Long Island's 2013 high school valedictorians: 10 years later
Resilience and recovery. Finding love. Living in new places — and discovering more of themselves.
Those are some of the themes we found in the lives of these Long Island valedictorians in the 10 years since they graduated. They showed they were the best academically in their high schools. What stands out since 2013 is what they have learned from life.
They are in medicine, tech, space engineering and art. One is a nurse but spends more time these days on her dad's pool business. Four have graduate degrees, and two more are in master's programs.
From near and far, East Coast to West Coast, here are the stories of a dozen Long Island valedictorians, a decade later.
Katy Binder: Forging past brain surgery, 'happier than I've ever been'
High school: Shelter Island School
College: Villanova University
Today: Manager at Binder Pools, registered nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital
Lives on: Shelter Island
Growing up, Katy Binder couldn't wait to leave Shelter Island.
"Almost every kid who grows up on Shelter Island is waiting for the day they graduate from high school and can move away, 'get off the island,' " Binder said, describing life there as slow and safe. "I was no exception."
But at 24, Binder — who initially studied physics at Villanova University before switching to its college of nursing — was living in San Diego and working as a nurse when she started losing her hearing. An MRI revealed the culprit: a "large tumor shoved right between my brain stem and cerebellum," she said.
Binder quickly flew back to New York and met with several doctors. She waited two months, after her older brother's wedding, to have surgery — hanging out in "an anticipatory, purgatory state." The eight-hour-long operation took out 90% of the tumor. It took six months to recover.
An atypical tumor, it was expected to grow back. In July 2021, nearly two years after her surgery, doctors realized it was growing again, so Binder had one-time radiation that October.
"Since then I've been great. I'm not as coordinated as I once was, but no one would ever know that I had brain surgery, if I didn’t tell you," said Binder, now 28.
But while mostly physically recovered, Binder has found her life has changed drastically since that MRI in 2019.
The diagnosis "afforded me a new perspective on life and made it very clear what and who are important to me. ... Ultimately, this experience brought me closer to my family and friends, and for that I am very thankful," she said.
At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Binder began working at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital as a registered nurse. Later she was a medical/surgical nurse in Philadelphia at Penn Medicine's Pennsylvania Hospital, and then joined a home hospice agency.
"It only took a few months of hospice work to make me want to move back home to be close to family," said Binder.
While once she yearned to leave, Binder realized she didn't need to escape where she grew up.
"It's a good life on Shelter Island. When you're an adult you realize that it's an enjoyable way to live," she said — even if it's a little boring.
Now Binder and her younger brother are learning the ins and outs of the pool business, before they take it over from their dad someday. She has also returned to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, where she works part-time.
Ten years later, "I'm back on Shelter Island and happier than I've ever been," she said.
Harry Fotopoulos: Hampton Bays to Hollywood, with love
High school: Hampton Bays High School
College: Boston University
Today: Talent agent, Creative Artists Agency
Lives in: Los Angeles
It's a plotline worthy of Tinseltown: Quit your job so you can pursue the woman who becomes the love of your life.
That's what Harry Fotopoulos did, and you could say it worked out.
He and Stephanie Elliott met in 2017 when they were assistants at the Gersh Agency. They were friends for a time, and then interested in each other romantically, but before it got too far along, she said she didn't want to date a co-worker, Fotopoulos said.
"So I ended up leaving and then asking her out a week later, and then we've been together for five years," he said. They married in August 2022. Their wedding theme: "When Harry Met Stephanie."
They are both talent agents — he at Creative Artists Agency, she at United Talent Agency.
His 2018 job switch had happened quickly.
"I decided I wanted to leave on a Monday, called a friend of mine at CAA and sent over my resume," Fotopoulos recalled. "Had an interview on Tuesday, got the job on Wednesday, background check cleared Thursday, and left Gersh on Friday!"
He joined CAA as a talent assistant, became an agent trainee, and then a talent agent in 2021.
