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Life lessons and advice from Long Island valedictorians, 10 years after high school graduation

Newsday caught up with Long Island's 2011 valedictorians, 10 years after high school graduation. Here's what three are up to now. Credit: Mary Jane Dumankaya, Fahim Aziz, Sha Sha, Rahul Nath

Ten years ago, they were at the top of their class. These days, Long Island's 2011 high school valedictorians are still at the top of their game.

They've become successful doctors, lawyers and software engineers. One has published fantasy novels and another has counseled pregnant women with COVID-19. Some moved away from New York and others stayed close by.

Some have overcome burnout and worked through the coronavirus pandemic — and one even endured layoffs at start-up companies to become his own CEO.

We reached out to dozens of 2011 valedictorians from around Long Island to see what they've been up to in the decade since graduating. Here are some we heard back from. We learned about their jobs, passions, how they got where they are today and how their high school experience impacted their lives.

The former valedictorians also offered advice and life lessons for this year's graduates. Here's what they had to say.

Keyry Alvarez-Carcamo: ‘Zealous litigator and advocate’

  • High school: Westbury High School
  • College: Dartmouth College
  • Today: Third-year student, Northeastern University School of Law
  • Lives in: Boston

Keyry Alvarez-Carcamo always knew she wanted to be an attorney. "I am closer to that dream now more than ever," she said.

She’ll soon graduate from Northeastern University School of Law after a "10-year journey" which was filled with gaining hands-on experience, networking and learning from mentors.

Alvarez-Carcamo wanted to learn as much as she could while studying law, especially outside the classroom.

"As a first-generation [college] student, I did not grow up surrounded by lawyers or other professionals in my family," she said. "It was very important for me to gain experiential knowledge and learn from other talented attorneys."

"I am closer to that dream now more than ever."

Keyry Alvarez-Carcamo

So she decided to forego her plan of attending law school immediately after graduating from Dartmouth. Instead, she worked as an insurance defense paralegal at a small firm in Manhattan for three years.

"This was invaluable for me because I was able to develop and strengthen my legal writing skills and research skills, and forge a strong network of mentors that continue to be present in my life today," Alvarez-Carcamo said.

As she wraps up her law school journey, Alvarez-Carcamo is working for a legal clinic at Northeastern, helping clients navigate unemployment appeals.

"This has been extremely rewarding because it has granted me the opportunity to have a direct impact on the livelihood of families during these difficult times," she said.

Alvarez-Carcamo credits Westbury High School with shaping the person she’s become — she was motivated by its challenging coursework and committed educators. She hopes that this year’s high school graduates can "be their own advocate."

"I am extremely proud of growing up in Westbury and my Salvadoran American background as it has been a motivating force behind my aspiration to be a zealous litigator and advocate," she said.

Alda Yuan: Yale Law School graduate publishes fantasy novels, maps

  • High school: Islip High School
  • College: Hunter College
  • Today: Public health analyst at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • Lives in: Arlington, Virginia

Alda Yuan has spent the past 10 years publishing fantasy novels, traveling through the Middle East, raising awareness to indigenous history and ensuring access to public health data.

Looking back, Yuan said she couldn’t have predicted this path. But she knew she wanted to create positive change and contribute to social equity.

"I think the core of what I wanted to do in high school has remained," she said. "I still want to help create positive social change."

Over the years, Yuan said, she’s gained a better understanding of "how change is made, how it can stall, and more about the forces that shape the world."

In college, she majored in biochemistry and history, studying abroad in the Middle East for a month and a half. She then headed to Yale Law School, where she researched science policy. After graduation, Yuan worked at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago on water quality and access.

Then Yuan landed her current role at the Department of Health and Human Services. She’s published fantasy novels about a princess on a quest, a community of dragons and an alternate world inhabited by humans, elves, dwarves and faeries.

She’s also published two academic papers on health policy and will soon publish another on space law.

Yuan also draws maps of the U.S. states and territories to bring awareness to indigenous history. She called them "fantasy maps," as her work seeks to reimagine the 50 states before they were divided by borders. She also accompanies each map with pre-colonial history.

