Mission accomplished for Williamstown High School valedictorian

Student gets her wish to be Williamstown High School valedictorian and attend Penn

Williamstown High School 2020 graduate Leanna Chen was recently cleaning through some old papers from her time in middle school when she came across an assignment from eighth grade asking students to write down their goals for high school.

Chen’s answer was pretty lofty.

“I wrote that I wanted to be the valedictorian for the class of 2020 and go to (University of Pennsylvania),” she recalled.

Four years after completing that assignment, Chen can look back on it with a smile. She achieved both of those goals: She was recently named the class of 2020 valedictorian and will attend college at Penn. There, Chen plans to study health and societies, a major she hopes will lead to a career in health care.

“I was inspired to go to the major based on current events,” Chen said, alluding to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think it’s really interesting to get involved in the health care system.”

Chen is passionate about learning how humans behave and encourage others to be their best selves. The two organizations she was most involved in at Williamstown were National Honor Society and Allied Health Academy. Chen served as the NHS vice president this year and was heavily involved on the community service side, tracking members’ hours and scheduling projects. The Allied Health Academy is an organization that prepares students who are interested in a health care career. Two of Chen’s favorite classes also reflect her interest in human behavior: AP U.S. history and AP psychology. Chen named her AP U.S. history teacher, Grant Sporny, as one of her favorite instructors at Williamstown. Sporny also acted as Chen’s NHS mentor.

“The way he taught was a lot different than most people,” Chen recalled. “It was a lot more discussion-based and a lot more open.”

Chen also cited Spanish teacher Rosa Torres and AP physics teacher Mark LaPalomento as staff members who had a big impact on her. Chen had Torres  as a teacher in middle school and was happy to have her again as her freshman Spanish and homeroom teacher.

“She was a connecting link that helped me get on the right foot in high school,” Chen said.

The senior said she enjoyed having LaPalomento as a physics teacher her junior year and got to know him even better when he served as the NHS advisor this school year.

Chen believes all of her teachers and classmates played an integral role in her development during her entire time in the Monroe Township School District. When asked what she enjoyed most about her time in the school system, Chen said it was all of the memories she shared with her classmates and staff.

“Forming relationships with all these different people,” Chen stated. “Building up that spirit with the rest of my class. Getting to know all of these people since elementary school.”

Chen described her and her classmates’ journey through the school system as going down a river. Citing the song “River Flows In You” as inspiration, Chen reflected on the analogy during her speech for Williamstown’s virtual graduation last Wednesday.

“Our whole journey from kindergarten to 12th grade is like a river and just keeps going down,” Chen noted. “Then college and the rest of our lives is like an ocean.”

Looking ahead to the ocean of college is one way Chen has kept busy during the pandemic. She spent much of the last three months excitedly preparing for her first semester at Penn while also staying connected with the rest of the class of 2020, a class unable to attend year-end events such as prom and senior trip or celebrate graduation in a traditional manner due to the pandemic.

After the online graduation, Williamstown High School students and their families formed a motorcade beginning at Williamstown Middle School; winding down Braves Boulevard; and heading to the front of the high school, where a stage was set up. Students were permitted to get out of their cars and walk on stage to receive their diploma and have their photo taken.

Chen feels the high school did the best job it could with graduation given social distancing restrictions, but added the ceremony wasn’t the same as a traditional ceremony. But she recognizes how much of a positive impact Williamstown has had on her life and plans to keep that in mind as she heads off to college.

“I feel like I didn’t get a full closure,” Chen acknowledged. “But I’ll probably go back and visit next year to see my teachers again.”