Fotopoulos, 27, represents actors and specializes in television opportunities. His clients include Minnie Driver, Patrick J. Adams ("Suits") and Peyton List ("Bunk'd," "Cobra Kai").
"The best part about this job is you never do the same thing every day, truly," Fotopoulos said.
He describes himself as "a little bird of a nerd" — into comics, Marvel and superheroes.
"Now I put people into Marvel projects," he said. "It screams to my inner child."
Fotopoulos graduated from Boston University in 2017 with a business administration degree. He studied abroad in Australia, interning at a tech startup, and in New Zealand, where he was an intern at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. That included getting people to come in the door off the street for shows.
"I was pretty good at it," he said.
One of the draws of Boston University was its entertainment program in Los Angeles, he said.
"So my last semester, I actually packed up my stuff and came out here to start interning at a few talent agencies and take courses at night. It was awesome and led to my first full-time job," he said.
Fotopoulos said being a talent agent is challenging because it is more of a lifestyle than a job. Even watching television, you're really working, he said: "My agent brain is still on."
Rena Nanan: 'Thank goodness I pulled through'
High school: Central Islip High School
College: New York University
Today: Clinical coordinator for Summit Health's operational excellence team
Lives in: Central Islip
Rena Nanan nearly died of COVID-19 — in 2019.
"I actually got COVID before anyone knew it was here," said Nanan, 27.
Nanan was a healthy 24-year-old when she mysteriously fell ill in October 2019, she said. She had double pneumonia, couldn't breathe without being given oxygen, had fevers that wouldn't break and went up to 105 degrees, and bled from her nose and ears.
"It was definitely a scary time for me because I couldn't even put a name to what I had," she said.
"Thank goodness I pulled through," Nanan said.
Nanan was sick from October to December 2019, she said. She eventually got better — but as she did, the pandemic hit and life got harder once again.
At the time, Nanan, a registered nurse, was working in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's emergency and critical care department.
"We were all helpless against this, and we had no idea what we were getting into," said Nanan, who used the same N-95 mask for three months. "I wore that thing until it was falling apart."
Nanan graduated from New York University in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in nursing. She said her "passion in life is being a humanitarian and continuously helping others." Her significant life experiences in the last decade have included "traveling abroad to provide medical care to underprivileged and impoverished communities in Honduras, Nicaragua, Argentina, Italy, and other various countries."
Nanan went into nursing because she loves taking care of people. But during the pandemic, she realized she couldn't leave them better than how she found them anymore.
"It was the first time you're up against something you were helpless against," said Nanan. "Deep down inside, as much hope as you had, you didn't have a good feeling," she added.
Even today, Nanan said when she hears a ventilator going off she has "automatic PTSD" from all the patients she lost and all those memories.
Nanan worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering for four years, getting "a strong clinical and leadership foundation" in health care. Next she became a nursing supervisor and administrator at Stony Brook Medicine, and in March joined Summit Health, where she continues to "climb the ladder."
Despite all the challenges of the pandemic, Nanan doesn't regret her time as a nurse. She and her colleagues rallied together, and everyone had each other's backs, she said.
"We all sacrificed to help humanity," she said. "It was one of my most traumatic, yet rewarding life experiences, that if needed I would do again in a heartbeat."
Young Il Chung: Connected to the past, embracing the present
High school: St. Mary's High School, Manhasset
College: New York Institute of Technology
Today: Second-year family medicine resident at Northside Hospital Gwinnett
Lives in: Duluth, Georgia
Young Il Chung said he had not realized 10 years had passed since graduation until Newsday called.
"I still remember that day when I was on the podium doing [my] graduation speech," he said.
At the same time, the "fact that I am standing where I wanted to stand 10 years ago excites me the most," Chung said.
The 28-year-old — who has wanted to pursue a career in medicine since he was little — works as a doctor near Atlanta. He said he likes the broad spectrum of family medicine and building core relationships with patients.
