Meet the valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2022

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The Class of 2022 graduation ceremony was held in Colden Auditorium at Queens College on June 23 for the first time in three years, with students gathering with parents, friends, and teachers to celebrate. The Classic spoke to William Olsen and Mena Labib, the valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2022 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? 

William: I would say the most important thing I’ve learned is with regard to making a plan and preparation. There’s been several different times where I’ve had to create a plan under a time crunch in order to get everything I need to done, and it makes it so not only is my turnaround a lot quicker, but it also makes it so the results are nicer. So when it came to December, around the time of college apps, a plan really helped. When it came to the time around a bunch of AP tests, a plan really helped for organizing when to study or when to do things like that, and just having a way to work through a problem quickly and efficiently. Even though it might seem like I don’t have enough time or it’s too much, being able to just visualize it and work and execute it is very, very important that I’ve honed here.

Mena: Coming into high school, I anticipated an unmanageable amount of work and stress. This fear of being overwhelmed had prompted me to prepare for the worst: a life marked by sleepless nights and perpetual stress. It wasn’t until I became accustomed to THHS that I realized that my nerves got the better of me, and that I would still have time to experience things that make me happy with the people who make me happy. Now that I’m leaving, I can say that I learned how to find a healthy balance between my academic studies, extracurricular activities, and personal life. 

Q: What is your favorite memory from high school? 

William: I mean, there’s a lot to choose from. I would say one of them is probably walking down the halls during election season and hearing my Jumaane Williams ad, the mobile game ad being played, and just hearing the loud 21st century music noises throughout the entire fourth floor. That was pretty funny. I would say the moment during graduation practice where it was literally announced that I was valedictorian. Besides this being a lot more salient in my mind right now, it struck me by such surprise and it has not been the easiest year for anyone. But for me in particular, it’s been really not great with the broken leg, and also the passing of my grandmother around the exact same time. So it just came off as a very pleasant wrap off to a rough year.

Mena: It’s not a specific, single event, but my favorite memories were collectively the ones I spent with my friends during our free periods and after school. I enjoyed every moment of our walks and picnics in Queens College campus, our banter in the third floor hallways, and spontaneous trips in the neighborhood. 

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

William: For most of my time, I dedicated myself to ModIT (Modern Innovative Technology Club). The first half of freshman year I did robotics. And then I thought I wanted a more casual setting, so I went to ModIT and ModIT was a very chill home club for a while and I eventually became Vice President and coding advisor. But in recent times for my extracurriculars, I’ve been sort of going around while I’m waiting for my QC classes to see different clubs. I went to Wellness with [my friend] Aviv around Valentine’s Day, and I got to design one of the cards that was put on a bunch of the lockers (if you see the one with the teddy bear with the heart, that was me). 

Mena: As a transfer student, I started participating in extracurricular activities at THHS during my sophomore year.  It was that year and the one that followed that I joined The Phoenix’s writing department and the THHS Book Club. Reading and writing have always been a safe space to harness my imagination and creativity. I joined Book Club and The Phoenix to meet people with similar interests, analyze renowned and complex literature, and improve my writing proficiency. I was disappointed to hear that Book Club was dismantled during my last year of high school, but I’ve heard that it’s being revived for the 2022-2023 school year. In terms of senior year, I decided to explore other options and joined the Health Professionals Society and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M was the most meaningful extracurricular activity to me because we created a safe space for sensitive conversations, spent no days without laughing and enjoying each other’s presence, and went on fun trips outside school. I truly recommend checking BC2M out. 

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

William: A lot of the humanities teachers had a big impact on me with just giving me room to express myself creatively. Mr. McCaughey let me do art for some of the projects, which was pretty nice, and the art contests in Ms. Sherman’s class were also fun. I would say it was the general community that had more of a strong influence on me than any one teacher. So even though I’m very, very thankful for the classes that gave me a lot more freedom to work within my interests, especially Mr. Hackney and AP Capstone with choosing whatever you wanted to research, having that freedom to explore what I want to explore was really nice.

