to take him to appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

"As a result, my grades suffered and I dropped out of college. I watched my father's life deteriorate," she said, adding that he spent his final moments in the ICU. 

He died in 2017, when she was 21. She realized then her true calling: nursing. 

Being a caregiver to her father made her want to be a nurse. Iype said she was also inspired by the wonderful nurses that took care of him during his final moments: "They played music for him and kept him comfortable while on life support."

Aided by her previous classes, Iype fast-tracked a major in nursing when she transferred to Russell Sage College in upstate Troy, completing the program in two years to graduate in 2019.

"I became an advocate and healing touch for my patients, especially during the COVID pandemic. I helped to care for those in the same way I cared for my father during his most troubling times," said Iype, now 27.

Since September she has been an ICU travel registered nurse with Atlas MedStaff. She works around the country in hospitals with staffing needs.

"I always thought about it, but it's such a huge leap to take. So I waited until I had two years of experience," Iype said about the job that allows her to explore new places — first she worked in Seattle — and visit national parks.

She worked recently at a regional hospital in Yuma, Arizona. "Came down here and had some of the best Mexican food I've ever had," she said. "I'm finding hot sauces that I could never find in New York."

Iype grew up in New Hyde Park, where her mother, Susan Iype, still lives. 

Ashley Iype says that in high school she was a workaholic who'd spend hours studying every day. Extracurriculars like the chess, art and animé clubs allowed her to have fun.

When asked what advice she would give to this year's graduating seniors, Iype said they shouldn't be "workaholic students." Instead, she would ask them: "What does a happy life look like for you?"

Iype said her most surprising change in the past 10 years "is how much I value enjoying a life outside of work now."

"Life is so short and can be taken at any moment," she said. "I would love to live out the rest of my days exploring the beauty the world has to offer."


Jay Wong: Magic took him through schooling into a new venture

Jay Wong, Baldwin Senior High School's 2012 valedictorian, talks about how he's been practicing magic for much of his life. Wong went to Yale University, then the University of Michigan Medical School. This year, he took a break from medicine to start his own storytelling/writing coaching and consulting business to help students get into college. Credit: Jay Wong, Anna Zhao, Shellee Wong

High school: Baldwin Senior High School

College: Yale University

Today: Medical student at the University of Michigan taking a break to pursue a storytelling/writing coaching and consulting business

Lives in: New Haven, Connecticut

Magic has been a part of almost every stage of Jay Wong’s life.

As a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from China, he found that learning magic tricks during elementary school helped him connect with his peers and express himself.

“Something that I felt like was really special about magic … was its ability to transcend all sorts of social and cultural barriers,” Wong said. “I loved that ability to just be able to connect with people that didn’t look like you, didn't talk like you, didn't come from where you came from, and how it's like instant connection.”

Over time, he started to see how it connected with his interest in becoming a physician.

In high school, he performed magic tricks for students with disabilities as part of an extracurricular group. While at Yale, he took a mission trip to Honduras — providing medical care in an underserved village — where he would perform tricks for the children and watch “their faces light up.”

It was “almost like spiritual therapy,” he said.

He also created and directed a magic therapy research initiative at Yale New Haven Hospital, teaching magic techniques as physical therapy to those recovering from hand surgery and injuries.

Wong graduated from Yale in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. He applied to medical school, starting at the University of Michigan Medical School in 2019 on a full scholarship.

But though he saw himself becoming a physician — and has a resume full of innovative research initiatives, a yearlong research fellowship in Japan, surgical internships and two years of medical school — Wong started to realize medicine might not be his ultimate path.

Helping students grow, decide their futures and getting them to see the “ignition of their latent potential” is what resonated with him, he said. He had been a mentor and coach for undergraduate students through a Yale alumni program, and had mentored disadvantaged high school students in Detroit.

“It’s so important for me to help as many people be able to find that part of themselves, to connect themselves to all the different possibilities, and to connect them with their most authentic self,” Wong said. “That is what I feel like my purpose is.”

Taking an “indefinite” break from medical school, Wong has started his own company: a storytelling and writing, coaching and consulting business focused on helping students craft personal statements to get into college. He also wants the business to tackle educational disparities with free or discounted services for those from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds, he said.

“As someone who also experienced a slew of discrimination and bullying in high school as a result of my sexual orientation as a gay man, race/ethnicity as a Chinese first-generation immigrant, and indirectly my low socioeconomic status, I have since devoted my life towards elevating these marginalized and disenfranchised communities I am a part of,” he said.

Wong wants his new venture to show students how to make “the impossible possible” and connect to others through storytelling — just like with magic.

​​“How can we turn that impossible mindset into something that's possible? And that's through creativity,” he said. “This is a natural extension of that, which I've been taught to embrace and to embody as a magician.”


Danielle DiGrazia: Taking a leap to make Grandpa proud

Danielle DiGrazia in 2012, left, and now.