Chung was born in South Korea and came to the United States in the fourth grade, moving to Great Neck in sixth. As an undergraduate he majored in biology at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, graduating in 2016. He also attended NYIT for medical school, receiving that degree in 2021.
At that point Chung had lived on Long Island for most of his life and wanted to be somewhere else for residency. He also sought a place with a Korean population.
He wound up in Georgia and specifically Gwinnett, a growing, diverse county. Chung said it is similar to Long Island — access to the city when you need it, but also offering the quiet life of the suburbs.
He has also discovered new foods living in Georgia.
"I never knew about grits. I didn't know what the texture of it was when I first tried it," he said, explaining that it reminded him of oatmeal but tasted different. He's also glad he tried chicken and waffles, which he enjoys. "The fried food, they're really big on it."
His greatest supporters and mentors have been his parents, Chung said.
Among his lessons of the past decade, Chung said he has learned to take a "little bit of adventure in daily life while doing what I need to do."
Another lesson? "There will be struggles, but these struggles are what it means to be alive," he said.
Krystal Ramsamooj: Finding her people — and a quiet life in Albany
High school: Comsewogue High School
College: Boston University
Today: Resident physician at Albany Medical Center
Lives in: Albany
Krystal Ramsamooj talks about finding "your people" in every stage of life.
"Sometimes they are there for a lifetime, and others for a season. I have been blessed with both types of relationships and it has enriched my experience," said Ramsamooj, 27, who has "made incredible relationships in the past decade."
Though she always had really close friends she could rely on — like her middle-school best friend, whom she still communicates with constantly and visits when she goes home — as a child she was not very social, Ramsamooj said. She began to find herself more in high school and college.
As a resident, finding her people has become hard again, as she works 60 to 70 hours a week.
Ramsamooj, who is from Port Jefferson Station, completed her premed training at Boston University, where she graduated early with a neurobiology degree in 2016. Then she worked at two biotech companies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for two years before returning to Long Island for medical school at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. After graduating in 2022, she began training to be a neurologist, at Albany Medical Center.
Ramsamooj said medicine "puts you in a unique position to experience things others typically do not. It gives an appreciation for life and the body. I have seen births, deaths, and the life in between, and I am humbled by it."
She said she likes Albany "because it is quiet." The nature is beautiful, and she enjoys visiting state parks, doing Pilates and yoga, and reading.
"I never thought I would end up in Albany. Kind of just where the tides took me," Ramsamooj said. "But I always knew that it was going to be something in science and medicine, so I'm really proud that I got to this point."
Nick Fiacco: 10 years in the making, a startup dream becomes a reality
High school: Manhasset High School
College: Dartmouth College
Today: Co-founder at Fabra, a tech startup
Lives in: San Francisco
Nick Fiacco met Cole Cable freshman year at Dartmouth College. Ten years later, the friends have a fledgling startup on the West Coast.
"We'd always kind of joke and toss ideas around about starting a company while we were in college, and I never thought we'd get to the point where we were actually doing it, and now we’re almost a year in," Fiacco said. "So it's been great."
In July, the two officially started Fabra, which helps B2B SaaS (software as a service) companies import data from their users.
Fabra was accepted into the startup accelerator Y Combinator, which comes with $500,000 in investment funding.
Fiacco said he has found the Y Combinator community to be "super helpful."
"The hardest thing when starting your own company is knowing whether you're failing or not, and every day kind of feels like you're failing. You have nothing to benchmark yourself against, and there's no one to tell you that you're doing things correctly. And it's hard," said Fiacco, 28. "So being around a community of ... really smart, driven people who are also starting startups, I think really helps you juxtapose and be able to say OK, we're not super far off the path, or we're on the path."
That keeps the motivation and confidence high, which is the most important thing when starting a company, especially in tech, Fiacco said.
"It's all about momentum. Basically the only thing that kills a startup when it's just starting out is the founders giving up," he said.