For this year’s graduates, Yuan has some advice: "Don't feel as if you have to know what you want to do with your life, or your career path. Figuring out what you like to do is extremely hard, one of the hardest things in life, so give yourself room to explore and make mistakes."

Working remotely has not been a challenge during the pandemic for Yuan, since much of her work can be done that way. But it has shed a light on a need she’s been familiar with.

"As I work in public health, the pandemic has really laid bare the ways in which our health care and social structure fail underserved populations," she said.

Yuan has learned plenty from her high school extracurricular activities, mainly how to be a leader and how to persevere.

"It wasn't easy being one of the only people of color at my high school," she said. "It made me tougher, taught me things about society and how to stand up for myself. I learned to be more outspoken in high school, to be less afraid of standing out."

Michael Gross: How he overcame medical school burnout

  • High school: Elwood-John H. Glenn High School
  • College: Cornell University
  • Today: Resident physician in urology at the Cleveland Clinic
  • Lives in: Cleveland

As a high schooler, Michael Gross was "pretty sure" he wanted to be a doctor, just like his father. Scott Gross has practiced family medicine in Huntington for more than 30 years.

But he was certain of this: he wanted to pursue the arts in college, too.

Gross hadn't given much thought to what field of medicine he wanted to explore.

"I could not have predicted I would go into urology," Gross said. "In high school, I may not have even known what a urologist did."

As he figured out what type of doctor to be, Gross toured the world with the Cornell Glee Club. He performed in England, Spain, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, along with at least 20 states in America.

Gross graduated from college early and spent six months as director of communications for the university's theater department. He then spent an extra year in medical school researching prostate cancer at Cornell-New York Presbyterian Hospital.

"It was really through deciding to take a year off from this hustle to do research that I got a chance to address my burnout, change my perspective, and reset my disposition."

Michael Gross

"I think my first clinical year in medical school was one of the hardest years of my life," Gross said. He described it as a time marked by long hours and daily assessments of his knowledge; plus, he was the most junior member on his team.

"It was really through deciding to take a year off from this hustle to do research that I got a chance to address my burnout, change my perspective and reset my disposition."

Eventually, Gross knew he wanted to focus on urology. But he's found that the field of medicine is broader than he ever thought.

"I've realized the power of scientific research to help entire populations of patients, rather than just those that I see in my clinic," he said.

And he's still singing in local choirs. Gross said music has become both a hobby and a part of his identity.

Recently, he found a recording of his valedictorian address from 2011. He still agrees with the advice he gave his classmates back then.

"There is no goal too ambitious or hurdle too difficult to overcome given enough time, effort, and especially with the help of others," he said.

Rahul Nath: From being laid off to becoming a CEO

  • High school: Glen Cove High School
  • College: Williams College
  • Today: CEO of In House Live Inc.
  • Lives in: Brooklyn

For Rahul Nath, the last decade has been "very turbulent." After graduating from college, he was laid off from several startups. He ended up moving from Silicon Valley to New York City, and that’s when things started looking up.

"Since beginning my own company, I feel as though I've found solace," Nath said.

Nath is the CEO of In House Live Inc., which helps artists navigate a post-pandemic industry by monetizing live-streamed performances.

"I want to change the way we engage with online entertainment and create new streams of revenue for those seeking to pursue careers in the arts and music," he said.

During college, Nath double-majored in computer science and economics. He performed research in a branch of artificial intelligence called automated planning. Nath continued working as a software engineer after graduation, contributing to several technology companies — such as Udacity and Workrails — before landing a job at Google.

"My current life's work is entirely due to my experiences at Glen Cove High School."

Rahul Nath

"The startup world is cut-throat in some ways," he said. "There’s a lot of turnover." But these experiences have prepared him in his new role.

"I think I’ve got a good idea of what startups are like now," Nath said. "I’ve always wanted to find something I’m passionate about to work on, and music and technology seemed pretty natural."

He added that his high school nurtured his passions for mathematics and music.

"My current life's work is entirely due to my experiences at Glen Cove High School," he said.

The company will soon rebrand as Amphi with two new cofounders, Nath said. This career path has taught him about the kind of person he strives to be.