Danielle DiGrazia in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Louis DiGrazia

High school: Holy Trinity High School, Hicksville

College: Fordham University

Today: Law student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

Lives in: Philadelphia

The pandemic upended many lives. For Danielle DiGrazia, it prompted a career change to her childhood dream.

In 2016 she graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor's in public accounting. By 2017, she'd received a master's in taxation from Fordham, become a CPA and begun her career in international tax at Deloitte in Manhattan.

She says she loved her four years there. But the pandemic gave her time to reassess her career for multiple reasons. Most important was timing.

"I was up for promotion, and I was going to be up for manager, so that's typically what they say is the pivotal point in an accounting career," whether you'll stay long term, she said.

If she didn't try making a move then, "I was probably just going to stay there and watch the opportunity go by" to leave, DiGrazia said.

She decided to go — to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. She took the LSAT at the last possible time, in January, to meet a spring deadline. She was committed to Villanova University's law school by mid-April 2021.

My grandpa actually always told me I was going to be a lawyer — he's the one who put it in my head.

— Danielle DiGrazia

"I really did feel like it was now or never, and I'm really glad I took the leap to do it," DiGrazia said. Before leaving for law school, she was promoted to manager at Deloitte.

Now the 27-year-old has finished her first year at Villanova.

"My grandpa actually always told me I was going to be a lawyer — he's the one who put it in my head," she explained. "As a kid, I was witty and wanted to be right all the time, but I was also calm and levelheaded. I loved learning and was constantly reading. I think some of those traits are what made him think I'd be a great lawyer one day."

DiGrazia said she wants to become a lawyer "to advocate for people and make a difference. I also wanted to make my grandpa and the rest of my family proud!"

Her experience at Holy Trinity in Hicksville has resonated in her career change. DiGrazia was busy in high school, playing three sports, participating in academic clubs, taking AP classes and being involved in the youth ministry.

"This experience taught me how to manage a busy schedule and balance various priorities," she said. "It also gave me the confidence to pursue my passions and not feel like I had to limit myself to one path, which is why I felt like I could transition from my accounting career to go back to law school."

Her advice for this year's graduating seniors reflects the same openness. DiGrazia encourages them "to enjoy these last few months and really explore your passions in college."

"It's important to keep an open mind and embrace change when things don't work out how you planned," she wrote. "Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you, put yourself out there, live authentically and be your own advocate. Work hard, but remember to have fun — four years will fly by (again)!"


Alex Sabella: He turned down job offers to start his own companies

Alex Sabella in 2012, left, and now.

Alex Sabella in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Nancy Sabella; Valentina Colletti

High school: West Hempstead High School

College: Stevens Institute of Technology

Today: Managing member and software engineer at DeX Group LLC and chief technology officer at Qudos Technologies Inc.

Lives in: West Hempstead

After Alex Sabella graduated with a master’s degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, he had full-time job offers — but he turned them down.

Instead, he decided to put his energy into growing a tech company focused on databases that he had started with a friend during college.

“It turns out my dreams and goals were slightly different than what my high school self could have predicted,” he said.

When he graduated from West Hempstead High School in 2012, Sabella was interested in science and math but didn’t know which path he would take. He went to Stevens to study chemical engineering, then switched to computer engineering. He graduated from Stevens in 2016 — also as valedictorian — and finished his master’s degree in systems engineering the next year.

That's when he and his friend who started that initial startup company — Savizar Inc., which built a product called DexterityDB — decided to dive into it full time. A year later, they started a different consulting business, called DeX Group, which focused on projects in the logistics industry. He's now a co-owner and a partner in that business.

A younger me thought I would have picked something safer and more stable, but I don’t regret the choices I’ve made or the risks I’ve taken.

— Alex Sabella

“Our main work has been centered around creating visualization and reporting systems for major logistics companies,” he said.

Shortly after, Sabella joined a tech startup — Qudos Technologies — as its part-time chief technology officer. There, he’s working on a technology platform to help local businesses compete with popular ride-sharing apps.

“I never thought I would be running my own business, nor did I think I would be a part of so many early stage companies,” he said. “A younger me thought I would have picked something safer and more stable, but I don’t regret the choices I’ve made or the risks I’ve taken.”

From age 3 to the end of high school, Sabella played baseball, which he says helped solidify a team mentality he has carried into his professional life. In the past decade, Sabella also met his fiancee, Valentina Colletti. They plan to get married next year.

The past 10 years have taught Sabella the importance of work-life balance, he said, and weighing practicality while pursuing his dreams.

As for advice to high school students graduating this year, he said to always be flexible and open. “Spend time figuring out what you enjoy the most, the thing that you don’t mind pouring hundreds or even thousands of hours into,” he said.


Brea Baker: Spare-time activism turned into a career 

Brea Baker in 2012, left, and now.

Brea Baker in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Brea Baker; Sydney Holmes

High school: Freeport High School

College: Yale University

Today: Writer and activist

Lives in: Georgia

Brea Baker never could have predicted her path after graduating from Freeport High School.

