Lenape’s top-ranked seniors thrived during unusual year

Valedictorian, salutatorian adjusted and achieved despite COVID.

When Karina Munjal from Lenape High School found out she was accepted to Georgetown University, it marked an achievement she’d waited for after a year of virtual learning.

“The amount of instructional time this year was more limited,” Munjal recalled. “The amount of work to understand concepts and subjects, and the amount of work to put into it, outside of class, was a bit heftier than previous years.”

That hefty workload still led Munjal and Jonathan Yao, Lenape’s valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, to the top of their class. But while the accomplishment wasn’t easy, both scholars adapted quickly to a different teaching environment and learned to utilize their time wisely.

For Munjal, who took a full course load of AP classes this year, making a list helped manage her time, so when she did have a free moment, she could easily jump right back into her work.  

“The half-day schedule that we’re on, and having a little bit of extra free time,  gives me more time to get things done,” Munjal noted. “But also more time to waste, so making lists and making a schedule for myself was super helpful.”

The daily school routine — wake up, get prepared, go to classes, do your extracurriculars, go home to do homework and study — was a schedule Yao wanted to maintain, even though he was at home. He realized with the pandemic how habits can loosen, and it was important to stay focused. Being the disciplined student he is, Yao used a time-limit setting on his phone to restrict the use of apps.

“Depending on the day, I would have to use an app on my phone to just kind of lock me out while I’m studying,” he explained. “Some days, I would take breaks and read or watch a movie for half an hour, then get back to work.”

While students had to adjust mentally to their school schedules, there was also a physical change, such as the lack of access to materials. 

Munjal and Yao both took similar AP classes with one another, and the inability to have labs had a large impact on comprehension of class material, Munjal noted.

“Physics is a science class that usually involves a lot of labs,” she explained. “(With) the regulations in my school and the social-distancing guidelines, we weren’t able to do the labs, which I feel made understanding the concepts a bit more difficult.” 

As for being named valedictorian, Munjal hadn’t planned on it, but things fell into place, she added.

“Freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t plan my schedule so that’s how it would turn out,” she recalled. “It’s just who I am to push myself academically and challenge myself.”

Munjal knew what it would take to become valedictorian; her brother was valedictorian five years ago, and the siblings have a similar mindset, she explained.

For Yao, it was always a goal to rank at the top of his class, because his parents taught him from a young age that competitive nature is healthy and one should always aim to be the best. 

“It’s the fact that I liked what I was doing, and when you like what you’re doing, you can make it work,” Yao explained. “There are a lot of times where I was thinking, ‘Do I want to do this?’ Especially when the answer is yes, then it’s easy.”

Munjal, who will study computer science at Georgetown University, and Yao, who will major in neuroscience on a premedical track at Johns Hopkins University, are both involved in a variety of extracurriculars. Munjal danced for 13 years at Jazz Unlimited Studio Of Dance Arts in Marlton,  and Yao was recruited to fence for Johns Hopkins’ Division III team. 

As the school year is winding down and restrictions are loosening, the seniors at Lenape were able to have their senior prom, which Munjal recalled as the first senior activity that brought the class all together. After the unordinary year, Yao hopes the Class of 2021 will take time to stop and smell the roses.

“Follow your heart and your passions, take advice from others, but nobody knows you, as well as you do,” Munjal advised. “Find your passions in life and find what makes you happy and pursue them, because success is nothing without happiness.”

Lenape’s senior class will graduate on Friday, June 18, at 6 p.m.