Newsday caught up with some of Long Island’s high school valedictorians from 2007.
Their journeys from high school to college and their professional careers have included changes in job aspirations and living across the country and world. These experiences have covered fields from medicine to music and taken them to places including Argentina and Tokyo Disneyland.
Read about their stories, the lessons they've learned over the last decade and their advice for today's graduates.
HIGH SCHOOL: Walt Whitman High School
COLLEGE: The George Washington University, Class of 2011
JOB: Law clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals
LIVES IN: South Bend, Ind.
She didn't realize it at the time, but when Julia Haigney arrived as a freshman at The George Washington University, she had just found her second home.
"I was really nervous my first year," she said. "Little did I know then that I would end up spending nine years at George Washington."
The 2007 Walt Whitman High School valedictorian grew up in South Huntington, but Washington, D.C., was where she would go on to earn two degrees, work her first post-graduation job and meet her fiance, Adam Long. She graduated with a degree in international affairs and then worked in George Washington's Division of Student Affairs before earning her law degree last May.
After spending the past decade out of state, Haigney plans to return to New York in August upon completing a one-year clerkship with the federal judiciary in South Bend, Ind. In the meantime, she is planning her wedding, set for March at Oheka Castle in Huntington, and her high school's 10-year reunion.
Haigney said she doesn't consider herself someone who is open to new experiences, but she's realized the importance of doing so.
"Pushing yourself to try new things is the best way to grow," she said.
Haigney said she's made an effort to venture out of her comfort zone, particularly in college, studying abroad in both Beijing and Paris.
"So many of my favorite experiences have been the ones that I never dreamed were possible," she said.
HIGH SCHOOL: Sachem North High School
COLLEGE: Fordham University, Class of 2011
JOB: Graduate student, Rutgers University
LIVES IN: Piscataway, N.J.
Ryan Brennan, Sachem North High School's 2007 valedictorian, said he was torn between studying physics or filmmaking in college. He chose to attend Fordham University, because he said he liked the programs it offered for both fields. However, he started with physics and ending up sticking with it all the way through graduate school, where he is currently working toward his Ph.D. at Rutgers University.
"Don't feel obligated to keep doing something that you once thought would be your career," he said. "When you find the thing that you want to do, you'll know."
For Brennan, that moment came as a teaching assistant at Rutgers. In high school, he said he had no idea what he would do with a physics degree. He eventually considered research at one point, but found that he enjoyed teaching most. When he graduates this summer, he will pursue a career teaching either physics or math.
Brennan said his high school physics teacher, David MacDonnell, nurtured his interest in the subject and set an example he hopes to follow.
"He made physics fun and interesting," Brennan said. "I hope to do that for my students in the future."
Marie Liesel Bergmeyer
HIGH SCHOOL: Long Island Lutheran High School
COLLEGE: University of Maryland, Class of 2011
JOB: Resident physician, internal medicine
LIVES IN: Saint Petersburg, Fla.
When Marie Liesel Bergmeyer graduated from Long Island Lutheran High School, she wanted to do something in the field of science, but there was one aspect she wasn't interested in. "I actually wanted to do anything but medicine, oddly enough," she said.
Ten years later, she is preparing for graduation from medical school and is soon be a resident physician at Northside Hospital in Saint Petersburg, Fla.
Bergmeyer's path took her down various roads. At a forensic science summer camp, she found out that it "wasn't at all like the TV show 'CSI.'" Working in an organic chemistry lab in college was "lonely." And although research and development for a pharmaceutical company was "groundbreaking," it didn't provide tangible results, Bergmeyer said, because "the work I was doing ... would not really touch patients for years to come."
Volunteering in a hospital emergency room, she found her calling: patient-oriented care. In 2013 she enrolled at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton, Fla. She graduates in June.
Bergmeyer credited her high school teachers for her willingness to try new things. At Lutheran, she said she found "the right educators to not only push me harder in school, but also in leadership roles, and to get involved in things I was passionate about."