“Everything about my life has surprised me,” she said. “I didn’t even know a career like this was possible!”

She started out as a physics major at Yale on a premed track, with plans to become a cardiologist. But instead she “jumped headfirst into activism and student organizing,” and served as president of Yale’s NAACP chapter. She wound up switching majors to political science during her sophomore year. 

After graduating from Yale with a degree in political science, Baker said she became the youngest national organizer for the 2017 Women’s March, helping to lead its youth and college mobilization efforts. Seeing the turnout for the march and how the movement spread across the country, Baker said it showed her “so much is possible with the commitment to educating and mobilizing people towards action.”

After that, she started working as the executive assistant for Carmen Perez, executive director of The Gathering for Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, where she remains on the board.

“I always knew activism was my path, but I didn't realize it could be something I did outside of my spare time,” Baker said.

Since joining The Gathering for Justice full time in 2017, she's been a full-time activist, speaker and writer advocating for racial and gender justice. She’s also the chief equity officer for Inspire Justice, a social impact and creative firm.

"I facilitate DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and anti-racist training and development for leading media companies, consult on scripts and create original content with a social impact lens," she said. “It's exciting to work so closely with industry leaders on what stories to tell and how to tell them."

Baker is also a freelance writer whose writing on topics like race and gender has appeared in Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, and has spoken about her work for newscasts and at demonstrations and conferences. 

Don’t be limited by what older generations know to be true. Evolve as you see fit.

— Brea Baker

She's now working on a book with publisher One World about land theft and Black land ownership, aiming for publication in 2023.

Baker has also spent time over the past 10 years studying abroad — in Paris; Sydney, Australia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Ahmedabad, India; and Cape Town, South Africa.

In August, Baker married her wife, Mariah, in North Carolina.

As for Baker’s advice for high school students graduating this year?

“Follow your own path!” she said. “There are so many measures of success and ways to make a living, especially in the time of social media. Don’t be limited by what older generations know to be true. Evolve as you see fit.”


Luke Demas: Living in Malawi, he helped create its COVID-19 response plan

Luke Demas in 2012, left, and now.

Luke Demas in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Luke Demas; Tyler Smith

High school: Valley Stream Central High School

College: Harvard University

Today: MBA student at Yale School of Management

Lives in: New Haven, Connecticut

The past 10 years have taken Luke Demas to 36 countries — including living and working in Malawi when the pandemic hit.

When he accepted a yearlong position with the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Malawi in January 2020, he planned to work on the Advanced HIV Disease program there. But a few months later, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Although the uncertainty made him consider leaving, he decided to stay and continue his work. 

“Seeing their resilience and seeing how they didn’t have just this ejector button that they could press to leave their country really made me pause and think critically about why I was even there in the first place,” he said. “I was there to understand what it was like to be in one of these [donor-recipient] countries going through a health crisis.” 

Demas says he couldn’t have predicted such a path while he was at Valley Stream Central. He thought he wanted to go to medical school, but he changed his mind after talking with physicians about their experiences. He graduated from Harvard in 2016 with a bachelor’s in human developmental and regenerative biology and took a job at McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm.

In 2018, he wanted to pursue a role with a social impact, so he joined The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Geneva, where he lived for two years.

“I got to see how donor money is translated into the medicines, bed nets and infrastructure needed to help solve the world's greatest global health challenges,” he said.

A year later, he took the Clinton Health Access Initiative job, a position that became part of developing the COVID-19 response plan. There, he worked with the country’s Ministry of Health to evaluate how much personal protective equipment the country needed for a given period and to relay that information to organizations that could deliver it.

Over the years, Demas said, he’s had other adventures — he ran four marathons in a year (in New York City, Paris, Berlin and Athens) and flew a plane through the Swiss Alps while living in Geneva. 

Now he’s pursuing his master’s of business administration at Yale, planning to graduate in May 2023.

Demas said what most surprises him now is where his career has taken him — far beyond the "narrow conception" of what he imagined in high school.

“To me, a successful career required many years of schooling and a high-profile degree — the more letters after your name, the better!” he said. “In actuality, a fulfilled life is much more than the pursuit of accolades.”


Nicole Wildstein: She's focusing on 'the whole person'

Nicole Wildstein in 2012, left, and now.

Nicole Wildstein in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Nicole Wildstein

High school: Jericho High School

College: Washington University in St. Louis

Today: New doctoral degree graduate of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University; clinical psychology intern at Brooklyn College Personal Counseling Services

Lives in: Brooklyn 

When she graduated from high school, Nicole Wildstein "had no idea" what she wanted to do for her career. At 27, she just successfully defended her dissertation and graduated with a doctorate in clinical psychology.

“I couldn't be more excited to be Dr. Nicole Wildstein. I will be the first clinical doctor in my family on either side,” she said earlier.

“My career focuses on emotions and relationships, two things that are not directly taught in the classroom,” she said. “My journey through clinical psychology has drawn upon talents I don't think I would have realized I had as a teenager.”