Fiacco gave a shoutout to his Manhasset High School math teacher Mr. Cruz — Brandon Cruz — who introduced him to computer science. He said that "really kick-started the whole thing for me."
At Dartmouth, he fell in love with building software. After graduating in 2017, he worked as a software engineer at Amazon Web Services for a few years in Boston. He moved to San Francisco in late 2019, looking for interesting startups, and found Bolt, which he joined in January 2020.
"I was super-interested in starting my own company, and wanted to see what the organizations look like at that smaller scale," Fiacco said.
During his time at Bolt, the company grew from 100 to more than 1,000 employees, and Fiacco said he grew personally as he moved from engineering to product management.
So far, Fabra has a much smaller operation.
"It’s just the two of us right now," Fiacco said. "We're trying to stay super lean for as long as possible."
Sarah Weesner: Artist learns about herself and the 'fragility of life'
High school: Smithtown Christian School
College: Liberty University
Today: Adjunct professor at Liberty University, freelance artist
Lives in: Vista, California
Sarah Weesner was definitely a high-achieving student. But perhaps her most profound lessons have come from facing adversity.
In 2019, after working at a breakneck speed to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from Liberty University in Virginia, Weesner was new to being a wife, new to the West Coast — and in the hospital with her husband, Micah, who was sick with leukemia.
Suddenly, she said, "life took a huge slowdown."
The experience took a toll on her, both as a wife and as an artist.
"It was so hard to create or produce anything in that time because I was hurting so bad," she said.
But facing hard things does something for you, she said.
"You walk away with self-awareness and pride and confidence, and those are things that school achievements and accomplishments can't always get you," Weesner said.
Now, after a grueling three-year battle with a rare form of leukemia, Micah Weesner is in remission.
"Between a worldwide pandemic and cancer, this decade has introduced me to the fragility of life and we are determined to live it to the fullest!" said Sarah Weesner, who is 28.
Formerly Sarah Casmass, she grew up in Bay Shore and went to Smithtown Christian School from third grade on. In high school, she developed as an academic, athlete, artist and person of faith.
"My extracurriculars taught me how to balance more than one aspect of life and learn how I wanted to prioritize it all," she said. "And isn't that the greatest skill to obtain as a professional these days?"
At Liberty, Weesner worked even harder, double majoring in studio art and education and minoring in psychology and photography. She graduated in 2017 and went right into the master of fine arts program.
She and Micah, her college sweetheart, got engaged. She then accelerated her master's degree program, completing it in 2019, because Micah was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and they were going to move.
After his diagnosis, Micah eventually medically retired from the Marine Corps. He got his master's degree, and now works in the intelligence field for Booz Allen Hamilton.
The couple love traveling, especially hitting up national parks, and have visited Aruba and Mexico.
"It's been quite a full decade, and our life mission is to continue serving our Savior, our military community, and our community as we move forward into the next 10 years," Weesner said.
She teaches art online at Liberty. She thought remote teaching would be awful, but "it has turned out to be amazing. I actually really, really enjoy it."
Weesner also launched an interior design firm called Ennteriors and has pursued freelance art, as well as film and digital photography. She just started modeling, and has been invited to New York Fashion Week in September.
The biggest challenge she's faced in the last 10 years is something internal: her own expectations. What has served her time and again are the values her plans were built on, she said.
"Like so many, I'm sure, I had my fair share of existential crises where I wondered if what I was pursuing was valuable or enough. But trial and trauma have been the most tender teachers," showing that the person most disappointed by her insecurities is herself. "You owe it to yourself to be dedicated to what fulfills you — no matter what that may be."
She added, "How you learn to face yourself and hold your expectations loosely, is what helps you to actually live a life of meaning, purpose, and without regret."
Vincent Sheppard: Designing satellites, and a life, in California
High school: East Islip High School
College: Cornell University
Today: Spacecraft mechanical engineer, Millennium Space Systems
Lives in: Los Angeles County
Vincent Sheppard is a lot like the satellites he helps design.
