Michael Hennig and Olivia Zukowski are focusing on the future after being named Wantagh High School’s 2018 valedictorian and salutatorian.
The top two students in this year’s graduating class met in elementary school, but got to know each other as members of the high school’s Science Olympiad team. Hennig and Zukowski took part in the New York C Division State Tournament for the past four years, and helped the Warriors finish third out of 45 teams at the 2018 New York Science Olympiad Nassau East Regional competition in February.
“Science Olympiad is a movement at Wantagh High School,” said Carolyn Breivogel, the school’s principal, as Hennig and Zukowski laughed.
Hennig, described by Breivogel as Science Olympiad adviser Rich Colavita’s right-hand man, will attend Cornell University in the fall, and plans to go to medical school. He became interested in the medical field as an underclassman, taking biology and Advanced Placement biology in back-to-back years and shadowing researchers at a Stony Brook Hospital cancer lab two summers ago.
“He’s really humble with the things that he does because he is, obviously, a very intelligent person,” Zukowski said, “but he wants to help others when he needs to.”
According to his guidance counselor, Courtney Prestianni, the only time you will see Hennig toot his own horn is when he is playing trumpet with the pit orchestra, pep band and or jazz band. Prestianni said that Hennig’s care for others — and his musical talent — are also on display at Christ Lutheran Church of Wantagh, where he is the youngest member of the congregation’s bell choir by several decades.
“I knew right away that he was going to be our valedictorian,” Prestianni said. “He embodied all the characteristics — not only ambitious but well-spoken, kind, and [he] stood out as a potential leader.”
While Hennig found his strengths in science and music, Zukowski thrived in her class’s student council. She became the class of 2018’s president as a freshman, and has held the position ever since.
She will be a Foote Fellow at the University of Miami this fall, choosing the school because it will allow her to pursue her complementary interests in environmental science and policy. Her passion to fight for a sustainable planet took her to the United Arab Emirates during her sophomore year, where she participated in debates and visited environmental projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Zukowski earned the trip after being named a finalist in an essay contest sponsored by the Trust for Sustainable Living and coordinated by the Living Rainforest, and said that her travels taught her how students around the world face problems with sustainability in their own countries.
“We all have that same goal,” she said, “but after speaking to them, I realized that everyone comes from a different place, and it’s not that simple.”
Jacqueline Lennon, Zukowski’s guidance counselor, remembers being impressed by her when the two sat down to discuss her sophomore schedule. Zukowski wanted to take 11 classes that year, even though there are only nine class periods, so she bought a Rosetta Stone Spanish course and taught herself the language at home while taking French at school.
“She’s like no other student I’ve ever met,” Lennon said. “It’s very unlike a high school student to embrace everything that she’s taken on.”
Breivogel said that when Zukowski and Hennig entered the high school, she knew they were something special. Last year they earned Junior Awards, a major indicator of who might be the school’s top-ranked students as seniors.
Above all else, Breivogel said, the pair are role models for the community, representing the high school as kind young adults who simply make Wantagh better. “If you were going to have a son and daughter,” Breivogel said, “these are the kids you want to have.”