"I've learned the world has no shortage of new ideas, but rather a shortage of people willing to execute them," Nath said. "For the rest of my life, I will be one of these people."

Lauren Nathan: Using ‘the power’ of her voice as a lawyer and singer

  • High school: The Wheatley School
  • College: Duke University
  • Today: Law Clerk at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
  • Lives in: Roslyn Heights

Lauren Nathan was sure of two things when she graduated high school: She wanted to pursue a career that could help people, and she wanted to keep singing.

Ten years later, she says she’s accomplished both — now practicing as a law clerk at the Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP firm and having two cover songs out on music streaming platforms.

"[Singing] is something that has kept me sane, definitely, over the years," she said. "Especially with everything that’s gone on in the pandemic and just with life in general … it’s good to just take a break and turn to something completely different."

Growing up, Nathan took classical opera singing lessons and continued throughout high school. She chose to attend Duke University, where she knew she’d be able to continue singing through the opera department.

She ended up majoring in philosophy and took on a variety of leadership positions that eventually led to her law career, such as becoming the vice president of Duke's Bench & Bar Pre-Law Society and one of the founders of Duke's first undergraduate law journal.

She continued voice lessons "under a fabulous professor and mentor," she said. "She taught me the power that comes from using my voice — as a vocalist and a future lawyer."

After graduating Duke, Nathan took a job as a litigation legal assistant at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP in New York City, then graduated from Yale Law School in 2020 and started working as a law clerk at that firm in November.

Her experiences in law school "further reinforced the importance of advocating for underserved people in the name of social justice," she said. There, she worked as a clinic student at the Ethics Bureau at Yale and the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, where she represented domestic violence survivors in a multitude of cases regarding restraining orders, custody and visas.

In one instance, she said she helped "an undocumented immigrant who was detained by ICE avoid deportation and remain with her young daughter in the United States while she worked on obtaining her visa."

During her last semester in law school, Nathan’s singing hobby led her to a music studio to record music "just for fun," and she ended up releasing two cover songs on music streaming platforms: "Umbrella" by Rihanna and "Believe" by Cher. She hopes to return to the studio once she feels it’s safe.

Nathan credits her late grandmother, Niran Zilkha, with teaching her to care about those around her and to do the right thing — and for encouraging her to pursue singing with her studies.

"Although my grandmother never had the chance to see her family continue to grow and progress, I think she would be very happy to know that I became a singing lawyer!"

Max Krackow: From hiking the Swiss Alps to researching Arctic sea ice

  • High school: John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore
  • College: Swarthmore College
  • Today: Research physical scientist at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory
  • Lives in: Lebanon, New Hampshire

Max Krackow is no stranger to new experiences — his path since high school has taken him to NASA and hiking the Swiss Alps— and might soon bring him to the Arctic.

But about four years ago, Krackow said he "was panicked."

"I was in grad school and I didn't know what I wanted to do afterwards. In the past, there had always been more school, but after grad school I had to pursue a career," he said. "Somewhere between an early morning calisthenics routine and spending vacation time in the mountains, I started to recognize that I wanted a more holistic approach to life."

When he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 2011, he said, he knew he wanted to pursue physics and continue competitive swimming in college but wasn’t certain the path he’d end up on. He said he started to prioritize what he wanted his life to look like after years of schooling — and he’s happy with where he’s landed.

He started Swarthmore College with a double major in physics and engineering. But he became certain in a path toward physics after interning with NASA and later researching high-energy physics while interning at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, which operates the world's largest particle physics laboratory. He graduated as a physics major with a minor in mathematics.

He went on to get his Ph.D. at Dartmouth College and is now working as a physical scientist at a laboratory for the U.S. Department of Defense.

"My research focus is on developing simulations through computer programming to predict the evolution of sea ice in the Arctic," he said. "I have the opportunity to travel to the Arctic to conduct field research as well, which I'm incredibly excited to take part in."

"I'm not on a path anyone else envisioned for me in high school, and it's not even a path I envisioned for myself back then, but it is a path that I'm happy on."