Much like the satellites — which must survive the "fairly violent process of being launched from Earth into space" — Sheppard made his own risky journey last year when he moved across the country, relocating from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to California. He was driven by a desire to work on space hardware.
"It took a leap of faith to move so far from my family and friends, but [I] felt that if I had never tried I would regret not knowing what might have been," he said. And doing so "was only going to get harder" as time went on and he got more commitments.
The 27-year-old is glad he did, calling California "an incredible place to live." He's in Los Angeles County, just outside the city limits. A lot of space engineering is happening now, much of it in his figurative backyard, he said.
"A lot of engineers and a lot of entertainment professionals out here, which is different" and really cool, Sheppard said. In fact, there's a musical theater troupe composed of aerospace engineers, their friends and family in his area.
Sheppard majored in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, where he focused on aerospace courses and hands-on experience. He graduated in 2017, earning a master's in mechanical engineering at Cornell that December.
He was initially discouraged after being turned down by many top choices in his job hunt out of college, he said. But in 2018 he landed a role with Lutron Electronics, just outside Allentown, where he designed manufacturing equipment to build consumer and commercial electronics. There he was able to get "the experience and professional growth that I needed to leverage into a better position a few years later working on things I've always wanted to be a part of," Sheppard said.
In February 2022 he joined Millennium Space Systems, which is owned by Boeing.
In California, Sheppard has also reconnected to his longtime passion of making music with others.
He played percussion beginning at the age of 7 — including performing at two Buffalo Bills games and a pair of Canadian Football League games in Montreal with the Cornell University marching band.
But after college, "to have done something for my whole life and then not have been able to do it, really stunk."
Now, Sheppard performs in two classical music groups — the El Segundo Concert Band and the South Bay Wind Ensemble — and has found a thriving community music scene. Having opportunities to play with other dedicated, talented musicians is awesome, Sheppard said.
"In high school I was very heavily involved in the music department, and that love of making music with a group has had a tremendous impact on my life since then. I went on to join multiple ensembles in college where I met my closest friends to this day," he said.
Amanda Levenberg: Gratitude for 'second chance' after surgery
High school: Jericho High School
College: Duke University
Today: Vice president of quantitative and derivative strategies in Morgan Stanley's Institutional Equity Division
Lives in: Manhattan and West Hartford, Connecticut
Amanda Levenberg's professional path has been unusual — because it has followed "somewhat of a straight line."
Levenberg, 28, learned the value of applied math in a class at Jericho High School, and later "absolutely fell in love" with statistics. She majored in statistical science at Duke.
Once she graduated in 2017, she joined Morgan Stanley's quantitative and derivative strategies team full time — and has been on it ever since.
Levenberg said she has continued to enjoy her role because she's constantly being challenged, and can work with people around the globe, in and out of the company.
"My team applies data science/quantitative analysis to equities and equity-linked products," she said. "The equity landscape is constantly evolving, which is very exciting."
Levenberg became a vice president in January.
Her significant life experiences in the last decade include studying abroad junior year in Florence, Italy, and her marriage in 2022. "My husband Alex is not only my best friend but also tremendously supportive of me and my career," she said.
In 2019, at 24, Levenberg underwent major back surgery, which she said was "terrifying." The operation was a last resort after a vertebra became unset and her back pain impacted her quality of life.
"I had spinal fusion, during which the doctors replaced a disk in my back that sat between two vertebrae, and they then fused the two vertebrae together with four metal screws and two metal rods. I had to take a month and a half off of work, and the full recovery took about 6 months," Levenberg said.
Levenberg can do all of the physical things that "a normal 28-year-old should be able to do." She's been on a jet ski, and is able to run, though that’s not the best for her; she does yoga and goes to the gym.
She said she is extremely thankful for modern medicine and technological advances, and prioritizes taking care of her physical and emotional well-being.
