Challenges are part of life. So are highs and lows, unfortunate happenstance and silver linings.
The 2014 class of Extraordinary Seniors has had brushes with all of the above, and in the process made deliberate and thoughtful choices for themselves that often intentionally resulted in a greater, more beneficial impact on others.
Humble, passionate, ambitious and compassionate are a few terms that describe Newsday’s Extraordinary Seniors. They were selected from dozens of letters submitted by guidance counselors and principals across Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Read their full stories here.
Ryley Conway, Hauppauge High School
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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. After living in India for a year through the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, Ryley Conway, a senior from Hauppauge High School, realized she was passionate about human rights. Conway will study at Ohio’s John Carroll University in the fall and major in Peace, Justice and Human Rights.
Eswar Dommaraju, Hicksville High School
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When Eswar Dommaraju isn’t earning straight A’s or participating in community activities with the youth group he helped create, he is most likely volunteering at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, practicing the Indian tabla percussion instrument, or participating in clubs and sports.
Dommaraju, 17, moved to Hicksville from Queens when he was in sixth grade. In 10th grade he and a group of friends decided to pitch the idea of a youth group to the Telugu Literary and Cultural Association, an organization his family had joined.
Julia Eberhard, Mount Sinai High School
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If Julia Eberhard decides to go to medical school, she will be way ahead of the game. After all, she’s already comfortable teaching surgery.
When Eberhard, 18, was having trouble getting Mount Sinai High School guidance counselor Audra Falco to visualize the latest operation she underwent related to her Marfan’s syndrome, the student Falco describes as a “science fanatic” just punched up a video of the procedure on the computer so they could watch it together.
Reed Ginsberg, Jericho High School
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Nothing has come easily for Reed Ginsberg. He just makes it look that way.
Ginsberg, 18, is lauded by teachers and coaches at Jericho High School for his ability to combine his talent for math and technology with his interest in sports and music.
His honors include the prestigious Alice Griswold Award at the 2013 Long Island Math Fair and most-valuable player last year in the state high school soccer championships.
His accomplishments obscure the wounds he has endured since birth from a series of illnesses and accidents.
Matthew Giovanniello, South Side High School
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When Matthew Giovanniello’s grandmother had a paralyzing stroke in 2008, he knew he had to find a way to communicate with her. They had always been close — Theresa Giovanniello cooked a big lasagna dinner for his family and they saw her almost every weekend.
But after her stroke, Matthew, who at the time was in the seventh grade, noticed that in therapy she failed to respond to flashcards of stick figures and random clip art of houses and cars. He designed a PowerPoint computer program that included photos of family members and his grandmother’s home and dog.
Kwasi Enin, William Floyd High School
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When Kwasi Enin takes his viola out of its blue-felt-lined case, there’s a healthy dusting of rosin under the strings. It’s well used. The scholar, who made international news when he got accepted to all eight Ivy League schools, is a virtuoso, too.
Enin of Shirley said he plays music for about 18 hours a week. He sings, plays the viola, piano and electric bass; and throughout his time at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, he has participated in chamber orchestra, annual musicals and the men’s a cappella group. Last year he received a perfect score in his all-state choir audition. Watch a video of Kwasi answering as many questions as possible in 30 seconds, an article on his acceptance to eight Ivy league institutions, and an article about his decision to go to Yale.
Tae Hoon Kim, Jericho High School
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It was only five years ago that Tae Hoon Kim’s family moved from South Korea to Philadelphia, with hopes of providing him and his younger sister with better educational opportunities.
Kim, then 13, said his English-speaking experience consisted solely of a couple years of basic English classes at school in his native country. He knew the alphabet and could get by conversationally, but he realized that he needed to learn the language quickly to succeed in America.
To help expand his vocabulary and comprehension, the determined Kim said he began with the basics: Dr. Seuss.
Sodasia Thompson, Bay Shore High
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Sodasia Thompson has learned to work around the obstacles that could have kept her from her goals.
When she couldn’t attend a music program at her school, Bay Shore High, the summer before her sophomore year because she had to work, she met with the instructor every day an hour before her job started to soak up all she could.
Thompson, 18, was raised by her aunt, Claudia Bizzle of Bay Shore, after her mother could no longer care for her.
“She is the greatest person on earth,” Thompson said. “She literally saved my life. If I ask her for something, she will try her absolute hardest to get it for me.”
Kellenberg girls, Kellenberg Memorial High School
Classmates Erin Von Elm, Anneliese Riesterer and Sarah Lyne are three of a kind in an improbable and inspiring way. They were each diagnosed with brain ailments, months apart during their junior year, that required surgery to save their lives or maintain basic functions.
Von Elm was the first to learn she had a tumor, followed by Riesterer’s diagnosis of an arteriovenous malformation and then Lyne’s diagnosis of two brain tumors. Von Elm and Riesterer were neighbors and friends whose shared experience only brought them closer. They knew of Lyne, but never really interacted because they were in different social groups. That all changed when doctors found a tumor in Lyne’s brain.
Sarah Lyne, Kellenberg Memorial High School
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Sarah Lyne, 18, had endured headaches for two years before an MRI in January 2013 revealed a tumor. Leaving it in place meant side effects that included a droopy face and impaired speech and mobility.
The next month, Lyne, who lives in Lido Beach, went to the hospital for her scheduled surgery and was met with more devastating news — a second tumor had been found. “That was terrible,” she said.
Lyne underwent surgery that day and both tumors were removed. She was released from the hospital after five days but couldn’t walk after the procedure and had to use a walker for a short period. The surgery also caused damage to her neck, and she is still trying to regain her full range of motion. Lyne, who had played on Kellenberg’s soccer team for three years, had to sit out her senior season. But she stayed involved by becoming team manager.
Anneliese Riesterer, Kellenberg Memorial High School
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About four months after Von Elm started having headaches, Anneliese Riesterer woke up early on a Saturday at home in Hempstead with a bad pain in the back of her head. She told her mother and they eventually called 911.
At first, they were told it could be the flu and that she didn’t need to go to the hospital. But the pain got worse so they called 911 again and an ambulance arrived. Riesterer’s father, Karl, a former EMT, came home to check on her. “I remember sitting at the top of the stairs, seeing the EMTs bring in the stretcher, and then I blacked out,” she recalled.
In July 2013, the malformation was removed using a gamma knife, a much less invasive surgery than originally scheduled. A stroke affected the left side of her body, so she can’t run and has yet to regain fine motor skills in her left hand.
Riesterer had played tennis for nine years. She can no longer do so, but last season she was named team manager. At the fall athletics banquet, she was given the “Most Committed Player” award.
Erin Von Elm, Kellenberg Memorial High School
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Erin Von Elm, now 17, started having headaches in September 2012, soon after the start of junior year. She went to see her doctor and was told the cause was likely stress — unless she awoke the next day in similar pain. “Of course the next morning I open my eyes with the headache and I ran downstairs,” she said.
Von Elm, who lives in Hempstead, went to Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park and was told she had an atypical neurocytoma — a rare tumor at the center of her brain. She’s had 31 radiation treatments after her surgeries. A piece of the tumor remains and could eventually grow.
Von Elm said she is excited about going to college so she can “turn something that was so terrible into something great.” She will attend Hofstra University, where she plans to study education. She wants to work as a specialist assisting patients and their families at Cohen, where her surgeries were performed.