She took on such leadership roles in college. At the University of Maryland, Bergmeyer was vice president of risk management for her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. She still volunteers as a risk management specialist for the sorority's collegiate chapters in Virginia and West Virginia. At Lake Erie, she served as president of the Student Osteopathic Medical Association, where she represented the school at medical conferences across the country.
Whether it's been taking an initiative on campus or deciding her career path, Bergmeyer has learned the value of chasing her passions.
"When you push yourself hard enough you can really do anything you set your mind to," she said.
HIGH SCHOOL: Faith Academy
COLLEGE: Dowling College, Class of 2011
JOB: Lead web developer, Stony Brook University
LIVES IN: Wading River
Josh Palmeri believes in the moral of Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare," and his experiences have only reinforced that belief.
"The tortoise wins over the hare, every time," said the 2007 valedictorian of Faith Academy. "Consistency and stability are some of the greatest qualities you can develop."
Palmeri found stability at an internship with Nikon, a position he started during his junior year at Dowling College and maintained through graduation. By the time he was done with school, his manager created a new position for him to work full time as a web assistant.
From there, Palmeri said he worked his way up from performing basic coding operations to becoming the administrator of Nikon's customer relationship management system. In 2014, he left for his current job at Stony Brook University, where he manages the development operations for many of the school's websites.
Throughout his career, Palmeri said he's learned to keep things in perspective.
"It's OK to laugh at yourself," he said. "Take your work seriously ... but don't take yourself and the people around you so seriously."
Outside of work, Palmeri sings and plays guitar and keyboard at Living Water Church in Riverhead. He's made two missionary trips to Uganda, experiences he said were "tremendously eye-opening." Palmeri and his wife are expecting their first child, a girl, in May.
HIGH SCHOOL: Islip High School
COLLEGE: Carnegie Mellon University, Class of 2011
JOB: PhD candidate, Boston University
LIVES IN: Boston
Nikunja Kolluri said that she believes that she never would have pursued a career in engineering if it weren't for the science department at Islip High School.
"My high school biology and chemistry classes sparked a love of science that I turned into a career," she said.
Kolluri also found inspiration in her brother, who was studying biomedical engineering in college when she was in high school.
After studying chemical and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, she worked on vaccine manufacturing and commercialization as a process development engineer at Merck & Co. She also attended the University of Pennsylvania part-time, completing her master's in biotechnology along the way. She left Merck & Co. in 2015 to obtain her PhD in biomedical engineering at Boston University.
Kolluri considers herself a "global citizen," having lived in several countries and holding dual citizenship from India and the United States. She was born in India, but she also called Kenya and Uganda home before her family settled in the United States when she was 10 years old. Twelve years later, she gained her U.S. citizenship. Shortly after, she said, she took advantage of the traveling freedom that U.S. citizenship provides by going to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
"Talk about being a citizen of the world," she said. "The whole world was in one city."
Overall, Kolluri said her international experiences have helped her keep an open mind with regards to those around her.
"Befriending people from all walks of life has really played an important part in shaping my character," she said.
Another lesson she's learned along the way? How invaluable a good checklist can be.
"Staying organized and efficient can get you further than you might think," she said.
Currently, her checklist includes working in public health and science policy work. She would like to lead a health program for a biotech company or work with a nonprofit such as the Gates Foundation.
Samantha Ellner Levy
HIGH SCHOOL: Jericho High School
COLLEGE: Yale University, Class of 2011
JOB: Consultant, Bain & Company
LIVES IN: Manhattan
Samantha Ellner Levy has made an effort to continue exploring the varied interests she's held since high school in both a professional and personal capacity.
The Jericho High School valedictorian studied economics and cognitive science at Yale University, doing research in a psychology lab and interning at the White House Council of Economic Advisers. When she graduated, she began working as an investment banking analyst at Barclays. Then, she attended Harvard Business School, graduating in 2015 before joining Bain & Company as a consultant.
