Justin Guo, W.T. Clarke High School’s valedictorian, will bring more to the podium at graduation than just the best grade point average in his class. He will bring a high school career record of maturity, leadership among his peers and generosity in helping others share his devotion to the computer sciences.
Guo, 17, of Westbury will graduate with a weighted GPA of 1.0975 and an unweighted 9.7453 — essentially a 4.0. He was hailed by Clarke science educators as someone who has gone “above and beyond” excelling in the sciences.
State Sen. Anna Kaplan has introduced a resolution in Albany to recognize Guo, along with Clarke’s salutatorian, Saniya Gatonde, for their accomplishments. It states that the two “represent the best of developed potential inherent in our most precious resource, our youth; their achievements have brought enduring honor to their families and communities and should be recognized and saluted.”
Guo, who is headed for Cornell this fall, was characteristically understated about his accomplishment. “I’m just a big nerd in computer sciences,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was a landslide ahead in terms of the numbers. There are plenty of other students who rightfully would have deserved the title. But I think my work ethic helped. It has always been my strategy to challenge myself to do more than what’s expected of me, and more than others around me. I figure if it doesn’t work out, it helps with exploring your boundaries.”
Guo’s family — he’s the youngest — moved to Westbury from New Jersey when he was in second grade. He gave a nod to his family for their support. “They’re always there for me, and always trust me with any decisions I ever make,” he said. “I feel very lucky that way.”
At Clarke he led the hackathon, a competition in which students demonstrate their ability to come up with creative solutions to problems through software development. As captain of his team, Guo led Clarke to a first-place finish this year with what was judged the best capital defense project.
At the USA Computing Olympiad, he amassed a perfect score at the bronze level. “There are three problems you have to find a solution for, [and] write code for right there in ascending difficulty,” he explained. “Strange questions, like this one where there was a field and cows were grazing in a straight line. They couldn’t graze over grass that had already been eaten, and you had to calculate how many minutes they could go without grazing over already-grazed grass. To solve that, I created a simulation and ran test cases.”
Alexa Salzman, an Advanced Placement computer science teacher at Clarke, said it didn’t surprise her when she learned that Guo had been named valedictorian. “Since I had him as a freshman in my computer programming class, he’s been a leader, helping his peers in any way he could,” Salzman said. “Even though he didn’t take my A.P. course junior year, he asked if he could come to my classroom during lunch. I though he just wanted to do some of his own work, but he ended up being my unofficial T.A.”
“I have to up my game with him,” added Linda Froehlich, who teaches calculus at Clarke. “It makes you a better teacher to have a student like Justin in the class.”
Guo acknowledged that it’s somewhat unusual for a student to take on the role of teaching assistant in an A.P. class, but there’s no formal system in place at Clarke for T.A.s. “I’m not sure I’ll go into a teaching field in life, but it was a great learning experience,” he said. “It helped me to see how the learning process works, how other people’s minds work, and I anticipate it’ll help with how I cooperate with colleagues at college.”
Asked about the unique challenges he and his classmates in the class of 2021 faced with the coronavirus pandemic, he turned philosophical. “There are a lot of distractions in our world today, with telephones buzzing constantly and the rather dreary circumstances that have been thrust upon us,” he said. “The pandemic certainly set some people behind. It felt like a massive stick thrown into the machine of our learning experience.”
And yet, Guo said, he believes that the pandemic gave him and his classmates an opportunity. “No other class has had to experience this,” he said, “so in a sense, despite how dark and dreary the pandemic seems, it shows future classes that despite all these forces, we still have the power to shine.”
“Our community is quite a smooth-running one, so generally we haven’t had to face many of the problems students have had at other schools,” he added. “It was difficult to be guinea pigs in a year like this. But the school made the best out of a bad situation, and we made it through.”
And in the end, he said, the challenges the class of 2021 faced can serve to make its members stronger. “One of the best ways to grow is to face challenges, inconveniences,” Guo said. “The pandemic helped us in that sense. We’ve learned to make the best out of a sub-par situation. Going on to college and career, we’ll all face problems. Making it through this pandemic has helped make us ready for anything.”