Competition can bring out the best in people. Even a friendly rivalry can provide inspiration to achieve.
For East Rockaway High School’s top two students, the competition ended years ago — if there even was a competition.
Clare Acuti and Julia Walsh were named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, for the East Rockaway High School Class of 2023. The two have been friends since kindergarten, and almost inseparable since the fourth grade. In fact, throughout high school, they helped each other with schoolwork basically every day.
“Maybe when we were younger there was a little rivalry,” Acuti said. “But as we got older, we became better people. I value my friendship with Julia over awards.”
Walsh agreed. “I know what matters to me and that’s my friendship with Clare,” Walsh said. “That’s why getting these achievements together is so special.”
While Acuti hasn’t determined where she will attend college just yet, she is certain she wants to study biology, possibly neuroscience. For the past four years, Acuti has conducted dementia research and outreach. She was inspired to study the disease when her grandmother, Diana Acuti, died from ALS and dementia when Clare was 9.
“It was a wake-up call,” Acuti said of her grandmother’s death. “I knew I needed to figure it out.”
In sixth-grade, Acuti reached out to and befriended a Columbia University professor who helped guide her research. Acuti participated in Brain Insight Lectures by Columbia scholars and ‘shadowed’ scientists as they conducted ALS research.
“I’m very interested in neuroscience and the brain, and helping people,” Acuti said.
Acuti has acquired many accolades in her academic career. She is president of the National Honor Society and served as vice president and secretary of Student Council. She was recognized as Student of the Year at East Rockaway, and named Student of the Month 22 times in college-level courses.
Acuti was the recipient of the Bausch & Lomb Honorary Science Award, co-president of the student newspaper, and a three-year volunteer for the Rock Rivalry school-wide competition. She was the vice president of the Tri-M Music Society and received NYSSMA and All-State honors in chorus. She is also a member of the varsity volleyball and badminton teams.
Walsh has continued a family tradition by becoming class salutatorian. Her sister, Gabriella, was salutatorian of East Rockaway in 2018 and provided inspiration for Julia growing up.
“I was really inspired to thrive because of my sister,” Julia said. “Seeing her achieve when I was in seventh grade made me say, ‘I want to be better than Gabby’. Now, she is my role model, and to be able to achieve this is special for me.”
Walsh said she enjoys math and science, and while she isn’t certain of a career or college, she wants to pursue mechanical engineering.
“I love the beginning-to-end transformation process,” she said. “From the design and small parts and then to see what it becomes. I really enjoy that process. Just putting things together and working in sequence.”
Walsh said in addition to being inspired by her older sister, the faculty at East Rockaway guided her throughout her school years.
“I credit my really great teachers,” she said.
Walsh was a recipient of the George Eastman Young Leaders Award and named Student of the Month numerous times in college-level courses. She has been president of Student Council every year of her high school career, and served as class treasurer. She is a member of the Yearbook Club and National Honor Society.
Walsh performed with jazz, band, and chorus in district musicals, and is a member of the Tri-M Music Honor Society. She plays varsity softball and volleyball, and was named a New York State Scholar-Athlete. She served as Overall Chairman for the school-wide Rock Rivalry competition.
“What stands out is that they’re pretty much involved in every facet of the school program,” East Rockaway High School Principal Rich Schaffer said. “There’s not a staff member in this building who doesn’t know who they are, and that’s what makes them extremely special.”
Acuti and Walsh will soon be much farther apart than ever before. While they live close now, they plan to go to colleges several hundred miles apart. That may not matter much, though, as the two are already accustomed to late-night study sessions over Facebook Live.
“It’s going to be a change because we really don’t live that far from each other,” Walsh said.