But finding something to do that aligns with one's interests doesn't just mean getting the right job. In her spare time, Levy enjoys taking painting classes and volunteering as a tutor. She got married last September and currently lives in Manhattan with her husband, Matthew.
When she graduated high school, Levy said she didn't know what she wanted to do, but she also didn't worry about narrowing herself to singular goal.
"Everyone talks about finding your 'passion' in high school and college," she said. "While it's great to be focused, I've learned not to worry about finding the one thing that excites me."
Levy's advice to students on their way to college is to take advantage of the different types of classes offered.
"You may be surprised by what interests you and what turns out to be most useful after graduation," she said.
HIGH SCHOOL: Rocky Point High School
COLLEGE: Stony Brook University, Class of 2011
LIVES IN: Orlando, Fla.
In high school, Ahmad El-Gendi said he learned that sometimes, the easiest way to know who you are is to know who you are not.
"Without my high school foundation, I would not have had the confidence to be myself," said the 2007 of Rocky Point High School.
El-Gendi didn't like the first few career paths he chose for himself before finding the right one. He had the right intentions, though.
"I knew I wanted to be in a field that served the community, but I did not know exactly what I wanted to do," he said.
He initially studied neuroscience, because he said it sounded difficult and "fancy."
"I wanted to challenge myself," he said.
Then, he considered dentistry, but he said he soon realized that he was too "clumsy" for it.
He debated going to law school during his senior year at Stony Brook University, but opted to take a year off instead. Then, he committed to it, attending law school at Emory University. The transition from science to law proved to be easier for El-Gendi than he anticipated.
"It turns out law is just the science of logic," he said.
After his second year at Emory, El-Gendi interned at Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, where he has worked since graduating in 2015.
It took some trial and error, but he found his niche. El-Gendi encourages others to do the same, even it means being unrealistic.
"I'm not even sure what 'being realistic' means, but people urge you to do it all the time," he said. "I urge you to follow your dreams."
HIGH SCHOOL: Brentwood High School
COLLEGE: Hofstra University, Class of 2011
JOB: Music teacher, Malverne Union Free School District
LIVES IN: Selden
When she was at Brentwood High School, Alyssa Rizzuto already knew music was her passion, so she committed her career to teaching it.
"A job is so much more than that if you're doing something you love," she said.
While at Hofstra University, she maintained a private studio and taught various high school marching bands. After graduating in 2011, she taught in Queens for three years before moving to her current position in the Malverne School District. During this time, she also enrolled at Queens College, obtaining a master's degree in education last year.
Currently, she is the director of both the sixth-grade band and the seventh- and eighth-grade band at Malverne's Howard T. Herber Middle School and the assistant high school marching band director.
Rizzuto's advice to this year's graduating class is to always chase your dreams and know that lessons can come from unexpected places.
"Each small step, each person you meet and every apparently innocuous experience in your life will relate to something to achieve that dream," she said.
However, she added, those dreams may very well change.
"Keep discovering great things about yourself and work on the things that you wish to improve," she said.
For Rizzuto, that means continuing her education by pursuing a doctoral degree while still teaching full time.
HIGH SCHOOL: W.T. Clarke High School
COLLEGE: Harvard University, Class of 2011
JOB: Medical student, University of California, San Diego
LIVES IN: San Diego, Calif.
Natalie Cameron said she's learned that there is more than one way to achieve a goal.
"Don't be afraid to take the nontraditional path and take a chance," she said.
Cameron, W.T. Clarke High School's 2007 valedictorian, always thought she would eventually pursue a career in medicine. She got a degree in psychology and completed her premedical requirements at Harvard University. But there was something else she had to do first.
"I enjoyed science and research in high school," she said. "However, growing up, I loved to dance and seriously considered it as a career."