Referring to her surgery, she said, "I just feel very grateful to live in a time and in a society where that was an option for me, and where I have been given a second chance."
Sara Stiklickas: A career comes from one short course
High school: H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square
College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Today: Senior software engineer, Veeva Systems
Lives in: Boston
Leaving high school, Sara Stiklickas figured she'd become an engineer or go to medical school. Computer science wasn't on her radar — until, that is, one course in college changed the path of her life.
"Some friends and I took an intro programming course in Python, and that was a lot of fun, and I thought maybe this is the way to go and I'll try it out," said Stiklickas, who ultimately majored in computer science and engineering at MIT.
The summer before senior year she interned with GE in a Chicago suburb. After graduating in 2017, she joined a two-year rotational leadership program with GE Digital to get experience in different areas of software engineering. She was on four different teams for six months each — in Boston, the Bay Area and finally Milwaukee.
Stiklickas said it was great to be able to form a network of her peers. There were about 200 new graduates in the program. "Everyone was the same age, and everyone was going through the same thing, so it was an easy way to form fast friends wherever you were," she said.
Possibly her favorite part of the experience was her year living in Oakland, California and working in nearby San Ramon.
"It was cool to get to see what the culture of the Bay Area is like, and how things are different in California," she said. "And the weather of course was really nice, and just getting experience out there, I think, was cool."
While in California in 2018 she began dating her boyfriend, whom she now lives with.
After the program, Stiklickas moved into a permanent role at GE headquarters back in Boston, at AiRXOS, which felt like a startup but was under the umbrella of GE Aviation, she said. "It was a company where we built software for planning drone operations," she explained.
But it was undone by the pandemic. COVID impacted AiRXOS' funding source because GE Aviation gets much of its income from manned aviation and commercial flight, Stiklickas said. AiRXOS "basically just dissolved at the end of 2020 because we didn't have any more funding."
After that unexpected layoff, Stiklickas landed at Veeva Systems, which builds software for digital clinical trials. She is a front-end developer for web applications.
"I really love my team, so I think it worked out for the best," she said.
Asked for something quirky about herself, the 27-year-old shared that she really likes to play foosball. She was in the same dorm all four years at MIT, and it had a foosball table right outside the dining hall.
"My friends and I, every day after dinner, would play foosball for an hour. And we ended up getting really good at it," she said.
They formed an intramural team, prevailing as league champions her senior year.
"Any time I see a foosball table, I'm asking people to play," Stiklickas said. "Then usually when they find out that I was an intramural champion in college, they get scared."
Neil Khosla: Developing 'a global perspective'
High school: East Meadow High School
College: Columbia University
Today: MBA student, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Lives in: Evanston, Illinois
After living in East Meadow until the day he left for college, Neil Khosla has had a decade of adventure away from home.
Khosla lived in Manhattan while at Columbia University, and spent junior year abroad at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He returned to the U.K. for one year as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, before living in Miami and now just outside Chicago.
"Through these experiences, I have had the chance to see the world and develop a global perspective," said Khosla, 27.
Those years away from home involved a lot of personal growth as well.
While Khosla, who majored in mathematics and physics at Columbia University, had long wanted to be a physicist, his feet are now firmly planted in the business world.
"Keen on pursuing my then-dreams of becoming a mathematical physicist, I got into and continued my education at the University of Cambridge," he said. "At Cambridge, I grew more interested in solving real-world problems, and so I turned to the corporate world."
That brought him to PwC in Miami, where he worked in their process assurance practice from 2018 to 2022. "I loved making meaningful impact with my clients," Khosla said.
He began a two-year MBA program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management last year.
Khosla lives in Evanston. He said Chicago is dynamic, with a unique culture and great food scene.
"It was always cool to get to a new city and have the new experiences and meet the new people that come along with that experience," he said.
Earlier, he found "a lot of things specific to Miami" that he grew to love in his years there — Cuban food, for example.
