Lucia Wang and Rebecca Schussheim did not set out to earn the highest grades in Staples High School’s Class of 2023.
But by taking challenging classes they were interested in, working hard in the classroom and beyond, and working collaboratively with teachers and classmates, they did.
Along the way, they also participated in a variety of clubs and activities, both in school and outside, as leaders and “doers.”
Which is why Lucia is valedictorian, and Rebecca salutatorian, for this year’s senior class.
Lucia’s Westport education began in 4th grade, at Saugatuck Elementary School. Fifth grade teacher Peter von Euler encouraged her writing. At Bedford Middle she was editor-in-chief of Ursus, the school paper, and worked on the literary magazine.
She continued writing at Staples, but her focus shifted. Lucia is now editor-in-chief of the high school’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) journal. She contributes articles on the environment, noting that the planet is at a climate tipping point.
She also earned honorable mention in the New York Times’ annual STEM Writing contest, for a story on crumbling Indonesian cave art.
Her Advanced Placement science courses, like Biology with Dr. Michele Morse-Gaudio and Chemistry with Will Jones, were meaningful.
But so were classes like AP Language and Composition with Meghan Scheck, US Government with Suzanne Kammerman, and Contemporary World Studies with Cathy Schager.
Despite her STEM interests, one of Lucia’s most important extracurricular activities was Model UN Club. It’s been helpful, she says, for her writing and public speaking skills. She has learned to work with “crisis committees,” think on her feet and develop solutions.
Tennis helps Lucia decompress. A 2-year varsity player, in a program that last year reached the FCIAC finals, she finds the sport gives balance to her week. She says, “I love competing, and the entire tennis community.”
For her senior internship, she’ll continue work begun earlier at the Yale University School of Public Health, studying the intersection of public health and the environment.
That interest helped spark a National History Day project. Lucia researched Minamata disease, a Japanese public health and pollution crisis that caused thousands of deaths. Her work earned her a second place prize, in national competition.
But, Lucia says, her most important activity has nothing to do with school. She is the social media director for Dear Asian Youth (DAY), an international activist organization with 200 chapters in 18 countries.
She oversees several platforms, including Instagram with over 100,000 followers. Lucia works with young people around the globe, in areas like writing, graphics and video.
She has also been a Staples representative to the Asia Pacific Young Leaders Summit and Normandy International Youth Leadership Summit.
The exchange of ideas at those events and through DAY, along with opportunities to learn about different cultures and perspectives, excites her. It’s what she looks forward to in college too.
Locally, Lucia has made an impact through her volunteer work at the Westport Museum of History and Culture. She spent hours working with the collection of Sigrid Schultz, the female reporter, social justice activist and longtime Westporter.
Lucia’s advice to younger students is: “Explore lots of classes. Try activities outside of school. Find your own passion and joy. Everyone has a different story. What’s yours?”
Like Julia’s, Rebecca’s resume sparkles with a broad array of courses and activities.
The salutatorian (whose sister Emily was valedictorian in 2017, and brother Benji was salutatorian in 2020) attended Coleytown Elementary School, where orchestra leader Jim Andrews introduced to her lifelong love, the cello. Some CES musicians still play with her at Staples. Eileen Shannon was Rebecca’s next musical influence, at Coleytown Middle.
She is now principal cellist for the Chamber Symphonic Orchestras. Conductors Carrie Mascara and Jeri Hockensmith are “super engaging,” she says. “They create bonds.”
Playing beautiful music is “a great way to break up the day.” Highlights of her Staples career include the traditional Candlelight and Pops concerts.
Academically Rebecca chose an Independent Learning Experience in astrophysics. She and a graduate student at Yale examined early galaxy images from the James Webb Space Telescope, searching for patterns. Most of their fellow researchers were grad students, and professors.
In January she presented her findings at the International Science Youth Forum, in Singapore. It was a chance to meet, and share ideas with, students from around the world.
Another outlet for Rebecca’s passion is the Sikorsky STEM Challenge. She is co-president of Staples’ chapter. They’re building a helicopter, for entry in the state competition.
“It’s very self-directed. There’s a lot of trial and error,” Rebecca explains. “If something doesn’t work, we put our heads together to figure out why.”
Rebecca cites David Scrofani – her instructor for AP Physics C, AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A, and with whom she worked on the James Webb project – as an important influence.
She surprised herself by loving AP English Language and Composition, with Noreen McGoldrick. “I’m a STEM kid, so I was nervous,” she admits. “But she gives great feedback. We read a lot of genres. She really helped me with thinking and writing. That class was a gift.”
Rebecca also enjoyed Multivariable Calculus with Robert Papp, Calculus BC with Jonathan Watnick, AP Statistics with Phil Abraham, and US History with Drew Coyne.
At Staples Rebecca has learned how to prioritize activities, and make time for friends. Many of those friends come from squash. She has played since third grade, and co-captains Staples’ girls team.
“It’s a physically and mentally demanding sport,” Rebecca notes. “There’s lots of tactics, with all the angles. You need stamina, because of all the short lunges and sprints. Plus, there’s always something new to learn.’
Already strong bonds were tightened during this winter’s’ trip to the national tournament in Philadelphia.
Becoming salutatorian is really “just a number,” she says. “There are so many great courses at Staples, and so many kids doing so many things. GPAs don’t tell the whole story.
“Grades are important. But more important is passion, and leading a balanced life.”
Rebecca was accepted early action at Yale. She may major in physics or astrophysics. But, she says, “I’m open to anything.”
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