Before applying to medical school, Cameron volunteered as a choreographer for Kids4Kids, which raises money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation through children's performances, and spent five months in Japan as a dancer at Tokyo Disneyland.
After dancing professionally for three years, she enrolled in the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine in 2014. She is set to graduate next year, satisfied with having chased both of her dreams.
"I ... took time to pursue something that I had always loved, and know that I will never look back with regrets," she said.
HIGH SCHOOL: Deer Park High School
COLLEGE: New York University, Class of 2011
JOB: Electrical engineer
LIVES IN: Pasadena, Calif.
Change has never bothered Nick Assenza, who switched majors in college and has moved cross country three times.
"Change is inevitable, but that isn't a bad thing," Deer Park High School's 2007 valedictorian said.
He began studying mechanical engineering at Polytechnic University (now the New York University Tandon School of Engineering), but graduated with a bachelor's and master's degree in electrical engineering.
Assenza worked for Northrop Grumman, both in Bethpage and California, from 2011 to 2013. He then moved back to New York, obtaining his professional engineering license while working full time. Earlier this year, he began his current position as a project engineer for SourceOne, moving back to California for a second time.
Assenza hopes to one day head an engineering firm. He lacked such an aim 10 years ago, but said he has come to learn that there's nothing wrong with taking time to figure things out.
"When I graduated high school, I had no plan as to where I'd end up," he said. "You leave high school thinking you know so much ... but sometimes you're not ready, and that's OK."
HIGH SCHOOL: Amityville High School
COLLEGE: St. Joseph's College, Class of 2011
JOB: Social studies teacher, William Paca Middle School
LIVES IN: Farmingdale
Amityville High School taught Jessica Hernandez the value of self-motivation, a lesson she said she gives to today's students as a teacher.
"High school taught me to be a passionate and caring teacher, while still challenging my students to reach their own level of excellence," Hernandez said.
Upon graduating St. Joseph's College with a degree in history and a concentration in secondary education in 2011, she began as a substitute teacher in the William Floyd School District. A year later, she was hired by that district as a social studies teacher at William Paca Middle School.
While she teaches today's youth, Hernandez has also continued her own education. She obtained a master's degree in adolescent special education in 2013 and said she would like to earn a doctorate in education.
"I still have the drive to be successful and expand my own knowledge," she said.
In school, Hernandez found not only her career path, but also her future husband, Vito Rago. The two met in college and will marry in July.
HIGH SCHOOL: Half Hollow Hills High School East
COLLEGE: Harvard University, Class of 2011
JOB: Law student, Yale University
LIVES IN: Manhattan
Coming out of Half Hollow Hills High School East, Jason Berkenfeld had a strong desire to do ... something. He just wasn't sure what, exactly.
"Truth be told, I wasn't really thinking about my career," he said. "But I knew that I wanted to fight for change."
He found inspiration in Barack Obama, who announced his presidential candidacy just months before Berkenfeld graduated. He interned for Obama's campaign that summer and continued to volunteer when he got to Harvard University.
When he graduated, Berkenfeld took a position as a management consultant at Bain & Company in Manhattan. While he enjoyed the job, he said his heart remained in politics. During the 2012 election cycle, he took a leave of absence to work as the campaign manager for New York State Senate candidate Brad Hoylman, who was elected to represent the 27th District.
Then, he moved to Iowa to work for Obama's re-election campaign. That's when he decided on a career change. Berkenfeld enrolled at Yale Law School in 2014 and is set to graduate this May.
"Being out in Iowa, I knew beyond any doubt that I wanted to spend my life ... passing laws and making change," he said.
Meeting different people on the campaign trail taught Berkenfeld the importance of stepping outside one's comfort zone.
"Have conversations with people with whom you disagree, people whose lives look nothing like yours," he said. "Doing so will enrich your life and deepen your perspective."
One aspect of Berkenfeld's life he hopes to enrich? His culinary skills.
"Unfortunately, I still haven't learned how to cook," he said. "That's a goal for the next 10 years."
