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Student survives Katrina, accepted into all Ivy League schools

After Hurricane Katrina devastated his community outside New Orleans, Jude Okonkwo and his family moved to New York, eventually settling in Dix Hills. The storm showed his parents the importance of water safety, and Okonkwo was enrolled in swim classes and he learned to love swimming, becoming a lifeguard and a teacher of special-education students. After being accepted by all the Ivy League schools, Okonkwo plans to attend Harvard with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. He spoke about his life and goals on May 18, 2017. (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

Jude Okonkwo has certainly experienced a roller coaster of emotions in his 17 years, ranging from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the exhilaration of being accepted this year into all eight Ivy League schools.

Okonkwo had just turned 7 when the deadly storm made landfall in his coastal community of Harvey, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River. Although his home wasn’t badly damaged, Katrina’s impact was “life-changing,” he said.

The flooding prompted Okonkwo’s family — including his Nigerian immigrant parents, grandmother and four younger siblings — to move to New York. It also led his parents to enroll him in swimming lessons and fostered a love of the sport that inspired him to become a Town of Huntington lifeguard and an instructor to special-needs children.

“My parents, after seeing the destruction of the storm, saw the importance of water safety,” said Okonkwo, of Dix Hills. Of working with special-needs kids, he said: “It’s definitely fulfilling to make an impact, no matter how big or small.”

At Chaminade, Okonkwo has been editor-in-chief of his school’s literary magazine and news editor of the school paper, which has been named the state’s best high school newspaper three years in a row by the New York Press Association. He has also been glee club president and a mentor to Chaminade’s freshmen. Outside of school, Okonkwo is a lector, altar server and choir member at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Dix Hills.

And one other thing: He has also self-published a book of 70 original poems.

“Jude has a purposefulness to him, and he’s extraordinarily well-liked by his classmates,” said Brother Thomas Cleary, Chaminade president. “His spirit and energy in whatever activity he’s doing is palpable.”

HIGHER ED: Okonkwo, an aspiring neurosurgeon, will study English on a pre-med track at Harvard University.

FRESHMAN YEAR: “I’m most looking forward to the opportunity to continue to explore and grow.”

IF I RULED THE WORLD: “It would be great to see people be more empathetic and tolerant of each other’s ideas.”


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