Meet the Valedictorian and Salutatorian of the Class of 2021

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The Class of 2021 graduation ceremony was held on June 17th, 2021 at St. John’s University, as faculty, parents, and students alike gathered to celebrate this year’s graduating class. The Classic spoke to Michelle Stern and Shawn Edelstein, the Valedictorian and Salutatorian of the Class of 2021 respectively, as they reflected on their past four years at Townsend Harris High School. 

Q: What is the most important thing you learned from your time at Townsend Harris?

Michelle: This is an extremely difficult question to answer, as it’s hard to choose just one thing I learned throughout the past four years, but I’d say one of the most important takeaways I’ve had from my time at Townsend Harris is that oftentimes my greatest enemy is myself – that it’s important for me to acknowledge my internal obstacles and recognize that burying myself in stress, nerves, and self-imposed unrealistic expectations only makes my own life more difficult and unsatisfying.

Shawn: My experience at Townsend has definitely taught me to appreciate the smaller moments in life. As Townsend students, most of us are super busy being overachievers, pouring our time into clubs, teams, academics, and more. In the midst of all that, it’s easy for days and weeks to go by in a blur. With such a busy and rushed schedule, I realized the importance of holding on to small events throughout the day that made me smile or laugh, as they bring enjoyment to parts of my life that would otherwise become monotonous.

Q: What was your favorite memory from THHS?

Michelle: This is so tricky to answer, but I’d say that some of my favorite memories at Townsend were made in the last couple of weeks, especially with the totally surreal feeling of seeing everyone in person again after a year and a half of remote learning – leaving high school now feels really bittersweet.

Shawn: Rather than one specific moment, some of my favorite high school memories have come at track practice. After a mentally exhausting day at school, being able to spend time with my teammates while focusing my energy into running was a much needed break to take my mind off of anything causing me stress. Struggling through a difficult workout together is a bonding experience that creates life-lasting friendships, and the conversations we had between reps or in the weight room after practice were always valuable parts of my day. The support and sense of community I felt at those moments always made me excited to come back, as difficult as the track workouts may be.

Q: What extracurricular activities did you participate in at THHS? Which was most meaningful to you? 

Michelle: I participated in a handful of extracurriculars, but my main one was definitely music – violin, in particular. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people in Townsend knew me as the violin girl, and I totally get it – I would literally lug my violin around school like an idiot because I was too late to class to have time to put it away. I started playing when I was just about three years old, and ever since I was 10, I went to Juilliard Pre-college every Saturday for music studies – orchestra, chamber music, private lessons and masterclasses, concerts, and varied classes. I had my commencement from the Pre-college just around the same time I graduated from Townsend, which is a weird thought because it reminds me that I’m getting old. Aside from Juilliard, I continue to do tons of festivals, outside community outreach and concerts, competitions, programs, etc. that are related to making music. I also loved playing in chamber strings at Townsend with Mr. Lee throughout high school, and participating in Dr. Sato’s chamber music club and music peer tutoring program. Besides music, I’m obsessed with creative writing, and I’ve been in the Phoenix all four years of Townsend, eventually becoming the literary editor and having the best time with my co-editors and the super talented kids we work with. I was also a member and communications manager of SPE (save planet earth) club, and competed with the Latin League.

Shawn: As referenced in the last question, I ran on the cross country and track teams for four years at Townsend. In more academic pursuits, I was involved in the Model UN team for four years, and have written for the opinion department in The Classic since my Sophomore year. I have also committed many hours of community and political service outside of school. Each of these activities were meaningful to me in their own way, and combined to make my time at Townsend extremely rewarding. In terms of my own individual impact, I would say I am most proud of my experience with Model UN. From attending my first meeting as a Freshman, I have seen our team grow to levels I never could have imagined. Model UN provided me with a super tight-knit community, and as I have gradually taken on more responsibility within the club, becoming a co-president my Senior year, I have been able to welcome others in with the same warmth that I received from the start.

Q: Are there any particular THHS teachers that have greatly influenced or inspired you through the years? 

Michelle: I greatly enjoyed so many of my classes at Townsend, so it’s really hard to pick just one or two teachers that greatly influenced me – everyone inspired me in their own way. 

Shawn: Having taken both Spanish and Latin for three years at Townsend, eventually taking an AP class in both, the teachers in our foreign language department are all amazing. I remember being so scared for my Spanish class Freshman year and thinking that I would struggle with languages more than any other class. Despite being one of few freshmen in Sra. Villaverde’s second year Spanish class, I felt that she really took the time to make sure I had a strong base in the language, which allowed me to excel in a subject that I came in feeling worried about. From there, Sra. Ezquerra’s class my Sophomore year became one of the most fun parts of my day, and AP Spanish Literature with Sr. Castillo was such a complex yet engaging dive into iconic texts that transcend the Spanish language. Similarly, first year Latin with Dr. Colakis was challenging but taught me so much about a language I came in knowing nothing about, and I enjoyed Mr. Amanna’s class my next year so much that I came back for AP Latin my Senior year. Each of these teachers have so much passion for their subject, and have given me an immense appreciation for languages that will last me well beyond high school. I hope to visit Spanish speaking countries in the future, from Spain to Argentina, in order to take advantage of all I have learned at Townsend so that I may communicate with groups of people I would otherwise be separated from by a language barrier.

