CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Shenendehowa Central School District will hold its 2021 high school graduation on the school campus next week when more than 800 graduating seniors will get a chance to sit in familiar surroundings, commiserate one last time with classmates, and shed a tear or two as their high school experience comes to a close.
With fingers crossed, the district, as well as the students’ parents, are hoping for a wide, sun-filled sky without so much as a hint of rain in order to give the seniors a sendoff they can remember fondly after missing out on so many school memories during the past 15 months.
Two students who will take the podium that day for a few final remarks to fellow classmates are class Valedictorian Salvatore Brancato II and Salutatorian Yicheng Huang.
In emails with the district and with the two young men themselves this newspaper was able to learn something about them.
Brancato II, 18, is the son of Danielle Brancato and the late Salvatore Brancato. This year’s class Valedictorian is the definition of having hard work and perseverance pay off.
Having moved into the district with his two sisters in the second grade, the class Valedictorian recalled all three struggling academically. In fact, Brancato said he was in Academic Intervention Services classes and needed extra help all through elementary school and middle school until he found his way onto the learning path.
“I started to work much harder in school, not for the sake of a grade but for the sake of simply learning,” he said. “I actually found my degree of learning diminished when I was focused on a grade instead of simply trying to understand and grasp concepts.”
Brancato along with his sister (they are triplets) was raised by a single mom and his grandparents. In talking with his grandfather he heard stories of how the older man had arrived in this country as a child, could not speak the language and was held back because of it. Nevertheless, he overcame all obstacles, balanced school classes with work, and wound up starting a successful business.
“His sacrifice and hard work paved the way for our family, so we can take advantage of any opportunity that comes our way,” he said.
Brancato will attend Cornell University in Ithaca in the fall where he plans to undertake a pre-med program of study starting with a focus on Biology and Society. He added that he will also take a close look at biological engineering. His career goal is to be a plastic surgeon.
Asked why he chose to go to Cornell, Brancato noted its academic prestige, large undergraduate student population, diversity, proximity to home, the campus and college town atmosphere, and the food.
When asked to recall a special memory he holds of Shen, Brancato noted a Spanish class taught by señora Clarkin. It was thanks to her that he was able to hold conversations with locals on trips to Spain, Ecuador, and Mexico. He plans to minor in Spanish at Cornell.
In his Valedictory speech, Brancato said he will leave his classmates with words about time management and goal setting. He noted that he never stayed up past midnight to complete a school assignment.
“This might sound like health class, but it works I promise,” he wrote. “I manage my time in a way so that I don’t have to cram for tests or pull all-nighters to get assignments done. Also, always make sure to budget for fun. Having an active social life is a great way to take a break from the stress of school.”
Class Salutatorian Yicheng Huang knows something about overcoming obstacles too. He learned that from his father; the first person from his village to go to college and the first to leave his country and immigrate to the U.S.
Huang, 17, is the son of Zhumin Cheng and Haigou Huang. He has one younger sister. In answering several questions posed to him by Shen's administration for the district’s Valedictorian and Salutatorian announcement, he made note of how his father has inspired him through demonstrating that perseverance and determination pay off.
“I greatly value my education because I am aware of the hurdles my dad had to overcome so I could learn in this land of opportunity,” Huang said.
Huang said it is means a lot to him to receive the honor of being class Salutatorian; a nice testament to all the hard work and effort he invested the past few years. But, he added that his personal motivation has always been fueled by an innate desire to surpass his own limits rather than external rewards.
“It’s easy to lose motivation after reaching a specific threshold or receiving some award whereas the pursuit of self-improvement is a continuous process so motivation never ceases,” he said.
This fall Huang plans to major in computer science with a minor in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school he refers to as his dream school. He has been focused on enrolling there since middle school.
“Besides having the best math and computer science program in the world, MIT also has ample research opportunities that students can engage in as soon as freshman year,” he said. “The Boston area is also definitely nice as it means more opportunities to get internships.”
When asked about career plans after college he admitted he has no specific career goal in mind.
“I am still just scratching the surface of knowledge so I definitely want to remain flexible and keep an open mind to all the different possibilities,” he said. “I am not one to worry too much about the future so I guess I will just enjoy the present in the meantime.
In his Salutatory speech, Huang said he will advise his fellow classmates to treasure the moments.
“Graduation is bittersweet in that we are starting an exciting new chapter of our lives, but we are also going to, seldom, and perhaps never again, see many of the friends who have been integral parts of our lives up to this point,” he said. “The future will come soon enough so enjoy the present while you still can.”
Looking back on his years at Shen Huang said the memories he’ll carry with him are centered on the people he met and the friends he made.
“They made my Shen experience,” he said. “Whether it is near-decade-long friends going all the way back to the third grade, or friends just recently made, it was ultimately the people that illuminated my school days. To all my friends, teachers, and everybody else who were part of my life this past decade I would like to thank you all for making my Shenendehowa experience one to remember.”