Eight high-achieving Boston high school valedictorians will begin the next phase of their academic lives at Northeastern University this fall, matriculating into the business, psychology, health science, mechanical engineering, and general studies programs. The accomplished teens hail from six countries, including Brazil, Haiti, and Albania, and have ambitious career goals, among them becoming doctors, lawyers, and product engineers.
Their collective academic success—underscored by their achievements in advanced placement classes—is rivaled only by the sheer depth and breadth of their extracurricular activities. One student was a three-sport athlete, another a young humanitarian who spent a month building greenhouses for malnourished children in a Peruvian village.
Northeastern awarded a Boston Valedictorian Scholarship to six of the seven students who will enroll in the university’s full-time undergraduate day program, covering their tuition and room and board. And four students will be the first in their families to attend college. As one of the first-generation students put it, “This is a huge opportunity for me and a really big deal for my family.”
Here are their stories.
Change is good—just ask Mikhailla Colon.
After failing four classes in her first two years as a high school student at Boston Latin Academy, Colon transferred to ABCD University High School and then hit the reset button. She excelled academically, earning straight A’s in her senior year, and even became a role model for her peers, tutoring them in math and chemistry.
“I’ve grown more in the past 10 months than I did in the previous three years,” says Colon, a Roxbury resident who worked part-time jobs at a supermarket and a movie theater when she wasn’t studying. “I learned that I am strong, independent, and capable of whatever I put my mind to.”
Colon wants to study psychology in college, with an eye toward becoming a behavioral therapist. This summer, she will enroll in Northeastern’s Foundation Year, a 15-month preparatory program aimed at helping Boston high school graduates achieve college success.
Once she completes Foundation Year, Colon plans to apply to Northeastern’s full-time undergraduate day program. “Northeastern is definitely my top choice,” she says. “It’s one of my dream schools.”
Barbara Ferreira wasn’t sure whether she would be able to attend college. As a Brazilian immigrant without a green card, she wasn’t eligible for most financial aid. But then Northeastern came along and offered her a full scholarship, changing her life forever.
“Northeastern opened doors to opportunities for me that no other school gave me because of my immigration status,” says Ferreira, a Jamaica Plain resident who attended the City on a Hill Charter School. “It was mind-blowing when I found out I could go, because it was something I never imagined would happen.”
Ferreira and her family—her mom, her dad, and her older sister—immigrated to Massachusetts from Brazil when she was just 2 years old. As she told The Boston Globe in a profile of her rise to the top of her charter school, “We came here for the American Dream.”
While she struggled in middle school—she was quiet and lacked confidence—Ferreira excelled at City on a Hill, serving as captain of her volleyball team and working on a youth violence prevention program at the Egleston Square YMCA in Roxbury.
At Northeastern, she plans to study innovation and entrepreneurship, with an eye toward founding her own company. When she receives her green card, she wants to explore the ins and outs of big business in China and Japan. “I’m looking forward to meeting diverse people and seeing more of the world,” says Ferreira, who will be the first person in her family to attend college. “I have so much to learn.”
Flavia Freitas wants to carve out a career in the nonprofit sector, a goal that began germinating in the back of her mind more than two years ago.
As a sophomore at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, the Dorchester native worked as a volunteer for the Young People’s Project, helping kids at Roxbury’s Higginson/Lewis K–8 School hone their math literacy skills. The experience, she says, piqued her interest in the nonprofit world and compelled her to find a data entry job at a Dorchester nonprofit called the Haitian Multi-Service Center, where she is currently working.
“I’ve been thinking about working for a nonprofit for a while,” says Freitas, who will enroll in Northeastern’s general studies program, with an eye toward studying in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. “I like the thought of helping people and being able to see the results.”
Freitas spent the first 10 years of her life in Cabo Verde, an island country located some 350 miles off the coast of West Africa, and then moved to the U.S. with her mom and two sisters in 2008. At first, she was shy, she says, but then she joined her high school’s debate team, book club, and prom committee and was able to develop the confidence to “come out of my shell.”
Now she’s looking to integrate into the Northeastern community, with designs on harnessing her humanitarian passion by joining the university’s Habitat for Humanity club. As she puts it, “New friends and new opportunities will arise by taking chances.”
Jacqueline Huynh’s plan to study health science at Northeastern was set in motion more than five years ago, when her grandmother was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. “Her illness,” explains Huynh, a Dorchester resident who attended TechBoston Academy, “motivated me to want to work to identify cancer faster.” Today she envisions herself as a doctor, working in emergency medicine, which, she says, “will keep me thinking and learning.”
