Movin’ on UC/WNY grads talk of past, future

It may just be plain, old late June for all of us working stiffs, the end of another month.

However, for hundreds of local high school seniors, it is a magical time filled with optimism, excitement and just a little trepidation.

And for a few hard-working and forward-thinking students from Emerson and Union Hill High Schools in Union City and Memorial High School in West New York, all the effort they have put in to their high school education is paying off in a myriad of ways.

Not only are their schools recognizing them as Valedictorians and Salutatorians, but they have also been accepted to some of the best university programs that the country has to offer. The list of colleges that many Union City and West New York students will be attending is impressive, to say the least, even more so considering the sometimes-challenging atmosphere that can exist in urban high schools.

The Reporter recently visited Emerson, Union Hill and Memorial high schools and spoke to students (including some underclassmen who are taking college-level courses during the summer) and administrators to get a picture of what the future holds for the graduating seniors.

West New York- Memorial High School

According to Memorial High School Principal Matthew Sinisi, “Most of the senior class had many kids working with pre-school kids in after-school programs, [and] many worked for the Key Club, which is a volunteer organization that provides community services. Also, a lot of the kids did lots of walk-a-thons. They’re very involved.”

Best friends since the third grade, Maria Olaechia, 18, and Evelyn Arana, also 18, are Valedictorian and Salutatorian respectively. They never thought they would wind up sharing academic accolades together. Especially when Olaechia began going to Hi-Tech High School in North Bergen in her freshman year. Nor did they expect to be going to college to study the same thing. According to the two, “It just kind of happened that way.”

Said Olaechia, “I will be going Stevens Tech (in Hoboken), and I will be studying biomedicine.” It should be noted that neither student appeared to be excessively proud of their accomplishments. Said Sinisi, “You’re speaking to two very modest people here.”

Salutatorian Evelyn Arana will be attending Brown University (in Providence, Rhode Island) and studying the same thing as Olaechia – biomedicine. According to Olaechia, it was a summer 2002 visit to Rutgers University in New Brunswick that sparked their mutual interest in biomedicine.

Said Principal Matthew Sinisi, “Both of these students have been very positive role models for Memorial High School and West New York.”

Union City- Emerson and Union Hill

Though usually bitter cross-town rivals, Emerson and Union Hill High Schools share a commitment to educational excellence. And while both schools continue to have their share of problems, this academic year’s senior classes feature an array of students who have also committed themselves to academic excellence and will now carry Union City’s torch into the ivy-covered halls of some of the best schools in the country.

Senior Erick Espinal, 18, will be attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida and as such, will be fulfilling a childhood dream to study and be a part of everything aviation. Said Espinal, “I’ve always been interested in aviation and flight in general. To me, aviation really shows what humans can do when they put their minds to it.”

Espinal was also the recipient of a $34,000 per-year scholarship courtesy of the Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship Program.

In addition to his academic endeavors, Espinal has been involved throughout his high school career in many activities, including R.O.T.C, walk-a-thons, and the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program.

Espinal summed up his high school experience as such: “High school has been a learning experience, in life and not just academics. I learned to be a leader. I learned integrity, decisiveness – things that make you a leader.”

Emerson’s Salutatorian is Nancy Arriaza, who will be attending St. Peter’s College in Jersey City in the Fall, was not available for an interview.

Moving uptown, Union Hill’s Valedictorian, Rena Shah, 18 boasts a combined SAT score of 1470 and as such, was admitted to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Medicine and Dentistry’s joint seven-year medical school program. So impressive was Shah’s resume that she was admitted to the program without having to take the dreaded MCAT medical school entrance exam. According to Shah, she broke the record for highest SAT score at Union Hill. It should be noted that Shah was also accepted to Brown University’s eight-year program as well as New York University’s program.

Shah attributes her success to an inner drive. Said Shah, “My parents did push me, but everything I’ve done, I did because I wanted it.” Added Shah, “Most people don’t look at urban areas as academically inclined, but I think I’ve broken barriers and proven that somebody from UC can succeed.”

Union Hill’s Salutatorian Dalia Castro was also not available for an interview. .