In September she will start her postdoctoral fellowship, working as a therapist at the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Wildstein majored in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology at Washington University — “a fantastic interdisciplinary program” — and discovered her passion for studying the mind, brain and behavior.

Before her graduate studies, she took a year off from school, tutoring at C2 Education in her hometown.

“I knew that I had been blessed to receive a great education at Jericho, but I also knew that high school was immensely stressful and demanding,” she explained. “I wanted to help mitigate the stress of that time by working with students who wanted to improve their SAT and ACT scores. It was a great way to combine my interest in teaching, my academic talents and my love of working with adolescents.”

It will not be your achievements that end up being important in the end, but rather the whole person you become.

— Nicole Wildstein

Recently she taught as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College, and has been providing therapy to students there; her internship for the latter continues until late August.

“The most important lesson I've learned in the last decade is to always try to develop yourself as a full and complete person. It will not be your achievements that end up being important in the end, but rather the whole person you become,” Wildstein said.

To that end, she keeps up with hobbies — studio art, for example, which in free periods in high school “was a source of calm and respite from my demanding academic schedule.”

She has also gained a greater appreciation for and connection with her Jewish identity, becoming more involved with Moishe House, which brings together young Jewish adults. All of this, and friends, have helped Wildstein feel settled in New York City.

“I've learned to balance out my work life with fun, great friendships and community,” Wildstein said. “I still engage in hobbies that I had as a child, such as ice skating and painting, and these are the things that help me feel alive inside. I still have a love of learning, but I've learned to be more balanced overall, and I think that's critical to growing up and becoming an adult.”


Ramy Abbady: He’s been in school for the past 10 years

Ramy Abbady in 2012, left, and now.

Ramy Abbady in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Andrea Montalvo; Ramy Abbady

High school: West Babylon High School

College: Vassar College

Today: Doctoral student in the sociology of education, New York University

Lives in: Brooklyn

Since Ramy Abbady graduated from West Babylon High School, he’s spent much of the past decade in school.

He got his bachelor’s degree in education from Vassar College, then his master's at the University of San Francisco, the first person in his family to have gotten an advanced college degree. After graduating in 2018, he was an academic adviser for STEM undergraduates at San Francisco State University and at Stanford University, working in graduate student affairs and federal grant administration.

Now Abbady is back at school again — pursuing his doctorate in the sociology of education at New York University. 

“Being a student for so long has afforded me the flexibility to explore many aspects of life I might not otherwise have,” he said. “I've had the opportunity to live on both coasts and travel both the U.S. and world for both academic reasons and for pleasure, and doing so has greatly expanded my worldview and perspective.”

When Abbady graduated from high school, he aimed to study science — because he was good at it though not necessarily passionate about it, he said. He enrolled as a physics major at Vassar, but two years later, he switched paths to education and hasn’t “looked back since.”

“I realized that I wanted to be in a field where I could help improve people's lives,” he said.

“It was really a passion that I discovered during my undergrad that I didn’t even know I’d be so interested in, and it turned out to be the thing that really drives me,” he said.

Go see the world, however you can.

— Ramy Abbady

After getting his master’s degree and working in California, he returned to New York to start his doctoral program in 2020; he plans to complete it by spring 2025.

“Ideally, I want to be able to influence public policy around education,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

As for what he’d tell current valedictorians: “Go see the world, however you can,” he said.

“There's a whole world out there that's so different from Long Island, and you never know what you'll learn from meeting new people and having new experiences.”


Valerie Zeffiro: Road to medical career started in Dad’s office

  Valerie Zeffiro in 2012, left, and now.

  Valerie Zeffiro in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Dawn and Anthony Zeffiro; Valerie Zeffiro

High school: Sachem East High School, Farmingville

College: Siena College

Today: Physician assistant at Bethpage OB/GYN

Lives in: Rockville Centre

By the time Valerie Zeffiro was 5, she had memorized the names of most of the bones in the human body.

Her father, a physical therapist, had a model skeleton at his Bay Shore office and would teach her anatomy, she said — tutelage she would have liked to channel later, in college-level anatomy classes.

Those early memories attracted her to the medical field.

“As I grew older, I saw even clearer his passion for helping others and the medical field, and I was drawn to the profession in that way,” she said.

So after graduating from Sachem East High School, she chose Siena College for its BS/MD program, which allowed her to go directly to Albany Medical College upon graduation.

But while majoring in biology, she also started taking Spanish courses and traveled to Bilbao, Spain, in summer 2014 — and that changed everything for Zeffiro.

“Immersed in a new culture and language, I truly contemplated my professional career path and life interests,” she said. “One of the things that struck me the most was the people I met abroad; those who had various passions and found a way to make a life combining those interests.”

Instead of staying on the path to medical school, she decided to pursue a biology and Spanish dual-degree with the goal of becoming a physician assistant.

“The PA career attracted me because of its versatility, both geographically and specialty-wise, with so many possibilities for me to use my Spanish-language knowledge to help my future patients,” she said.