Max Krackow

Krackow said research trips to the Arctic sometimes include camping on ice in the ocean north of Alaska, Canada or Greenland to measure and monitor its physical properties.

Over the years, Krackow said he’s learned the value of looking after himself and not worrying about other people’s expectations of him. He also said he’s learned "all good things take time and effort." He’s enjoying a job that lets him continue his hobbies, make an impact in the world of science and stay true to himself, he said.

Krackow has competed in the Ironman Maryland triathlon, got his paragliding license and traveled with friends around Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. His path has even led him back to his high school, where he said he’s visited to teach some AP physics classes.

"My high school experiences had a significant impact on shaping the person I am today," he said. "I had the support of great friends and teachers at Kennedy, and their support has made me want to give my time to others."

To this year’s high school graduates, Krackow said one of the hardest things to do among the pressures of graduation and making plans is to "be true to yourself."

"I'm not on a path anyone else envisioned for me in high school, and it's not even a path I envisioned for myself back then, but it is a path that I'm happy on," he said. "This is your life. You get to choose what kind of adventure you want it to be."

Morgan Feldman: She fulfilled her middle school dream to become a vet

  • High school: West Babylon High School
  • College: Cornell University
  • Today: Associate veterinarian at Wilmington Animal Hospital
  • Lives in: Delaware

Morgan Feldman has known she’s wanted to be a veterinarian since the sixth grade. Now more than 16 years later, she’s living that middle school dream.

"It was the mind of an 11-year old — I knew I loved animals, and around that time I was starting to figure out I liked science as well," she said.

"It was probably a lot more challenging than I initially expected," she added.

Thanks to AP credits from West Babylon Senior High School and careful planning, Feldman graduated a year early from Cornell University in 2014, then graduated from Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2018.

She passed her boards exam, moved to Delaware after hearing about a job opportunity there and had a couple of jobs before finding the right fit at Wilmington Animal Hospital.

"The people I work with, they share the same high standards of medicine that I strive for," she said.

Feldman said she didn’t realize how challenging some aspects of the career would be and has worked to raise awareness about what vets can face — specifically with managing mental health. She said not many understand how difficult the schooling is, balancing pet owner needs with animal needs and obvious challenges like having to put pets to sleep. These kind of stresses can lead to mental health challenges for vets, she said, and according to a American Medical Veterinary Association study, there is a high rate of suicide within the field.

Feldman said she’s been helping to raise awareness on these topics by educating future veterinarians. She’s learned over the years not to settle in a job that’s not the right fit, to prioritize work-life balance and to not be afraid to ask for help.

"It's a sign of tremendous strength, not weakness," she said.

Being a veterinarian has also brought Feldman to Native American reservations through Rural Area Veterinary Services service trips, where she provided vet services for underserved communities in North and South Dakota. She said she hopes to continue this service as she furthers her career.

"Once the pandemic gets under control, it’s something I would probably do as a veterinarian now, in a mentoring capacity," she said.

Her advice for high school students graduating this year: Take a variety of classes outside your focus, try new activities outside the comfort zone and remember, "You are allowed to change your mind!"

Feldman lives in Delaware with her two adopted cats, Madison and Cameryn.

Armaghan Behlum: Software engineer walks down virtual aisle

  • High school: Sewanhaka High School
  • College: Harvard College
  • Today: Software engineer for Verily Life Sciences
  • Lives in: San Francisco, California

When Armaghan Behlum graduated as valedictorian, this was all he knew for sure: "I enjoyed learning about the brain, and I wanted to do something that had a good impact on others."

At that point, he thought that meant possibly going to medical school. Instead, he became a software engineer.

In college, Behlum explored his interest in neuroscience. He worked at a neurobiology lab that focused on motor learning behavior.

"While working in the lab, I realized software was very important for understanding our research and I took a computer science class to augment my research skills," he said.

Then Behlum found that he enjoyed working with software. He landed an internship at Audible, which inspired him to pursue this as a career. But he wanted to intertwine this path with health care in some way.

At Verily Life Sciences, his team works on mental health projects. He’s built tools and services over the past year for OneFifteen, an addiction recovery ecosystem that focuses on opioid addiction.

