What does it take to be at the top of one’s graduating class? Some of the brightest high school students of Long Island’s graduating class of 2017 shared their thoughts on the most challenging aspects of being a valedictorian, including the pressure to meet expectations, balance schoolwork with a busy schedule and prepare a speech for graduation.
Michael Simoes, Brentwood High School Ross Center
On his path to becoming valedictorian, Michael Simoes found that he was his own best benchmark.
"I was always trying to outcompete myself to become better," the Brentwood High School senior said. Simoes said his goal was to always do better than the last time.
While he was self-motivated, Simoes said he never felt pressure from others to succeed, including his family.
"Once I took over myself, they let me be," he said.
Hafsah Kamal, Crescent School
Becoming the Crescent School valedictorian has given Hafsah Kamal an opportunity to set an example.
"Now that I'm valedictorian, I have more responsibilities," she said.
That includes looking out for her six younger sisters, whom she is trying to help in their own academic adventures.
"I'm trying to get them to study more. It's not working so far, I hope it will," she said with a laugh.
Kenny Ortega, Islip High School
Islip High School valedictorian Kenny Ortega said he often felt pressure to succeed from those around him at school.
"Everyone expects you to do well in all your classes," he said, especially his classmates.
"When I get a bad grade, they're like, 'Oh my God, the valedictorian got a bad grade,' " he said.
Such moments came few and far between for a top student like Ortega, but they served as reminders to his peers that valedictorians are human, too.
"It happens to everyone," he said. "We're not perfect."
Alexis Murry, Malverne High School
Alexis Murry has dealt with others' high expectations for her ever since she was named middle school valedictorian in eighth grade.
"There's always been that standard for me," said Murry, who went on to become Malverne High School's 2017 valedictorian.
She said she learned to deal with the external pressure, to take the most challenging courses and achieve the highest grades.
"If I'm able to handle the work," she said, "why not do it?"
Todd Warshawsky, Roslyn High School
For Todd Warshawsky, the most difficult part of being a valedictorian has been juggling extracurricular activities with academics.
"It has been challenging at times to balance," said the Roslyn High School valedictorian, who runs cross country and is part of the school's astronomy club and Quiz Bowl team.
However, he said his diverse experiences have influenced his outlook.
"It's been helpful getting to explore" a variety of fields with all different groups of people, he said.
Domenique Masi, Island Trees High School
The most challenging part of being a valedictorian for Domenique Masi comes after all the work she put into becoming one: writing a graduation speech.
"It's an added responsibility," she said. "I want it to be the best thing I've ever written."
She said faculty at Island Trees High School have been asking her for the name of her yet-to-be-completed speech.
"I can't give a title if I haven't written it," she said.
Masi said she's discussed a few ideas with her English teacher and hopes to have a rough draft done soon.
"I just want it to be perfect," she said.
Anthony Peraza, Shoreham-Wading River High School
Doing well in school meant living up to the family name for Anthony Peraza, who comes from a family of academic achievers. Before he became the 2017 valedictorian of Shoreham-Wading River High School, his two older brothers graduated among the top five of their respective classes, including one who was a salutatorian.
"They set examples that I followed," he said.
However, Peraza said he was motivated to study hard out of a desire to do well for himself rather than to reach someone else's bar.
"It wasn't my goal from the get-go," he said of being valedictorian. "I didn't want to just be consumed with school."
Angela Musco, Hauppauge High School
Angela Musco learned during her sophomore year that she had the potential to be the valedictorian of Hauppauge High School. That's when the school issued rankings for her class for the first time and Musco was first.
"I didn't expect to be valedictorian," before then, she said. "After ... I knew I could be."
Her success to that point gave her the motivation to stay on the path of graduating top of her class.
"The stress of keeping it up" was all the challenge she needed, she said.
Luke deArmas, Floral Park High School
Being a valedictorian and an athlete sometimes left Luke deArmas little time for anything else.
"It can get a little taxing," he said.
The Floral Park High School senior, who played soccer and basketball, said coming home late from games or practices meant sacrificing his social life or sleep to complete schoolwork.
"Sometimes you just can't go out with your friends, if you have to study for a test," deArmas said.
Isabella Pustovit, Westhampton Beach High School
The pressure to be at the top of her class was not something Isabella Pustovit ever felt, because she said she never set that goal for herself.
"I never really tried to be valedictorian," she said. "It wasn't on my list of things to do."
The Westhampton Beach High School senior said school work was difficult for her at times and that finding out she was valedictorian was a bit of a shock.
"It was never in my mind," she said. "I was surprised. It was pretty cool."