From the time she was in elementary school, Ryley Conway knew she didn't fit the mold of star students who were all about academics, inclined to the arts or very athletic. She saw a different path in her thirst to know the world beyond her Long Island community.
Conway reveled in stories from an older brother who traveled to remote lands and sought to know more. By middle school she had learned about the struggles of the Lost Boys of Sudan, children orphaned and displaced by war, and she told herself that she would fight injustice in the world.
Conway, 17, a student at Hauppauge High School and the youngest of four children born to a retired NYPD inspector and a school nurse who live in Commack, decided that she "wanted to go as far from the U.S. as possible" to learn about other cultures.
She got a yearlong scholarship to study abroad from the U.S. Department of State, despite her parents' dismay at letting their teen daughter venture across the world.
She left in the summer of 2012, bound for Chennai, a city in southern India. Living there with a host family, attending a local school and working on humanitarian projects helped Conway affirm her commitment to human rights.
She said she was shocked at the extreme poverty and exploitation of children used as beggars. The neglect of disabled children dismayed her. She was also filled with wonder and reverence toward an ancient culture shaped by faith and tradition, and delighted in the friendliness of Indians who embraced her.
Conway put her heart and mind into the experience, learning enough Tamil to get by when she went on errands by herself, and doing puja, a religious ritual for worship in the Hindu tradition, alongside her host family.
"Before I left for India I was a vegan who only ate pasta and potatoes," she said. "I was so afraid to be left home alone, and here I was kind of out of my little bubble, and this assaulted my senses and taught me to be independent."
Conway will attend John Carroll University in Ohio to study in the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Program. She has made up her mind about devoting herself to aiding victims of human trafficking in indigent corners of the globe.
"I don't want to get used to poverty," she said. "I want to do something about it, and maybe I can't solve these problems, but helping one life is better than none."
By the accounts of those who know her, Conway has been doing her share.
In India she volunteered at an orphanage, where she played basketball with the children and taught English to a boy with a speech impediment. On Long Island, she donates her time as a coach with Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit that trains athletes with special needs, and recently volunteered to attend prom as part of a BOCES program for students with special needs.
Conway is part of her school's Natural Helpers, a peer-support club. She said she is looking forward to meeting new people at college and "focusing on what I'm passionate about."
That sounds like something she'd say, said Shannon Griffin, a social worker at the high school.
"She is passionate and compassionate," Griffin said. "She looks for injustice and ways to advocate for people who she feels maybe can't speak up for themselves."
WHAT MAKES YOU EXTRAORDINARY
I don't think I am extraordinary. I think anyone who has passion will be able to do something amazing."