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At the top of their classes

2018 Lynbrook, East Rockaway valedictorians, salutatorians reflect and look ahead to graduation


As they prepare to walk across their respective graduation stages, the valedictorians and salutatorians at Lynbrook and East Rockaway high schools have been busily preparing their speeches and reflecting on their many experiences at their schools.

Some 226 students will graduate from Lynbrook High on Friday. Dustin Mandell is the valedictorian, and Jack Hunter, the salutatorian.

“Both Dustin and Jack were student leaders throughout their high school years, and were respected by their peers,” Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak said. “They have truly earned the distinction of being valedictorian and salutatorian. We wish them continued success.”

Marissela Gomez and Gabriella Walsh are East Rockaway High’s valedictorian and salutatorian. They, too, will graduate Friday.

“They’re wonderful students,” interim Principal Neil Lederer said. “They’re hardworking, dedicated, and they challenge themselves. They’re involved in a lot of activities, very diversified, and a great example of what dedicated, conscientious students can achieve.”

Dustin Mandell,  LHS valedictorian

Mandell has been involved in many activities, including serving as the student government president and editor-in-chief of the school’s award-winning Horizon newspaper.

“As student body president, I was able to lead my fellow classmates and give them voices in our school community,” Mandell said. “The money we raised and decisions we made for our class positively contributed to our education, which is a rewarding activity.”

Mandell was also a varsity tennis player and a member of the mathletes team. Last fall, he was named a commended student by the National Merit Scholarship Program, based on his score on the 2016 Preliminary SAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

Mandell said he attributes his success as a student to “creativity, tenacity and passion.” He said he approaches each class he takes with genuine interest, which helps him better understand the material.

When writing his valedictory address, Mandell said, he found it difficult to express himself because there are a variety of interests, strengths and qualities among his class.

“I hope my speech can provide some inspiration or insight into how we should approach the next chapter,” he said.

Mandell plans to major in economics at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, and will also study finance and management, as well as law and legal studies.

Jack Hunter, LHS salutatorian

Hunter has been a dedicated member of the Lynbrook High community inside and outside the classroom. His roles included student government class president and principal violist for the school orchestra. As a violist, he also performed at the All-County and Long Island String Festival concerts. He said his favorite role, however, was as chairman of Class Night, which is an evening of competition between the grades during which students perform skits and songs.

“Class Night is the foremost event of sprit, creativity and coming together as a grade in our school,” he said. “Being chair afforded me the opportunity to meet people I never would have otherwise met, watch all the hidden talents in our grade come to life on stage and in art, and celebrate our back-to-back sweeping victories.”

Hunter also was the op-ed editor for the Horizon and helped co-found the boys’ varsity swim team. He said his academic success came from never being afraid to ask for help from his friends, parents or teachers when he needed it.

“I also didn’t sleep, but who needs sleep?” he joked.

The salutatorian said he has experienced some writer’s block when attempting to write his speech, but noted at press time that he was close to completing it. He said it has been hard to encapsulate the diverse talents and backgrounds of the students at the school.

“For a tiny school, it’s crazy how much the student body has to offer,” he said, “especially if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone.”

Hunter plans to study biology with a focus on medicine at the University of Georgia in the fall.

Marissela Gomez, ERJSHS valedictorian

Gomez is dedicated to her studies and her community, which includes time spent volunteering at the local elementary school and veterinarian’s office in her family’s home country of Guatemala. She took accelerated and honors classes throughout high school and enrolled in nine Advanced Placement courses.

Though she has been successful, Gomez said, she isn’t one to rush into things. “I attribute several things to reaching this spot in my class, one of which is procrastination,” she said. “I am quite the procrastinator, so I tend to take many breaks between my work so I don’t lose all focus. However, there’s a strong feeling of determination and focus I get when there’s approximately just enough time to finish the work. It makes it fun. It becomes a challenge to do a good job and finish on time.”

Gomez was the class president, captain of the girls’ varsity soccer team, a member of the cross-country team, the chess club president, a peer AIDS educator and a Students Against Destructive Decisions member. She also has a passion for art and said she cherishes a project that she undertook with her friends for which they spent nearly a year painting a mural in the school’s chorus room.

Despite all of her roles within the school community, Gomez said, it’s the simple things that stand out to her when she reflects on her time at East Rockaway.

“My fondest memories are those that I spent with my friends,” she said. “Simple routines mean a lot to me now, like meeting in a hallway to talk between periods and going out for lunch. They’re seemingly insignificant, but they’re nice memories I’ll remember years from now.”

In the fall, Gomez plans to study chemical and biomolecular engineering at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Gabby Walsh, ERJSHS salutatorian

Walsh was plenty busy during her time at East Rockaway. She served as class president, the varsity soccer team captain, and a participant on the Quiz Bowl and lacrosse teams. She was also in the school band and was chairwoman of Rock Rivalry, an exhibition between grade levels for which students perform skits and engage in various competitions.

Despite her many activities, Walsh kept an “A” average and also became a member of the National Honor Society.

“Finishing second in my class has not been easy, and I believe I have been able to do so through the support of both my classmates and teachers,” Walsh said. “The teachers are incredibly willing to assist you in any way and truly want their students to succeed. I also have to give credit to my peers, because there was no feeling of competition between us. We all helped each other to do our personal best.”

Walsh said the sense of community and closeness was her favorite part about attending East Rockaway, and that because 76 people are in the graduating class, she was able to get to know most of her peers on a personal level.

After she graduates, Walsh plans to major in biology at SUNY Geneseo for three years and then to transfer to SUNY Upstate Medical University for another three years to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy. She said her time spent at East Rockaway has helped prepare her.

“I believe that everyone can truly make an impact on East Rockaway High School,” Walsh said, “not only because of the small size, but because the faculty truly cares and your ideas can be heard.”