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06/25/05

From valedictorian ... to the real world

By Patricia Breakey

Delhi News Bureau

It takes years of hard work to attain the title of valedictorian.

But 10 years after graduation, four local valedictorians — Brandi Beers of Unatego, Joshua Vincentz of Stamford, Andrea Nikulich of Worcester and Ryan F. Coutlee of Edmeston — said that, in the grand scheme of things, it really didn’t make a difference being the best in class.

The title of valedictorian is given to the top graduate of the graduating class. The honor is usually based overall grade point average. The title comes from the valedictorian’s traditional role as the last speaker at the graduation ceremony.

Famous valedictorians include:

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• "Weird Al" Yankovic

• Cindy Crawford

• Johnny Bench

• Ben Stein

• Governeur Morris

• Robert Frost

Brandi Beers Miles was named valedictorian at Unatego High School in 1995. Like many high achievers, she didn’t spend all her time studying. She was a member of the band, Student Council, National Honor Society, varsity football cheerleading and French club. She earned a Regents diploma majoring in math, science and French.

Miles is now married to Bradd and they live in Murrells Inlet, S.C., with their two children, Mykenzi, 3, and Lukas, six months.

When she graduated from high school, Miles said she planned to go into the medical profession. She attended Manhattan College and then graduated from the University of Tulsa with a master’s degree.

Miles said her career took a "very different" direction and she is now a high school science teacher and is planning to pursue her Ph.D in educational leadership.

"Being valedictorian has had no impact whatsoever on my life," Miles said. "I just always wanted to be the best at what I did and earn the best grades I could, but I didn’t set out to be valedictorian."

Miles said she didn’t receive any financial aid based on her title and she has never encountered any situations in her career where the subject has come up.

"I don’t even mention it," Miles said. "And I tell my class that being first in the class doesn’t matter as much as their overall GPA and their ACT and SAT scores."

Joshua Vincentz graduated at the top the Stamford Central School class of 1995. He now lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife, Stacy.

Vincentz’s education in-cludes attending the University of Texas Health Science Center M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Program in Genes and Development in Houston, Texas, where he earned a Ph.D. in 2005 in biomedical sciences. His education began at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in biotechnology in 1999.

Vincentz is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Yasuhide Furuta, department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center — where he is doing exactly what he wanted to be doing when he graduated from high school.

"I’ve wanted to be a geneticist since I learned about Gregor Mendel in 10th-grade biology class," Vincentz said. "Now, I study developmental genetics, specifically the genes which cause birth defects affecting the heart."

Being valedictorian may have helped get him into college, but its importance faded after that, Vincentz said.

"I’m sure that my valedictorian status factored into the selection process," Vincentz said. "But I encountered so many incredibly intelligent individuals in college that, while I was certainly proud of my valedictorian status, any sort of ego I may have had evaporated rather quickly.

"Now, among my friends, the fact that I was a valedictorian has become somewhat of a novelty," he added.

Vincentz said his valedictorian status didn’t make any difference with professors and had little or no effect on financial aid.

"I don’t think many of (the professors) knew that I had been a valedictorian. I was evaluated solely based upon my performance in their classes," Vincentz said. "Most of the financial assistance I received was based upon my ability to perform in an undergraduate and post-graduate setting, rather than my accomplishments in high school."

Andrea Nikulich Mravlja was the 1995 valedictorian at Worcester Central School. She spent the year after she graduated as a Rotary exchange student in France and then attended the University of Rochester and spent a semester in Russia.

Mravlja lives in Rochester with her husband, Jeremy, and their son, Gabriel, 3. They are expecting their second child in September.

Mravlja graduated from the University of Rochester with an MBA and is the assistant director of financial aid at her alma mater — which has no correlation with her original career goal.

"I was going to be a heart surgeon," Mravlja said, laughing.

Mravlja said being valedictorian did make a difference in her college life.

"It helped getting me into a university where most of the students are in the top three or four in their high school class," Mravlja said. "And it helped me fit in. During my freshman year, at least half of the people in my dorm were either valedictorian or salutatorian of their class.

"We never talked about it on a daily basis, but sometimes we joked about it," she said. "Coming from a small school, it helped me find a niche in college."

Mravlja said she didn’t get any scholarships that were specific to her status as valedictorian.

———

Ryan F. Coutlée was the top of the Edmeston Central School class of 1995. He now lives in Syracuse with Jason D. Willis, his life partner.

Coutlee said, "I attended Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn., for my undergraduate degree where I received my Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude in American Sign Language interpreting and deaf culture. I then attended Syracuse University College of Law where I earned my Juris Doctor in 2002. I passed the New York Bar Exam in the fall of 2002 and was admitted to the practice of law in spring 2003."

Coutlee joined the Estate Planning Law Center, David J. Zumpano, Esq./CPA in New Hartford in February 2003.

"I work in the areas of estate planning, asset protection, Medicaid qualification and probate, trust and estate administration," he said. "When I graduated from high school I had anticipated becoming a legal sign language interpreter, but honestly, I had no clue what I thought I wanted to do with my life. Although I had always considered continuing on in my education in some form, it was not until my last year of college that I decided on law school.

"I do not think being a valedictorian was ever the determining factor of whether I was accepted to the college of my choice or any college I applied to, for that matter," Coutlee said.

"However, it was definitely a factor that I’m sure assisted or contributed to the (selection) decision," Coutlee said. "Based upon the interviews I had for scholarships at various colleges and universities, it appeared to me these institutions were looking for more than simply good grades as every one of your competitors for the scholarships had those and the majority were from the top 5 percent of their graduating class.

"My interaction with students was never affected, positively or negatively (by valedictorian status)" Coutlee said. "Certain scholarships required providing tutoring to other students, conducting a required number of hours of community service, etc. As a result, I had contact with sections of the student body I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to interact with.

"As for professors, there was no different treatment as none of them ever indicated they were even aware that I was a valedictorian, and it was not something you vocalize to them," Coutlee said. "That being said, it did assist me in obtaining a full scholarship to Maryville College."

Justin Preston, Walton Central School guidance counselor, said he didn’t have any personal experience with being valedictorian, but his twin brothers were co-valedictorians at Worcester Central School when they graduated and both got full scholarships, one to Hartwick College and one to Elmira College.

"Probably being valedictorian doesn’t make a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things, with the exception of financial aid and that can make a big difference," Preston said. "I think it does help you get accepted to college, absolutely."

———

Patricia Breakey can be reached at stardelhi@stny.rr.com or 746-2894.



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