Meet Worcester's high school valedictorians: How they got here, where they're going next

From left, Ai Vy Ngo (South High), Kalista Zavras (Doherty), Susan Luong, Hopsa Mic (Burncoat), Estefany Carranza Sanchez (Claremont Academy), Brandon Ngyuen (Worcester Tech) and Neve Tran (North High).
From left, Ai Vy Ngo (South High), Kalista Zavras (Doherty), Susan Luong, Hopsa Mic (Burncoat), Estefany Carranza Sanchez (Claremont Academy), Brandon Ngyuen (Worcester Tech) and Neve Tran (North High).

The class of 2024 had a unique high school experience from the beginning. After finishing up middle school remotely, they entered high school online too, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

They spent most of their first year of high school without being physically with their peers or teachers.

The seven valedictorians from surrounding high schools gathered last week to discuss what their unconventional high school careers were like and share their stories and the wisdom they gained over the last four years.

Five have chosen to stay in Massachusetts, while two others have chosen to attend college out of state.

Ai Vy Ngo — South Community High School

Valedictorian Ai Vy Ngo speaks during the South High Community School commencement at the DCU Center Wednesday.
Valedictorian Ai Vy Ngo speaks during the South High Community School commencement at the DCU Center Wednesday.

When Ai Vy Ngo entered freshman year, virtual learning helped ease her into high school. In her sophomore year, she took a computer science class, which sparked her interest in the subject. She plans to major in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next fall.

"I feel like I was all over the place in high school. I tried lots of different things but the only thing that really stuck with me was computer science," Ngo said.

Ngo said after taking her computer science class in high school, she thought of it as a unique way to solve problems.

"I thought it was a very interesting way of problem-solving," Ngo said. "The method of thinking was really unique, so that's why I chose it (as a major)."

Ngo, who grew up in Worcester, said she feels like a completely different person from when she began high school, and that the pandemic played a big part in that.

"My sophomore year, when we went in person, I felt like a completely different person. With middle school and freshman year being online, I wasn't exposed to new people," Ngo said. "My sophomore year, I feel like I was completely unrecognizable."

Her speech at graduation reflected that. She wanted to send off her fellow graduates from South Community High with a message highlighting the importance of growth and change throughout high school.

"You think you know who you are at some point in your high school career, but then you realize, looking back, you actually changed so much," Ngo said. "You're just going to keep on changing but that's the point of high school. It's to find who you are, take all the experiences and lessons you've learned to shape who you are now and who you'll become in the future."

Brandon Nguyen — Worcester Technical High School

Valedictorian Brandon Nguyen speaks during the 2024 Worcester Technical High School commencement ceremony at the DCU Center.
Valedictorian Brandon Nguyen speaks during the 2024 Worcester Technical High School commencement ceremony at the DCU Center.

Brandon Nguyen said his main message to his fellow graduates from Worcester Technical High School was to "live in the present." Nguyen, who is from Worcester but has roots in Vietnam, will attend Johns Hopkins University with a major in chemical and biomolecular engineering.

As a freshman at Worcester Tech in the middle of a pandemic, he explored shops online, which was not ideal, he said.

"I felt super disconnected from my peers, teachers and community at school," he said. "So, when we explored shops online, it wasn't the true experience of how exploring (how) the shops really work. It was difficult in January when we had to make a decision on what to choose."

Throughout his four years at Worcester Technical High School, Nguyen excelled academically, maintaining high honors in advanced placement and dual enrollment courses. In addition to his academic achievements, Nguyen also graduated with a trade certificate in hospitality management. He chose engineering and joined Worcester Tech's robotics team.

"I visited the robotics shop a lot in high school because I had friends on the robotics team," Nguyen said. "I got interested in the field after one of the teachers walked me through the different career paths and majors involved with engineering."

Throughout his time at Worcester Technical High School, Nguyen learned a variety of skills. He worked in the Skyline Bistro for three years, rotating between server, busser, cashier and host roles. He also worked in an unpaid internship as the events administrator for his high school.

"My message in my speech was to live in the present because oftentimes I just see everyone saying how much they can't wait to (get high school) over with," Nguyen said. "They're always thinking about the future and they can't enjoy the present, I think."

Estefany Sanchez-Carranza — Claremont Academy

Estefany Sanchez-Carranza, originally from Virginia, moved to Worcester at a young age. She said she was proud all her hard work paid off after being named her class' valedictorian.

"I just feel like all my hard work and dedication had finally paid off to reach the place where I am today," Sanchez-Carranza said. "Academic-wise, (virtual learning) wasn't really a struggle, but the social aspect was mentally exhausting."

Sanchez-Carranza, however, said going through the pandemic and online learning with the support of her family helped.

In her freshman year, she virtually joined the community service club and the math club. Initially, she joined the math club because she wanted to challenge herself. Now, she says it is her strongest subject.

Sanchez-Carranza took advanced placement psychology in her junior year, which kindled her interest in the subject.

"There was a specific unit in that class, language development, that interested me," Sanchez-Carranza said. "My final paper focused on language development and that sparked my interest in speech pathology."

Sanchez-Carranza said now she wants to pursue something in clinical psychology. She is not sure what she wants to do in the future but she does want to work with children. Sanchez-Carranza will attend Clark University in the fall.

Sanchez-Carranza said a lesson she will take with her into college and beyond is to embrace everyone's differences.