Q: Would you have done anything differently in your four years at THHS? 

Michelle: I think I would’ve been a lot kinder to myself if I were to redo my high school experience again. I was always extremely hard on myself in regards to basically anything and everything I did, and while that personal trait can be a type of motivator when present in moderate amounts, in its extremity it becomes a surefire way to be stressed out and/or constantly disappointed. I got much better with this as the years went by, but I wish my earlier years at Townsend were spent with a lot more self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. I also wish I met a lot of the amazing people currently in my life a lot earlier.

Shawn: I try not to think too much about regrets because I’m grateful for where I am and the person I’ve become after the last four years. Who knows how things would change if I made one decision differently. That being said, if I could do things over again I would probably try to find more time to spend with friends and enjoy being in high school more. Because of the pandemic, over a year of memories was basically taken away from us, so with that knowledge I would have cherished the time we had together more. I also dealt with some bullying in middle school, so coming into Townsend I was a little hesitant to get close to others and make friends. As a result, it took me longer than others to really find my community and become comfortable with myself, so I definitely wish I had more time to make memories with the amazing people I met here.

Q:  What does being valedictorian/salutatorian mean to you?

Michelle: I’m incredibly grateful and honored to have received the title of valedictorian, but I don’t think such a title speaks to much in terms of my overall experience at Townsend, nor does it measure up to the gratefulness I feel towards the opportunity I had to learn, grow, and graduate alongside such talented, passionate, and just overall fun classmates and friends. Valedictorian or not, my time at Townsend is defined by the support of those who loved me, the memories I made with everyone, and the amazing places I’m sure we’ll all go in the future.

Shawn: Above all else I feel extremely honored to be towards the top of such a talented class of students. This achievement is still pretty surreal for me, as I have learned so much from my peers at Townsend and outside of a number I feel as though I’m the one looking up to them. Coming into high school I hadn’t even considered that I could become the salutatorian or valedictorian, and I remember feeling so thrilled that I was even accepted into the school at all. My mentality from the start was just to prove that I belonged here, and the work that I put in ended up getting me way farther than I could have expected.

Q: What college do you plan to attend and why were you drawn to this school in particular? What are your career goals and/or other plans for the future?

Michelle: I’m going to be attending Harvard College in the fall, and I’m both really excited and really nervous. I was drawn to Harvard because it appeared to me to be the perfect place to continue my interdisciplinary pursuits – keeping up my music and also my academics. I also really love the people! I’ve gotten to meet a lot of my future classmates recently, and the community seems wonderful. Of course, I’m a bit worried because I’ve always been in NYC, and going to college means lots of change, but I have faith that I’ll get better at doing “adult things.” Like not being a slob. As for my plans for the future, I’m a bit unsure where the future will take me. I know music will be in my future, among many of my other passions, but I think I have a lot more exploration to do before I can give this question a definite answer.

Shawn: I’m planning on double majoring in Statistics and Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park. From a young age math was my favorite subject in school, and I’m hoping to apply that to politics, which is something I’ve become super passionate about and would bring me fulfillment in my career. I’m not exactly sure what my career path will look like, but I’m interested in policy analysis and other ways I could use math and statistical methods for a greater purpose.

Q: Is there a song that resonates with your experience at THHS? Any particular lyric from that song? 

Michelle: This question strongly resembles one of the questions on a college app I had, which is giving me serious flashbacks. I remember greatly struggling to arrive at an answer before eventually settling on something random because I was overthinking like usual. I still don’t have a good answer to this question, but “into the thick of it” from the Backyardigans seems quite fitting for a series of experiences I’ve had where I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, but went for it anyways. This rings true for much of our near futures as well.

Shawn: “Started From the Bottom” by Drake. It’s pretty self explanatory, but we’ve all grown so much over the past four years that looking back at Freshman year, it really does feel like we started at the bottom compared to where we are now.

Q: What message would you share with the Class of 2021? 

Michelle: Just like Principal Condon did, I just have to quote Neeraj in the yearbook. To the class of 2021, I can assure you that “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.”

Shawn: I hope that the Class of 2021 recognizes the magnitude of everything they’ve achieved, and that we can all take a moment to be proud of ourselves for making it this far. The past four years have been difficult for everyone, and the obstacles we’ve faced, from school to our personal lives, are no small feat. My advice would be to take everything you’ve experienced in high school with you in the future, as both a reminder of what you’ve overcome and inspiration to leave an impact on this community. Congratulations to every graduate, and I am confident that the Townsend Harris Class of 2021 will go on to change the world. 

Photos courtesy of Michelle Stern, Shawn Edelstein

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