"I think I've been extremely lucky in life, but that luck has played out because I've been ready to grab it."

Armaghan Behlum

And the past year has been particularly eventful — Behlum also got married to Khadija Ghias.

"In some ways people loved joining a virtual wedding because they all felt like they had front row seats!" he said. "I don't think [the pandemic] necessarily affected the timeline of things, but it's definitely helped having someone there while we're all locked down and stuck at home."

Behlum encourages this year’s high school graduates to explore and not be afraid to combine their interests to forge their own unique path. He remembers a quote from his high school physics teacher that he still emulates.

"He used to say, ‘Fortune favors the prepared,’ and I think I've tried to live by that," Behlum said. "I think I've been extremely lucky in life, but that luck has played out because I've been ready to grab it."

Sha Sha: Becoming a doctor to help women through ‘all stages’ of life

  • High school: Great Neck South High School
  • College: Brown University
  • Today: Fourth-year medical student at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University
  • Lives in: Stony Brook

Almost exactly 10 years after Sha Sha graduated from Great Neck South High School, she’ll be graduating from medical school.

But she wouldn’t have predicted she’d be on this path on that day in 2011. She was undecided on the career she wanted to pursue, even as she reached her senior year at Brown University, where she majored in biophysics.

"I knew I wanted to do something meaningful and positive, but I didn’t know exactly what that would be," she said.

After graduating from Brown, she took a job as a life sciences consultant in Boston, and she said interacting with physicians inspired her to apply to medical school. She started at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University in 2017 and plans to begin an obstetrics and gynecology residency at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire in July.

"I think it is an absolute privilege to provide care and advocate for women through all stages of their lives," she said. "The transition from working a full-time job to going back to school was difficult at first, but I couldn’t be happier with my decision."

Sha said she’s most proud of her community outreach efforts over the years. She helped counsel pregnant women who contracted COVID-19 by calling to check on them and answer their questions, and also helped create a coronavirus community advisory board at Stony Brook to address local pandemic questions and concerns.

"Giving back is close to my heart, and I hope to continue advocating for my community throughout my career," she said.

"It is an absolute privilege to provide care and advocate for women through all stages of their lives."

Sha Sha

Sha also hasn’t left her high school experiences behind. She credits her time at Great Neck South for helping her get where she is today, such as her involvement in the Science Olympiad, which originally sparked her interest in science. And she relishes the memories of playing the flute in orchestra — a hobby she still continues.

Her advice for high school students graduating this year? Make time for yourself, focus on doing the things you like and spend time with people who make you happy.

"Remember that everyone is on a different path, at a different place on each individual journey. If there is a goal you would like to achieve, the most important thing is to work towards it, no matter how small or insignificant that first step may be," she said.

Josh Mendelsohn: A businessman’s advice: ‘Be a sponge’

  • High school: Jericho High School
  • College: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
  • Today: Vice president, Investment Banking, Guggenheim Securities
  • Lives in: Manhattan

When Josh Mendelsohn graduated from Jericho High School, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do — but he had one idea.

"I did know that I wanted to be a ‘businessman,’" he said. "At that point, I was unclear what that would mean in terms of a career, but I did know that working in business would enable me to learn how the world operates."

Mendelsohn chose the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and after attending classes decided he wanted to pursue a career in the restructuring industry. He started as an investment banking analyst at Millstein & Co. In 2018, Guggenheim Securities acquired Millstein & Co., and he’s stayed there ever since.

"The best part of my job as a restructuring investment banker is that I get to learn something new every day," he said.

During his six-year career, he’s taken on a variety of projects helping companies and governments overcome challenges.

"I’ve advised the government of Puerto Rico, the State of Connecticut, Pier 1 and numerous other companies and investors on restructurings, mergers and acquisitions, and capital raises, mostly involving situations of financial distress," he said.

Mendelsohn credits his high school experience and his family for helping him get where he is now. He says his family helped him develop a strong work ethic, and his teachers and the courses he took in high school helped sharpen critical thinking skills.

His advice for high school students graduating this year: "Be a sponge."