To fit in additional courses and prerequisites toward the new career path, she had to give up competitive swimming — something she’d done since she was 10 through high school and then on Siena's Division I team.

After graduating from Siena, she went to PA school at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and graduated in August 2018. She moved back to Rockville Centre right before the pandemic hit to be near family and began working as an obstetrics/gynecology PA in Bethpage.

She has also returned to the pool, she says, swimming two to three times a week.

Zeffiro says that when she looks back on the past 10 years, she thinks about how things might have been different had she stayed on her original path.

“This came with a lot of uncertainty, difficult times, additional work and perseverance. However, I would not change that decision for anything else,” she said.


Ray Kim: From top of the class to manager at ClassPass

Ray Kim in 2012, left, and now.

Ray Kim in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Hartaig Singh; Yoonji Han

High school: Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School

College: Harvard College

Today: Engineering manager at ClassPass

Lives in: Manhattan 

Ray Kim found out how one class can change your life.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduating from high school, so he went into college “mostly interested in psychology, applied math and economics.”

But at a Long Island event the spring of his senior year in high school, a Harvard alum recommended that he try CS50, the big, introductory computer science course there, in his first semester.

“I ended up taking it and it ended up changing the trajectory of my time at college and my career,” said Kim, 28.

Broadly speaking, my high school experience — mostly studying — was a lesson on the value of delayed gratification.

— Ray Kim

He concentrated in computer science, with a secondary in psychology. Since graduating from Harvard in 2016, he has worked in several tech hubs — in San Francisco and Seattle for Capital One, and in Manhattan for ClassPass, a fitness industry startup.

He began as an iOS engineer at ClassPass, was promoted to senior software engineer in 2020 and last fall became the engineering manager for the growth team. He lives in Manhattan’s financial district.

Looking back, Kim said, “Broadly speaking, my high school experience — mostly studying — was a lesson on the value of delayed gratification.”

“I sacrificed many things in high school to focus solely on studies and getting into the best school I felt I could get into,” he said. “I told myself freshman year that I would work as hard as I could and see what school I'd get into senior year. Turned out it was Harvard!”

Meanwhile, extracurriculars taught him “the value in enjoying the process as much as the outcome.”

One of his favorites was playing and composing for the piano. He had stopped piano when he was younger, bored with Classical music, but returned to it in high school, deciding to just learn pop songs he liked like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

“I found playing songs that I liked and eventually making my own songs so therapeutic after a long day at school. It made me appreciate how deeply happy I felt in a state of flow playing the piano,” Kim said. “I try now and again to tap into that flow state, both professionally and in my free time.”


Kiana Douglas: 'Twists and turns' in decade shaped by faith, marriage

Kiana Douglas in 2012, left, and now.

Kiana Douglas in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Sarah Frick

High school: Our Savior New American School, Centereach

College: U.S. Military Academy and University of Texas El Paso

Today: Quantitative research specialist at Compassion International

Lives in: Las Cruces, New Mexico

Kiana Douglas’ life since high school has been a complicated series of "life pivots."

“I knew what I wanted to do, but life took many twists and turns from there,” said Douglas, who thought she’d spend her first decade in the Army.

Because the Stony Brook native wasn't yet 17, she was too young at graduation to start at the U.S. Military Academy, so Kiana Frick, as she was known then, took a gap year — which was rich in experiences.

“In that year I rode my bicycle across America, worked, spent two months in France at a language school, and two months volunteering at an orphanage in West Africa,” Douglas wrote. “These experiences fed my love of adventure and made me a more confident and interesting person entering college and gave me international experiences (which led much later to my current job in the international development sector).”

Next came two years as a cadet at West Point.

I knew what I wanted to do, but life took many twists and turns from there.

— Kiana Douglas

Despite performing at the top of her class, she said, “I strongly felt that God's plan for my life was not for me to continue in the Army, so I left West Point, got married, moved to Georgia then to Texas.”

She met her husband, Micah, when they were both students at West Point. He graduated in 2014, and they married in 2015. They lived that year in Georgia and then Texas, after the Army sent him to Fort Bliss.

With him stationed there, Kiana transferred to the University of Texas El Paso, majoring in multidisciplinary studies and graduating in 2016 — and then got a master’s degree in economics and statistics at New Mexico State University, graduating in 2018. The couple bought their first home, in El Paso, when she was 20. Kiana also navigated Micah's deployment abroad and worked part time.

The route to her profession, analytics, came from a student job as a survey analyst at UT El Paso. “I have always enjoyed thinking deeply about situations and solving problems,” Douglas said, adding that an enjoyable blend of college classes led to her career, “which is very cross functional and requires a broad set of skills.”

After graduate school, Douglas worked as a data scientist at John Deere from 2018 to 2022 — first in Iowa, then Illinois and finally remotely from New Mexico. After the couple moved to New Mexico, she took her new job this year at Compassion International, a Christian nonprofit whose mission is to lift children out of poverty through sponsorships.

