This story is part of Newsday’s 2019 Extraordinary Seniors series showcasing 16 high school students from across Long Island with the vision and determination to transform their corners of the universe — and perhaps beyond. Click here to read more.
Versatility, curiosity and tenacity are the keys to Kenneth Wei’s psyche.
In addition to completing 11 Advanced Placement courses at Mount Sinai High School — a course load that put him on track to be salutatorian and an AP Scholar with Distinction — Wei, 18, opted to diversify with electives ranging from psychology to ceramics to computer programming.
“I just really wanted to enjoy my high school experience and not focus too much on grades, too much on academics, that stress a lot of people out,” he said.
Over the past two summers, Wei has worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he was the only student selected to intern in the biology department and was recognized for his research on castor, a plant whose oil is used in fuel.
“It’s not very efficient,” Wei explained about castor oil. “So we try to take the DNA that helps produce that oil and move it to a different plant that’s better at producing oil.”
Athletics also figure prominently in Wei’s life. As a varsity track athlete, he holds the New York State record in 60-meter hurdles and is ranked No. 1 among long jumpers in the United States for 2019.
“I love track because a lot of it is individual, and when you achieve results you can definitely say that you achieved those results through your hard work and passion,” he said.
In addition to academics and athletics, Wei plays flute for the school band ensemble.
“When I was really young, I was really interested in music. I loved watching 'Charlie Brown,' and watching the guy play piano was amazing,” said Wei, who has played the piano since he was 7.
During the three-plus years his family lived in Beijing when he was 10 to 13, Wei learned Mandarin and Cantonese, his parents' native tongues; his fluency surprised even himself. Wei put that education to work for three years as a teaching assistant in Mandarin at Stony Brook University.
Ever more involved at school, Wei joined the student government last year, first serving as secretary, then as president in his senior year. Other volunteer activities have included such causes as Long Island Cares, Adopt a Family for Christmas and Asiyah Women's Center, an emergency shelter for Muslim women in Manhattan.
“Even though you don’t get a reward for a lot of efforts, to see the product of your work around the school, the charities that we run, the clubs that we donate to, it’s just very fulfilling for you," he said.
For Scott McEvoy, Wei’s school counselor, his work ethic and humility stand out. “While he has a quiet confidence, he never demonstrates arrogance or a sense of entitlement and is always gracious, humble and respectful,” McEvoy said.
The multifaceted, multitalented Wei has telling advice for others: Don’t limit yourselves.
“If you’re a musician, you don’t always have to stay a musician,” Wei advised. “If you’re an athlete, you don’t always have to stay an athlete. No matter what your talents are, you can always branch out and go beyond your comfort zone.
"And maybe you’ll surprise yourself and other people along the way.”
HIGHER ED: Wei will attend MIT and major in biological engineering.
FRESHMAN YEAR: "I’d like some time on my own to branch out and reach my own new horizons."
IF I RULED THE WORLD "[I’d] make everyone try to understand different people in their own shoes and try to get a different perspective."