"There is truly so much to learn in the years following high school, but you need to be open to soaking up all that knowledge. Sometimes it’s easy to get frustrated by the pressures of daily life, overwhelmed by how far away certain goals may feel or distracted by what other people are doing, but it’s important to recognize that so long as you are learning something new every day, you are exactly where you need to be," he said.

Since graduating, Mendelsohn has also found love — he and his fiancee, Melanie, plan to get married in 2022.

"Hopefully the world will have solved the pandemic crisis and we can celebrate with our family and friends – sans masks!"

Neha Sahni: From pre-med to mathematics

  • High school: East Meadow High School
  • College: Hofstra University
  • Today: Senior associate at Actuarial Services at CAPTRUST
  • Lives in: Manhattan

Neha Sahni gives her high school a lot of credit for the path she took. "If it was not for my love for mathematics in high school, I would not have decided to major in it during my undergraduate career and would not be where I am today."

As valedictorian, Sahni had big plans: She intended to major in biology and pre-medicine when she got to college. But once she started classes at Hofstra University, she changed her major to mathematics while completing pre-medicine requirements.

In her math classes, she learned about the actuarial profession, which she hadn’t known about before. Actuaries analyze risk assessment and management by using financial theory and statistics.

"I loved that I could mix my love for math, statistics and business," Sahni said. "I officially decided that I wanted to pursue a career as an actuary during the second half of my third year."

She went on to Columbia University to earn her master’s degree. After graduating, she worked as an actuarial analyst in Philadelphia before moving back to New York.

But her travels extend far beyond that one move — in the last decade, Sahni has seen England, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands and France.

Her advice to this year’s high school graduates is to be fearless.

"Do not be afraid to explore different opportunities and always follow your gut," Sahni said. "Sometimes a new path is uncovered and might be completely different than what you had always planned, but do not be afraid to follow the path if it might lead to something wonderful!"

Raymond Luong: His childhood hobbies now pay the bills

  • High school: Manhasset High School
  • College: Stanford University
  • Today: Software engineer at Front
  • Lives in: San Francisco

When Raymond Luong thinks back on what career he thought he’d pursue after high school, he admits, "I was pretty off."

He thought he wanted to work in finance. Ten years later, he’s working at Front, a software startup company in San Francisco.

If Luong had looked closer at what he liked during his childhood, he might have had a better clue. Growing up, he said he had an affinity for computers and teaching himself basic programming skills but didn’t know at the time what could become of his hobbies.

"What you enjoy doing as a kid can be a powerful indicator of what you might enjoy as a profession," he said. "I didn't realize that could be a full-time career until I went to Stanford, started taking computer science classes and learning more about the tech industry."

He started his freshman year at Stanford taking a variety of classes like chemistry, economics and engineering. But he was really drawn to computer science classes, "specifically human-computer interaction."

After graduating in 2015, he stayed for another year to get his master’s in computer science.

That led to software engineering internships at Symantec and Microsoft, where he worked on the Xbox team.

"What you enjoy doing as a kid can be a powerful indicator of what you might enjoy as a profession."

Raymond Luong

He then moved to San Francisco and started working as a software engineer for Gusto, a software startup company. He stayed there for 3 1/2 years until finding his current job at Front in June.

"I started a new job during the pandemic," he said. "It was challenging to onboard remotely, but I think we're all figuring out what work will look like post-COVID and I learned a lot about working remotely."

As for his advice for the Class of 2021: He recommends trying internships in different areas and new cities.

"It's a fun way to try out a new city for a few months, and it'll help you decide where you want to live — or not live — in the future," he said.

One main reason Luong chose to go to Stanford was to push himself out of his comfort zone from living in New York, he said. Now, he lives in San Francisco in an apartment he owns.

Lauren McGarry: She knows four languages

  • High school: Hauppauge High School
  • College: Georgetown University
  • Today: Senior English language arts curriculum designer at IXL Learning
  • Lives in: North Carolina

Ten years ago, Lauren McGarry dreamed of becoming a lexicographer.

Now she says, "Although I'm not making dictionaries, my actual job aligns pretty well with the goals I set in high school."

