Rising to the top: Cinnaminson valedictorian McDonald earns Miami scholarship

Abby McDonald, the Cinnaminson Class of 2020’s valedictorian, the highest achiever in a competitive senior class, accepted an academic scholarship at the University of Miami that will cover three-quarters of her tuition while in college. (Photo provided)

As the world has reopened in the last month, high school seniors are finally enjoying their lives as teenagers again. They’re hanging out with their friends, taking day trips to the shore, getting curly fries on the boardwalk. 

Some of their usual hangouts are still shuttered as businesses slowly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the class of 2020 that has missed out on so much is making the most of what they have in the final days of spring. And for at least one of those seniors, the experience has helped inform a  career choice, too.

Cinnaminson High School graduate Abby McDonald will officially enroll at the University of Miami later this summer to study microbiology and immunology. 

“I initially wanted to go into law and I did mock trial for all four years of high school, but by senior year I kind of felt burnt out and I started to think of a bunch of other options, and science has just been something that interested me,” McDonald said.

“I ended up choosing microbiology and immunology mostly so I can go to grad school and study oncology to do cancer research. And then of course with everything going on right now, it just solidified that as something that would definitely help me out for the long run.”

If her high school career is any indication, McDonald has a bright future ahead in helping to make the world a better place. She graduated from Cinnaminson with the esteemed honor of valedictorian and had the top grade point average in a highly competitive senior class of just over 200 students. McDonald found out she was ranked No.1 in her class last summer.

“So I just worked as hard as I could senior year to keep it that way,” she said. “But I was a little unsure because I think (salutatorian Rachel Wixted) is pretty close to where I am … It definitely motivated me but I was also really stressed. Because (Wixted) is one of my friends. So I wanted to make sure I could get what I wanted but that I could also maintain that friendship, too.

“We definitely did motivate each other.”

While McDonald admits that excelling in academics has always come naturally, that innate gift also pushed her to reach her highest potential, too.  

McDonald was a worker, understanding that with a daily dedicated and determined effort, she could reach new heights as a student. The payoff was significant: McDonald will have three-quarters of her annual tuition at Miami covered by an academic scholarship. 

The value of hard work is one she can pass on to her fellow graduates when she delivers the valedictory at next month’s graduation ceremony, but also to her younger brother, Daulton, who just completed his freshman year at Cinnaminson.

“I think I set a good example, to remind him that he has to work hard for what he wants,” McDonald said. “I don’t remember everything freshman year because I was probably so nervous, but I was definitely really intimidated by the thought of high school, even from the first day thinking about how everything in high school would affect college. It all started there. 

“So I was definitely really stressed,” she added. “But I figured I would work as hard as I could work, do my best and hope it would work out, and, thankfully, it did seem to work out.

“My hard work was enough.”

The daughter of two Cinnaminson graduates, McDonald’s scholastic career was a well-rounded one, too. She was also a member of a successful Pirates field hockey program for the last four seasons.

During her senior season, McDonald and her teammates helped Cinnaminson win 12 of its first 15 games en route to capturing the top seed in the Central Jersey Group tournament. During the regular season, the Pirates pulled off an improbable upset, beating perennial Group 3 state champion favorite Moorestown on the Quakers’ home turf and, in the postseason, McDonald assisted on the overtime goal that clinched the Pirates’ win over Haddon Heights.

“It was exciting,” McDonald said. “I began playing field hockey in second grade. And for senior year, all of my friends and I were co-captains.”

Despite the unfortunate ending — with  the pandemic cancelling many milestone senior events — McDonald can retrace her steps through Cinnaminson High School with pride, remembering teachers who impacted her success, including Nicole Arbelaez and Jo-Ann Carroll, and appreciating the friendships she made throughout her four years with a  close-knit class.

“I feel like these events (this spring) have made us a class that’s a lot closer than classes have been in years past, because we’re all sharing this collectively horrible experience together,” McDonald said. “Everyone is suffering in their own way but at least we’re doing it together. So I feel like we’re more united, even though we are apart.”

United and prepared — perhaps better than most classes before them — for the challenges that will surely come as adults.

“(This experience) definitely makes us a little more flexible I think,” McDonald added. “We’re so used to plans getting changed and having to come up with other versions of the things we’ve looked forward to, to make things work … I think we’ll respond better to change overall.”