“This recent job change is the cherry on top to a litany of life pivots,” said Douglas, 26. “Moving into nonprofit work is not a route to fame or fortune, but it is engaging and meaningful work that makes use of my variety of life experiences from across the decade.”

Douglas said almost everything turned out in a way she could not have predicted. Then she turned to Scripture, quoting Proverbs 16:9: "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps."

She credits not only religious faith with shaping the past decade, but her almost seven years of marriage.

“Marriage does require balancing the life aspirations of two people, so that has certainly altered my life path from how it would have gone if I had not married at a young age,” Douglas said. “But it has been wonderful to have such an earlier start with my life partner, and I wouldn't change a thing.”


Kevin Konzelman: He set out for Delaware, and stayed

Kevin Konzelman in 2012, left, and now.

Kevin Konzelman in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Gab Tramantana; Brigid Konzelman

High school: Floral Park Memorial High School

College: University of Delaware

Today: Project engineer at Whitman, Requardt and Associates; focus is traffic engineering

Lives in: Wilmington, Delaware

What has most surprised Kevin Konzelman about his life over the past 10 years?

"I never thought I would end up living in Delaware," he said. "I always thought I would finish school and then move back to Long Island, but I have come to really like where I live in Delaware. A significant other and a great job will do that for you."

He attended the University of Delaware for undergraduate and graduate school, receiving his master's degree in transportation engineering in 2017. He began interning at Whitman, Requardt and Associates in 2015, after his junior year.

That was quite a year, as Konzelman also studied in Australia then — and he and his now-wife, Brigid, started dating on that study-abroad trip. They got married in October.

Konzelman mentions one more significant life experience in 2015: He volunteered with the National Relief Network to help hurricane victims in the New Orleans area demolish their condemned houses to begin the rebuilding process.

“You know, I never really considered just how pivotal 2015 was,” he said when asked about it. “I guess it comes down to that year being the final transition to adulthood.”

The 27-year-old credited Model U.N., an educational simulation, as “instrumental in helping me break out of my shell as an introverted teen. I learned how to hold discussions with those who see me antagonistically, speak in front of a crowd, and understand complex world events.”

Along with his high school job at a ski shop, he said, it “taught me how to take technical information and convey it to laymen without coming across as condescending or out-of-touch. This skill is extremely important in my field as an engineer who frequently works with the public on projects.”

Konzelman said in the past decade he “learned how to tone down self-imposed stress and rigor” in his studies and work to create the lifestyle he wants. 

He has also “learned to make decisions for my own sake and not just to appease others.” Delaware figures into this. He said while touring colleges, he realized that an Ivy League school and career as a doctor or lawyer weren't right for him.

“My choice in college was an outlier relative to what people expected for me, and I heard no shortage of comments about it following college decision day. It even led me to doubt myself over the following months,” he wrote. “However, I received an excellent education, met longtime friends who I had so much in common with (including my amazing wife), and I had unique experiences that I learned are only available there.” 

Konzelman has no regrets — and “can't imagine my life having chosen differently. It drove home the lesson for me that I need to trust my own research and my own intuition when making important decisions, and I have been able to apply that mindset to big life decisions I've made over the past 10 years.”


Nilam Patel: A New Yorker shaped by a love of running

Nilam Patel in 2012, left, and now.

Nilam Patel in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Nilam Patel

High school: East Meadow High School

College: Barnard College

Today: Strategy and consulting manager at Accenture

Lives in: Manhattan

Nilam Patel considers it a "badge of honor" to have spent the past decade studying and living in Manhattan.

“I would have never thought I would seek out going to college in a city, let alone end up spending a decade here and embracing the corporate career,” Patel said.

The 28-year-old Barnard graduate is more than five years into her career at Accenture, where she works in its life sciences research and development practice, serving pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

At Barnard she majored in chemistry, aiming for a doctorate in the subject, and spent summers in chemistry and applied physics research laboratories. But “the pace of academia was ultimately not the best fit as I wanted to see a larger scale and more immediate application of my work,” Patel said.

The most impactful high school experience that’s shaped her was being on East Meadow’s cross country and track team. Patel said her coach instilled the “love for a sport and the accompanying community that has become a core part of my identity and lifestyle.” And it was there that she embraced running’s competitive spirit.

She learned about putting in consistent effort and adopting “a more resilient and gritty mindset,” to always strive to push herself “to achieve more than I think I am capable of.” At the same time, she said, “my teammates inspired and encouraged me to become a better version of myself each day.”

In college, she turned to the New York City running community to find a sense of home and belonging. She was president of the Columbia Road Runners Club, where she was exposed to road racing, and the New York Road Runners community. Later, running grounded her while traveling for work as a consultant at Accenture.

She’s now a captain of the New York chapter of Midnight Runners, who run in the evening. The global running club has taken her to London, Los Angeles and Berlin, among other cities.