HIGH SCHOOL: Southampton High School
COLLEGE: Boston College, Class of 2010
JOB: Senior program manager, Jobs for the Future
LIVES IN: Watertown, Mass.
High school taught Sarah Hatton to not let anyone else define her.
"We didn't really have cut and dry social circles," said the 2007 valedictorian of Southampton High School. "I was a nerd, a varsity athlete and a musician, and I really internalized the idea that I didn't have to fit into anyone's boxes."
When Hatton graduated from Boston College with a master's degree in English in 2012, she prepared for a career in publishing or editing. But when she struggled to find something that excited her, she moved her search to the nonprofit sector, where she had previously found fulfilling work.
That's what led her to Jobs for the Future, a national education and workforce nonprofit, where she has worked for nearly five years now. Her ability to shift her focus toward something beyond the traditional path helped her find a rewarding career.
"A willingness to work hard and be flexible can be just as important to early-career job success as technical skills," she said.
As she's grown, Hatton said she's learned to have this mindset in all aspects of her life and take responsibility for her actions.
"It's really up to you to create a life that you love, whether that means good relationships, fulfilling work or new hobbies," she said. "It's easy to say there just aren't enough hours in the day, but if something is really a priority you can almost always find the time."
These days, her priorities include her fiance, Sean Madden, the home they bought in January and their next "big step" together: a kitten.
HIGH SCHOOL: Kings Park High School
COLLEGE: University of Maryland, Class of 2011
JOB: Investment executive, CVC Credit Partners
LIVES IN: Manhattan
Christine Perry entered college thinking she would pursue a career in medicine. By her sophomore year, she had different ideas.
"When I was 18, I had my whole career planned, and a year later I changed gears entirely," said the 2007 valedictorian of Kings Park High School.
After a year of premedical classes at the University of Maryland, Perry had some doubts. When she volunteered at a hospital that summer, she found herself gravitating toward the business aspects of the health care system. She found much more enjoyable work when she transferred to the administration department of the hospital.
"For the first time since entering college, I felt inspired and excited about what I was learning," she said. "At the end of the summer, I enrolled in business classes and never looked back."
Her career so far has included stops at Ernst & Young and Ares Management, as well as her current role as an investment executive at CVC Credit Partners.
"Today, I'm more focused on the present and take a more open-minded approach when thinking about the future," she said.
Perry says her future likely includes traveling, as she has already visited several continents. In her time studying abroad, she stayed in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Malaysia and Argentina. Since then, she's been to many more countries, such as Panama, Colombia and Bulgaria.
However, she advised fellow travelers to do so sooner rather later.
"Travel as much as you can while you're in college," she said. "Once you have a full-time job, you won't get as much time off as you'd like."
HIGH SCHOOL: Comsewogue High School
COLLEGE: University of Delaware, Class of 2011
JOB: PhD candidate, University of Delaware
LIVES IN: Newark, Del.
Zachary Jackson changed his major three times at the University of Delaware, going from math to entomology before landing on political science. Even then, the 2007 valedictorian of Comsewogue High School said he was unsure if he wanted to pursue a law or doctoral degree. The one constant that remained was his desire to help others.
"It's never too late find something new to be passionate about," he said.
Jackson also began acting in middle school and has been ever since. He's performed at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson and at the University of Delaware's Harrington Theatre Arts Company, among others, in plays including Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County." He eventually got an offer to teach at the University of Delaware's Department of Theatre through his acting coach, who is also a faculty member there.
He said he developed an interest in advising when he worked at the Office of Student Services while in graduate school. This inspired him to become the interim academic adviser at Delaware's School of Nursing.
Jackson credited the teachers in his life for cultivating his desire to work in the field. His choir teacher and drama director, Charlotte Johnson, helped him gain confidence on stage. And he said Dr. Joe Rella, his principal and the current Comsewogue School District superintendent, "always demonstrated the joy and passion a person can have for their work."