To be sure, Huynh is a compassionate leader, a key trait of a good physician. As a student at TechBoston Academy, she mentored middle schoolers and built greenhouses for malnourished children in Peru. The global experience made her more empathetic and culturally aware, she says, helping her “understand that I cannot be limited by my own views and how I grew up.”
Huynh “fell in love” with Northeastern’s co-op program during her campus visit in the spring and is now looking forward to building professional connections with hospitals both near and far. Her to-do list includes studying abroad and doing a global co-op. “Northeastern is the next chapter in my book, and I’m excited for what’s to come,” says Huynh, who will be the first person in her family to attend college. “I can go anywhere because this university is so global.”
Gesar Naski is the quintessential humanitarian, an altruist with a global outlook.
At West Roxbury Academy, he organized food drives and tutored immigrants in math and English. At Northeastern, he plans to study health science, with the goal of becoming a doctor.
“I want to find a cure for a disease or help people in another way,” says Naski, who took a college-level healthcare class at the Franklin Institute of Technology in the summer of his junior year. “Life isn’t just about you, it’s about other people too.”
Naski knows whereof he speaks. As a member of West Roxbury Academy’s Student Government Association, he successfully lobbied the interim superintendent to reverse a plan to shut down the school. “It wouldn’t’ have been fair to my classmates or to my teachers who couldn’t find another job,” he explains, noting that he helped to secure more than 1,000 signatures in support of keeping the school open.
Born in Albania, Naski moved to Roslindale in 2010. Come September, he will be the first person in his family to attend college. He’s looking forward to making friends with students from around the world and studying abroad in Spain, where he can hone his Spanish speaking skills.
“I plan to see as much of the world as I can during the next few years,” he says. “When I came to this country, I felt excluded, but when I visited campus, I saw that I would fit in.”
It’s easy to see why Venus Pimentel envisions herself as a public interest lawyer.
As a student at the Muriel S. Snowden International School, the Roslindale native flexed her humanitarian muscle, volunteering at an orphanage in Jamaica and teaching English to medical escorts. This summer, she plans to volunteer at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, serving victims of the country’s genocide.
“I enjoy the feeling that you get when you give back,” says Pimentel, who will study psychology at Northeastern. “It opens your eyes and allows you to be more grateful for the things you have.” Of becoming a public interest lawyer, she says, “I want to defend people to ensure that they have equal opportunities.”
Pimentel herself is well aware of the power of being put in a position to succeed. Born in Venezuela, she moved to Boston when she was just 1 year old because, she says, “my mom wanted me to have a better education.” Now, she explains, she is primed to put her career plan in motion at Northeastern. As a young global citizen, she is looking forward to co-op and study abroad. “I like to travel and learn about different cultures,” she says.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Darphens Rene was studying in his backyard in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the region, killing more than 200,000 people and causing some $13 billion in damage. “It felt like it was the end of the world,” Rene recalls. “People were trapped, but you couldn’t really do anything to help.”
Although his home was destroyed, his entire family survived, living in a local shelter for two months before moving to Boston. Rene, now a Mattapan resident, eventually enrolled in the Community Academy of Science and Health, where he played varsity soccer and competed in the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair.
“You can’t understand the universe if you can’t understand math,” says Rene, who will study mechanical engineering at Northeastern. “There’s so much we don’t know, and it’s going to take a great mind to discover those things.”
He wants to hone his engineering acumen in class and on co-op and then return home to educate young Haitians, with an eye toward helping them become more independent and tech-savvy. To him, it’s the least he could do. “I felt like I betrayed my people when I left right after the earthquake,” he explains. “That’s why I look forward to reaching out to them in the future.”
As an accomplished athlete, Albert Saunders is acutely aware of the inherent dangers of playing contact sports. “I’ve seen a lot of people get hit and stay down,” says Saunders, who played varsity baseball, football, and hockey at East Boston High School. “I’ve never suffered a concussion, but I know what it feels like to take a hard hit.”
At Northeastern, Saunders wants to continue the work he began in high school to create a concussion-proof football helmet. His long-term professional goal, he says, is to marshal his passion for sports and science to “invent things that would help humanity, including athletic headgear and enhanced prosthetics.”
Like Rene, he’ll study mechanical engineering, for which his advanced placement classes in calculus, chemistry, and computer science will come in handy. He’s looking forward to playing club sports at Northeastern and assimilating into the university’s diverse campus community. As the assistant captain of East Boston’s hockey team and the vice president of its chapter of the National Honor Society, he knows a thing or two about the power of teamwork and inclusion.
“It takes a lot of people from a lot of different cultures to bring ideas together and engineer new things,” he says. “It seems like everyone here walks with a purpose and has a plan in mind.”