Patel is also a fellow in On Deck Health, a global community of people who want to shape the future of health care through technology, and was an early adviser to Mandala, which was founded by a friend as a "belonging & well-being platform built by & for BIPOC,” or Black, indigenous and people of color.

“As a child of an immigrant family, wellness and mental health services were not well-promoted and did not feel accessible to me,” she said. “I was drawn to the mission of creating a sense of belonging and resilience through community and social connection, especially during a period where many were affected by a global pandemic and significant social and economic unrest.”


Rachel Lawrence: Math whiz breaks 'the mold' to work in tech

Rachel Lawrence in 2012, left, and now.

Rachel Lawrence in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Cindy Lawrence

High school: Comsewogue High School, Port Jefferson Station

College: Yale College

Today: Doctoral candidate in computer science at University of California, Berkeley

Lives in: Berkeley, California

Growing up, Rachel Lawrence said she never thought of herself as a “computer person.”

Fast forward 10 years, and she’s almost completed her doctorate in theoretical computer science at UC Berkeley. 

“Despite all my interests in STEM, I didn't think of myself as a ‘computer person’ when I was younger,” she said, “so it's ironic that this is where I ended up.”

Lawrence describes being “really into math” in high school — she was on the math and robotics teams and took extra classes at Stony Brook University when she “ran out” of courses at Comsewogue. But it wasn’t until taking classes at Yale that she realized she could pursue a career in “the mathematics of computer science.”

“I became really fascinated by the problems you could solve there: You can have real-world impact by working on abstract problems that get to the core of mysteries about mathematics and computation,” she said.

She graduated from Yale with a degree in applied mathematics and a concentration in computer science. She interned with Pixar Studios right after, then took a job as a software engineer at Reservoir Labs, a research company in Manhattan. But, she said, she wanted to pursue her own research projects.

So she applied to and was accepted to UC Berkeley to pursue her doctorate. There, she said she's working on "studying dynamical systems that describe the way complex networks of chemical chain reactions behave, and how we can use our understanding of these systems to design more efficient computational algorithms." Her tentative completion date is May 2023.

Computer science is for anyone who wants to learn it, at any time.

— Rachel Lawrence

Over the past 10 years, Lawrence said, she's come to better understand one doesn't "need to fit the mold to work in tech" as a woman who was not involved in coding from a young age. There is really no set mold for what a "computer person" is now, she said — "computer science is for anyone who wants to learn it, at any time."

Lawrence credits Comsewogue with helping to shape the path she's on, with such activities as math competition teams, research opportunities at Brookhaven National Lab, FIRST robotics and AP computer science. She’s now involved with service organizations that support tutoring, outreach, advocacy and education programs for students, especially those who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

“I was incredibly lucky to have such wonderful friends, mentors and role models at Comsewogue. My parents in particular gave me immeasurable support and inspiration to succeed in school, pursue my interests and become the person I am today,” she said.

“Many young women don't get this kind of encouragement to pursue science and math, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to have such positive formative experiences.”


Matthew Peterson: Lawyer thankful for lessons from 4 English teachers and a band teacher

Matthew Peterson in 2012, left, and now.

Matthew Peterson in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Barbara Peterson; Federica Brecha

High school: Great Neck North High School

College: Duke University

Today: Associate at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP

Lives in: Washington, D.C.

A decade on, Matthew Peterson attributes much of his success in life to his high school teachers. 

“I am so grateful for the incredible teachers at Great Neck North High School,” he said. “My English teachers — Ms. Post, Mr. Griffin, Mr. Gilden and Mr. Honig — provided me with an incredible foundation of writing skills. Their training served me well as a public-policy major, and I continue to build upon what they taught me as a litigator.”

Peterson also thanked his high school band teacher, who is retiring this year.

“Playing music under Mr. Rutkowski taught me important lessons about discipline and patience which were invaluable as I navigated college and my professional career,” the 28-year-old said. “Importantly, Mr. Rutkowski helped me see the beauty of music, which still serves as a nice outlet for relaxation during stressful times.”

Peterson became president of the Duke University Marching Band. During his time in the band, he also played the clarinet at Yankee Stadium and at three NFL stadiums.

One step on his career path was his college internship with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.

“While in D.C., I was struck by the inordinate amount of gridlock in Congress. It amazed me that over 80% of the population supported universal background checks for gun purchases, but Congress still could not pass a common sense gun safety law,” Peterson said. “As a result, I started to think about how one might be able to spur more social change through the courts, as compared to through Congress.”

At Duke, he enjoyed undergraduate moot court team and prelaw classes, leading him to New York University School of Law, from which he graduated in 2021. With classes all virtual because of COVID, he spent his third year of law school in Salt Lake City, where his longtime girlfriend was a medical student.

Be kind to yourself as you go forward in life.

— Matthew Peterson

Peterson offered heartfelt advice for 2022 high school graduates.

“Be kind to yourself as you go forward in life,” he said. “Most people are their own harshest critic, and I think it is important to reiterate that when you hit a bump in the road, you should understand that struggling at one time or another is part of life.