This group of teachers also includes Jackson's mother, Carol Gurock, who works in the Miller Place School District.
He said, "My mom ... really inspires me every day and sparked my interest in education."
HIGH SCHOOL: Portledge School
COLLEGE: University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2012
JOB: Vice president, partnerships lead, Grey Group
LIVES IN: Manhattan
Alexa DePasquale wanted to go to college after graduating as the 2007 valedictorian of Portledge School, but she also loved performing. So she took a gap year to pursue singing, dancing, acting and modeling in New York City. She recommends other students take the time to follow their interests if feasible.
"Gap years foster an unparalleled maturity in young minds," she said. "Taking a year of growth will enable students to make the most of their college careers."
DePasquale went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 2012 with a degree in communications. Her first job was with a startup; not unusual for a recent college graduate but perhaps so for one who says she didn't even know what a startup was at the time. Looking back on it, though, she wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I'm grateful to have taken the leap of faith into a space I knew nothing about, because I can't see myself doing anything else now," she said.
After three and a half years there, DePasquale moved to another startup, working on business development and sales. Shortly after, her former boss at a college internship contacted her about her current position at Grey Group, where she works in the company's innovation unit.
DePasquale said her experience with startups and emerging technologies has helped her adapt to change better and understand that it's OK to not have strictly defined long-term goals.
"The job I will do five years from now may not even exist at the moment," she said. "I think the concept of a three- to five-year plan has evolved, so I've learned how to evolve along with that."
Outside of work, DePasquale took up bodybuilding and powerlifting. She competed in the Ms. Penn bodybuilding show in college and finished fourth in the 2014 USA Powerlifting American Open.
HIGH SCHOOL: Longwood High School
COLLEGE: Stony Brook University, Class of 2011
JOB: Commercial financial manager, General Electric
LIVES IN: Manhattan
Kirin Mahmud said she had always looked for a career that would challenge her and allow her to grow both personally and professionally.
When she was at Longwood High School, she thought that meant working as a public accountant at one of the big four auditing firms. However, an internship at General Electric during her senior year at Stony Brook University changed that. She went back to GE after graduating and has been there ever since.
Mahmud started in the company's financial management rotational program. It gave her experience in a variety of positions, something she said she still actively pursues.
"Today to be successful, you need to have multiple areas of expertise and I am always seeking out new areas," she said.
Mahmud also said the diversity of her high school and college gave her experience working with a variety of people, which has further helped her personal and professional relationships. That ability has come in handy for Mahmud, who has spent time in 25 different countries for work, including eight months in Italy and four months in Singapore.
"You need to have a sense of emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others," she said regarding collaborating with others. "Looking back, I realize how grateful I was to have such a diverse community of friends and peers."
HIGH SCHOOL: Ward Melville High School
COLLEGE: Mount Holyoke, Class of 2011
JOB: Ph.D. candidate, University of Wisconsin
LIVES IN: Madison, Wis.
While working on a project during her first semester at Mount Holyoke College, Alexandra Fleagle discovered the school's archives and special collections, which developed her interest in archival research. Then, she said she stumbled into the history of medicine and science by accident while studying gender history during her junior year.
"I didn't realize that it was its own field until I began applying to graduate programs the next year," said the 2007 valedictorian of Ward Melville High School.
She decided to continue studying gender history for graduate school, where she got her master's degree from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland before serving in the AmeriCorps. She then enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's History of Science graduate program, where she has been for the past four years.
Along the way, Fleagle said she has found people at all levels of her educational and professional life who have been willing to lend a helping hand.
"I have found both peers and superiors who offered me kindness and support with only the expectation that I reciprocate," she said.
In particular, Fleagle cited her middle school teachers at Gelinas Junior High School as major influences.
She said, "The unconditional love and support that teachers like Mr. Laird, Ms. Meyn and Mrs. Jenkins offered helped me discover that learning was a process that required taking risks."