"I feel like I've had 10 years adventure, which is great," Khosla said. But he thinks "Chicago's the last stop, before I come back home," to live in New York City.
Caroline Rakus-Wojciechowski: Resilient super-achiever who's 'slowly learning to be more confident'
High school: Lindenhurst High School
College: Harvard University
Today: Master's student in international education at The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development; co-lab leader at the school's Refugee Educational Advancement Laboratory; George Washington UNESCO Fellow
Lives in: Arlington, Virginia
Growing up, Caroline Rakus-Wojciechowski spent a lot of time taking care of her sister, who is on the severe end of the autism spectrum.
"I was forced to grow up very quickly, and in hindsight I think that's where a lot of my strength and compassion comes from," the 27-year-old said.
She said she always knew she was resilient in the face of adversity — a quality that has been much needed in recent years.
In 2021, Rakus-Wojciechowski traveled to Poland to be with her grandmother, who had pancreatic cancer and was dying. On the flight over, a passenger in front of her, who also had pancreatic cancer, died on the plane, she said.
The captain asked if anyone knew CPR, and Rakus-Wojciechowski, a former EMT, went to help. It was obvious the man was already dead, but she and others performed CPR for three to four hours, she said.
Her grandmother died two weeks later, she said.
Then, within one month last year, she was diagnosed with cancer and ADHD — and was injured in a car accident, when a driver in New Jersey "smashed right into me going full speed." She said she is nearly done with cancer treatment and is still receiving physical therapy and dealing with some symptoms related to the crash.
Today, Rakus-Wojciechowski is close to completing her master's degree in international education at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development. A book she's co-authoring with other graduate students in her lab, "Accessing Quality Education: Local and Global Perspectives from Refugees," will be published this year.
Rakus-Wojciechowski will walk with her class this month, before graduating over the summer — when one of her last "classes" will be a UNESCO Fellowship in Santiago, Chile. She and her boyfriend are moving in together in Richmond, Virginia, and she's pursuing a career as a monitoring and evaluation specialist in international education and development.
The career path is a switch for Rakus-Wojciechowski, who had planned to get a master's degree in forensic anthropology after concentrating in the archaeology track of anthropology as an undergraduate at Harvard University. But after working with the Nigerian nonprofit Youth Sustainability Development Network to empower youth, she realized her calling was in international education and development.
"All of the little hints throughout my lifetime that I liked working with youth, I liked being able to do anything that I can to uplift, to support, it all became very clear ... education is a fantastic way to empower individuals, youth, and help them achieve their full potential," she said.
Rakus-Wojciechowski has always been a high achiever, but as she has gotten older, she has had to learn when to slow down.
In high school her home life was stressful, and she committed to everything she could after school, managing many extracurriculars on top of AP classes "to ensure my education became my escape," she said. That regimen helped her achieve what she has since leaving Lindenhurst High.
But tennis coach Debbie Bonaducci and band director Kevin Pike constantly cautioned her about the consequences of overcommitting after high school, Rakus-Wojciechowski said. She has recalled their words in her moments approaching burnout in the last decade.
If she did get burned out, "those words became the lesson in saying 'no' to remind myself that committing to less in quantity but more in quality was ok," she said.
And despite what she has achieved, this valedictorian said she has low self-esteem and impostor's syndrome.
Friends and family have helped, as has music, she said. Growing up she played numerous instruments and sang, and music became her "saving grace" in college, providing routine and "a healthy, supportive community."
"I have wonderful, wonderful friends and supporting family that constantly tell me that, 'Look at all of the accomplishments you've done.' … It's me now trying to unlearn all that perfectionism that I grew up with and kind of had reinforced into me," Rakus-Wojciechowski said. "And I feel like I'm in a good place to be dealing with that, because again, everyone in my program [at The George Washington University] is so wonderful. Definitely made lifelong friends here, both within my cohort and amongst the faculty, and so I'm slowly learning to be more confident in my abilities, and have some higher self-esteem."