“You should not feel weak and ashamed of your personal struggles.”

Although Peterson acknowledged growing up “with tremendous privilege" in Great Neck, he has had smaller struggles, like not being accepted at his preferred undergraduate and law school choices. Another struggle he confronted was adapting to his first postgrad job in sales for Oracle Corp., where he was given a sales territory that historically did not do much business with the company.

Yet, he said, “navigating my sales job and receiving tons of sales-pitch rejections served to be a blessing in disguise — it prepared me for law school where it is impossible to know every answer."


Ribu Mathew: Pandemic made for 'moments that I will never forget' 

Ribu Mathew in 2012, left, and now.

Ribu Mathew in 2012, left, and now. Credit: Ribu Mathew

High school: Elwood-John H. Glenn High School

College: Stony Brook University

Today: Internal medicine resident physician at Stony Brook University Hospital

Lives in: Selden

Ribu Mathew graduated from medical school in 2020 — just after the pandemic began.

Not surprisingly, he says his most significant experience of the past decade has been working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having to treat very sick patients and witnessing death, uncertainty and emotional turmoil on a daily basis was unlike anything I have ever seen before,” said Mathew, 27. “Talking to family members and giving them bad news are among some of the moments that I will never forget.”

He graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in biology in 2016, and Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia in May 2020. He started his residency at Stony Brook University Hospital that July.

"The busiest times were probably in December and January, and a large portion of patients coming into the hospital were COVID positive,” Mathew said of the pandemic's second big wave, which he recalled began in November. “It was definitely a lot of hard work, but I think most hospitals were more prepared since this was the second time this was happening.”

Still, residency is already tough, he said, “and adding a pandemic on top of that made it even more of an adjustment.”

“The hardest part about the whole experience has been taking care of the sickest COVID patients in the ICU who have multiple medical comorbidities, making them the most likely to pass away," Mathew said. "Even if we were providing all of the possible treatments, sometimes it still wasn't enough. Working during the heights of the pandemic was mentally and emotionally taxing, but I think it also prepared me to take on other challenges during my medical training.”

Growing up, Mathew said, he always knew he wanted to become a doctor. His mother, an ultrasound technologist, “would tell me stories about different doctors that she had encountered. Hearing these tales fascinated me from a young age, and I wanted to become like the doctors I had heard about,” he said.

His biggest surprise of these 10 years? Coming back to Stony Brook for residency. Mathew, now in his second year, plans to specialize in endocrinology.

He said he's learned “to always make time to spend with your family and friends, no matter how busy things may get. It is so important to continue to do the things that you enjoy, otherwise you can get unhappy and burn out quickly.

"It's all about balance.”


Angie Chiraz: Software engineer continued dance from NJ to LA

Angie Chiraz graduated as valedictorian from Smithtown High School West in 2012. In the past decade, she studied at Princeton University, became a senior software engineer at Pluto and has continued to dance everywhere she's lived. Credit: Angie Chiraz, MJ Abiva, Robert Chiraz, Christopher Paek

High school: Smithtown High School West

College: Princeton University

Today: Senior software engineer at Pluto 

Lives in: Queens

Over the past 10 years, Angie Chiraz said two things have surprised her about her life: She became a software engineer, and she’s continued dancing.

“In high school, I felt like people saw me as a nerd who happened to dance,” she said. “But in college, I felt like people saw me as a dancer who happened to be an engineering major.”

When she graduated from high school, Chiraz thought she wanted to study chemical and biomedical engineering. At Princeton, she ended up liking computer science courses the most.

“I never saw myself as a programmer, mostly because the media gives off a very rigid image of a computer scientist,” Chiraz said.

After college, she joined Comcast Corp.'s software engineer rotational program, working at the NBCUniversal Technology Center in New Jersey, at DreamWorks Animation in Los Angeles and then with Comcast Experience Design in Manhattan.

Although collaborating with designers and researchers in her last rotation “was a game-changer” and allowed her to exercise creativity, Chiraz said she was surprised to see a lack of representation of women in the field and diversity in general.

“I wanted my everyday work to reflect more of what I hoped to see in the industry,” she said.

In May 2021, Chiraz got an offer to join Pluto, a platform that helps organizations assess and push forward diversity, inclusion and equity in the workplace and elsewhere. There were only two employees at the time — the CEO and COO — and Chiraz became its first senior software engineer and has been working there since.

While breaking into the industry, she has continued dancing, which was a big part of her life growing up and in high school. She joined a dance group in college, participated in dance troupes everywhere she’s lived since then, and has taught and judged adult dance competitions.

It's an avocation that led to a pivotal moment in 2019: She made it onstage with popular Korean boy band BTS at its sold-out MetLife Stadium concerts and got to pick 19 other local dancers to participate.

“It was surreal, literally Saturday and Sunday performing at MetLife Stadium with BTS onstage,” she said. “Being able to dance with BTS, also with people I know and admire, was really special.”