"High school is a great time to learn about yourself," Sanchez-Carranza said. "I think that's a great perspective to have going into college, that everyone's different. I think it makes (high school and college) more fun that way because you are able to meet so many new people."

Hopsa Mic — Burncoat High School

Valedictorian Hopsa Mic speaks during the Burncoat High School commencement at the DCU Center.
Valedictorian Hopsa Mic speaks during the Burncoat High School commencement at the DCU Center.

Hopsa Mic was born in Thailand but raised in Worcester; her parents are Burmese.

Mic said she wanted to join the math team but due to COVID restrictions, she could not at first. She did join the team midway through her sophomore year and was captain in her junior and senior years.

"(Being captain) helped me develop a sense of leadership," Mic said. "I think building my foundation in math helped me prepare for more advanced classes. I'm also really into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum."

Mic joined Dungeons & Dragons club and chess club at Burncoat. In Dungeons & Dragons club, roleplaying different characters helped her understand the "values, intricacies and challenges" she could have in the future, she said.

"I guess my main takeaway from high school is just how important the growth mindset is," Mic said. "Once you realize everyone faces their fair shares of trials and errors, the only way that you can succeed is by seeing those trials and errors as an opportunity of growth and an obstacle to overcome. I think it took me a while to understand that."

Mic also said her struggles "don't define (her)."

"I can use (the struggles) to define me in a positive way," Mic said. "They can show my resilience and highlight my strength, rather than showing it as a weakness."

Mic will study pre-medicine at MIT.

Kali Zavras — Doherty High School

Valedictorian Kali Zavras speaks at the Doherty Memorial High School graduation at the DCU Center.
Valedictorian Kali Zavras speaks at the Doherty Memorial High School graduation at the DCU Center.

Kali Zavras was part of a special class from Doherty High School. Her class was the last to graduate from the old building, before the district opens the new and improved Doherty High School this fall.

Zavras said she was surprised when she discovered her class rank and title as valedictorian. The main message of her graduation speech was that students are not defined by their grades.

"I struggled a lot with that over the past four years, but I did push myself a lot," Zavras said. "I had no idea where I was going, and that is something I still struggle to wrap my head around."

Thanks to the Engineering and Technology Academy program at Doherty, Zavras found her passion for engineering. The program is a smaller learning community where students take engineering and technology courses their junior and senior years. She also took part in the early college program.

"I took a bunch of college classes and they were quite different from (high school classes) where teachers are reminding you to complete an assignment or we have time in class to work on them," Zavras said. "In my college courses, I had to manage the assignments on my own time, which I'm hoping will help me next year."

Zavras, who is going to Syracuse to study engineering, said that while she is excited about this new chapter, she's a bit nervous about moving so far away from home.

"I'm a medley of excited and nervous (about moving for college)," Zavras said. "There are so many things about it that are scary, like I've been going to school with relatively the same people and now it's completely new. So that's terrifying, but also really exciting because of the new people you can meet."

Neve Tran — North High

North High valedictorian Neve An Tran.
North High valedictorian Neve An Tran.

Even though North High valedictorian Neve Tran took classes online her freshman year, she and Nguyen were part of Upward Bound, a program aimed at providing an opportunity to succeed for students from low-income families or those in which neither parent holds a bachelor's degree.

Tran said the program helped her connect with peers outside of virtual learning.

Tran, who is set to attend the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, joined art club in high school. In her junior year Tran and her best friend created a dance club.

"It was really fun. I feel like I put my heart and soul into (dance) club," Tran said. "I planned events, created posters, flyers for bake sales and stuff like that. I even designed new jerseys for the team."

After graduating high school, Tran said she learned the importance of fighting for one's values and dreams. This was a message she sought to share with her classmates in her valedictorian speech.

"Of love or loss, you all deserve to take pride in the accomplishments and growths you made, no matter how big or small," Tran said.

Tran will study animation at MassArt.

"I'm feeling really excited to go to MassArt because it'll be a really huge transition. In high school, you had your core classes and other subjects," Tran said. "But at MassArt, I'm more excited for that creative part and (I'll have) more time to spend on art."

Susan Luong — University Park Campus School

Susan Luong and her sister Diana were named valedictorian and salutatorian of University Park Campus School. Luong and her siblings act as the primary translators for their Vietnamese parents.

Luong said she and her sister checked their class rank together. Finding out she was valedictorian and her sister was salutatorian was "overwhelming," in a good way.

"We both worked super hard, even throughout freshman year during COVID," Luong said. "We pulled a lot of all-nighters together. When we found out we were both valedictorian and salutatorian, we were both really happy for each other and really happy that we would stand on that stage and present our speeches together."

Since the school is smaller than most, with 39 graduates in the Class of 2024, Luong had to branch out for extracurricular opportunities, like H-Prep, a biology course geared toward high school students at Harvard Medical School.

Through H-Prep, Luong and her sister both realized their passion for medicine. They went every Saturday morning for a couple of hours, listening to lectures about case studies, genetics and more.

In her speech, Susan Luong wanted to highlight growth and how her class persevered through the pandemic and online learning.

"No matter where we go, whatever unexpected experiences we have, I know that this class can overcome anything," Luong said.

Luong and her sister will attend Harvard University in the fall along with their older sister, who is already a student there. They both got full-ride scholarships. A struggle Luong anticipates is the distance and being away from her family.

"But at the same time I'm really excited because I get to go to college with my two best friends," Luong said. "So I'm excited for all the new experiences we'll have together."

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Who were the valedictorians of Worcester high schools in 2024?