McGarry’s goals changed throughout college. During her undergraduate years, she imagined herself researching the syntax of Slavic languages for the rest of her life. She studied linguistics and Russian, and spent some time working in neurology and developmental psychology research labs.

She credits her undergraduate adviser, Ruth Kramer, with fostering her passion for language during her junior and senior years. McGarry speaks French and Russian, plus a little bit of German.

"I fell in love with syntax because of how she taught it, and she spent a lot of time helping me pursue that interest," McGarry said.

But while in graduate school at the University of California Santa Cruz, she had a realization.

"I was much more interested in teaching than in doing research," she said. "I've been much happier working in education technology."

McGarry has been working at IXL Learning for three years. The K-12 learning website is used by millions of students worldwide. In her role, McGarry helps develop their ELA content. She credits her high school French and AP English teachers, Christine Rigaud and Ellen Ryan, with having an "immense impact" on where she is today.

"They both helped me grow so much as a student and as a person," McGarry said.

In her free time, McGarry volunteers at Carolina Tiger Rescue, a sanctuary for wild cats. She assists with their educational tours. She also just started taking cello lessons.

"Music gives me a sense of structure and helps clear my head — exactly what I needed to get through 2020," she said.

Looking back on her academic achievement, McGarry notes a valuable lesson she’s learned in the past decade: "There is not one singular, objective measure of intelligence or success."

Sanjay Palat: He changed his path and found his way

  • High school: Smithtown High School East
  • College: University of Virginia
  • Today: Medical student at University of Pennsylvania
  • Lives in: Philadelphia

Around the time Sanjay Palat graduated from high school, he thought he’d pursue a career in economics or law.

But he said he was "always interested in health care," and that’s where he ended up.

During his undergraduate years, Palat majored in economics and finance. He worked in management consulting and then in tax policy on Capitol Hill after graduation.

"It wasn't until I started working that I realized I wanted to engage more directly with communities, and how integral health and access to health care are to economic security," Palat said.

So he applied to medical school. He’s now in his third year at University of Pennsylvania. Palat is interested in combining his interests in clinical medicine and health care policy someday.

Palat credits a high school experience for landing him where he is now.

"I was able to take part in my high school research program, which fostered an interest in the sciences that helped set me on the career path I'm on today," he said.

During the pandemic, Palat continued toward his career goals and even got engaged. He’s glad he expanded his goals and interests after college, and encourages others in his position to do the same.

"Keep an open mind about what you want to study, and about your career plans," Palat said. "Remember that you will continue to have flexibility and be able to change your path even after you graduate."

Lilly McCullough: She took 'little leaps'

  • High school: Mattituck-Cutchogue Jr. Sr. High School
  • College: Hamilton College
  • Today: Volunteer special assistant attorney general, Environmental Protection Division, Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office
  • Lives in: Boston

Lilly McCullough says she has always been a planner.

"I left high school with fixed ideas about the world and how I'd fit in it," she said. "But the world is so much bigger and more complicated than I could imagine."

For McCullough, those "fixed ideas" included becoming a forensic psychologist. But after going on that path, she discovered that she liked research and disliked writing lab reports.

"Because I enjoyed my history, sociology and legal courses in college, I sought out legal internships and decided to go to law school," she said.

"The world is so much bigger and more complicated than I could imagine."

Lilly McCullough

After college, McCullough headed to Boston University School of Law, where she got interested in land use and environmental policy. From there, she went into private practice as a litigation associate at a Boston firm. McCullough landed a year-long public sector fellowship, and through that she applied to work in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office Environmental Protection Division.

"I now have the incredible privilege of serving the state as an environmental attorney," she said.

McCullough has also experienced her share of adventures in the past decade. She volunteered as an EMT during college, traveled throughout Europe while studying abroad in Scotland and took a solo road trip through 11 national parks and monuments.

"The post-high school world is replete with opportunities to try new things and otherwise learn without the self-consciousness that high school breeds," she said.

Her advice to this year’s graduates? Take a leap. "These little leaps gave me practical skills, lifelong hobbies, a novel ability to surprise people, and a clearer set of priorities to guide big life decisions."

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