Mena: I came into high school with an elementary understanding of chemistry and zero familiarity with literature written in Spanish. Yet, I’m walking out with a fondness for both because of how much Mr. Kadamani and Mr. Castillo helped me realize my passion for chemistry and Spanish literature respectively. 

Q: What advice would you give to underclassmen? 

William: I would say beyond just making plans and not only making plans but also knowing how to execute them is extremely important to getting your work done and giving the grade assignments what they want. But [it is] also just your mindset. I feel like it’s a lot healthier to have a mindset of “it is what it is” than to put your heart and soul into a test and not have it turn out the way you want it to. When I first came here, I was used to getting easy high grades—I got sucker punched. After adopting this new philosophy, [the high grades] sort of came back and came back. And it just got better. So by paradoxically not necessarily caring about my grades, it helped it. 

Mena: Be kind to yourself. You know yourself best, so understand your limits and don’t get to the point where you’re physically, emotionally, or mentally drained. 

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

William: Being valedictorian feels like validation following years of arduous work. The [THHS] community does not compete that heavily, meaning that grades are not often discussed and therefore I could not have known it would have ever been me. When it was announced during the graduation practice, it took me entirely by surprise, yet after such a year, it only came to feel right. Even though it ultimately just is a designation based on grades, being able to represent the work ethic and perseverance of my fellow students is a position I feel deeply grateful for. The announcement took me by surprise because of how great you all are. I do not know people who are as dedicated and bright as you. Having the opportunity to speak to you directly, and let you know how great you’re gonna be, is an honor none compares to.

Mena: I am incredibly grateful to be named salutatorian; it really puts into perspective how far I’ve come. Mena from four years ago would never have expected receiving such an accomplishment, especially since he was in a completely different high school at the time. But also, I know that a title cannot begin to measure what a journey Townsend has been, and I’m genuinely going to miss it. 

Q: What college are you attending? What are your career goals/plans for the future? 

William: I’m going to be going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for Computer Science. In the future, I want to go into interactive entertainment, so [I’ll] probably [go into] video games and things like that and do programming. I also have other things with art and that’ll help me with making games so that I get to do STEM coding stuff while also honing my more artistic skills like drawing.

Mena: I am attending New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) for the Life Sciences, B.S./Osteopathic Medicine, D.O. program. I’m not sure what the future holds for me, but I would like to pursue a career in dermatology (as I’ve become interested in understanding my personal skin concerns). So, after D.O. school, my next steps would be dermatology residency.

Q: What would you have done differently in the last four years, if anything? 

William: If I knew I was going to be valedictorian, I’d probably be a bit more involved. I feel like compared to a lot of the other high achieving students, I did not quite give as much to the community as I definitely could’ve. And I feel like I noticed a lot of places or at different events where it’s like, “I could have helped out here” or “I just didn’t do that here.” But if I could go back knowing that “you’re more important than you think you are in the general community here,” then I probably would have done my best to give my abilities wherever I could.

Mena: I would’ve given FON a chance. The only thing that held me back was my ineptness as a dancer, but I feel like it could’ve been fun regardless, especially with my friends around. 

Q: Is there a song that best resonates with your THHS experience?

William: I don’t know if there’s one that sums up my experience. There’s one track of a video game soundtrack in particular that I like to think of when it comes to working through tough times, and these past few years, in general, are tough times. It’s called “Nobody Cooled it” from the Death Road to Canada soundtrack. When you look at school, I’m sure you envision an array of black boxes with a teacher trying to say, “Oh, don’t worry about my kid.” 

Mena: “Brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo best sums up my THHS experience. Not that I think my THHS experience was brutal—Rather, the song resonates well with a lot of people, including myself, because of how Olivia Rodrigo captures the epitome of the struggles of someone in high school.

Photo by Erica Lee

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