Meet Oceanside's valedictorian and salutatorian for 2024


As Oceanside Valedictorian Julian Piedrahita and Salutatorian Justin Connolly gear up for graduation, they preparing to bid farewell to their alma mater and embark on new adventures in higher education.

“I got called to the principal’s office, so I knew something was up, because I didn’t even know where the principal’s office was,” Connolly said of being informed that he had the second-highest grade point average in the senior class. “I didn’t really have a lot of words. It meant so much, but I just couldn’t put it into words. There are kids who are talented and smart here, and I was just happy, because it meant a lot, and it was really cool to do it with a friend.”

Connolly and Piedrahita have been friends since freshman year, and have bonded over shared classes and extracurricular activities. They emphasized the support and motivation they provided each other. Both took at least five Advanced Placement classes.

Piedrahita’s involvement in swimming has been a central part of his life since childhood. He has competed in regional and national meets, and hopes to continue his aquatic career at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, next year.

As a member of the Computer Science Honor Society, Piedrahita enjoys teaching coding to younger students. He has also taken part in leadership programs like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Youth Leadership Institute. At Harvey Mudd, a private college with a 13 percent acceptance rate, he plans to study engineering, with a focus on sustainability and renewable energy.

Connolly got involved with the school’s Cancer Awareness Club as a freshman, after his mother was diagnosed with the disease, and is now the club’s president. He is also a member of the Mathletes, and is on the track team, played lacrosse for two years, has competed volleyball throughout high school, and plays hockey outside school. He has done research at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, inspired by his mother’s experience with cancer. He plans to attend Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he will be a pre-med student in preparation for a career in biomedical engineering.

“This is an exceptional graduating class, in terms of academic achievement,” said Kevin Carbonetti, the district’s associate principal and director of school counseling. “That makes this even more special. The relationship between the two of them also is unique. The relationship that they have as friends and the drive that they have. They worked together to achieve these goals.”

Reflecting on their transition from high school to college, Piedrahita and Connolly said they were excited about the opportunities that lie ahead, but acknowledge the bittersweet feeling of leaving behind the familiarity of their hometown and the supportive community they’ve grown up in.

“I’m going to miss (Oceanside) Park, playing basketball with my friends, and the Shake Shack,” Connolly said. “When I was in middle school, I used to ride my bike all over this town. You’re going to miss the small-town feel. College is different.”

Piedrahita echoed his friend’s sentiments, and highlighted the skills they learned during their high school years, including organization and time management. Those skills, he said, will be instrumental in helping them navigate the rigors of college life and find success in their careers.

“You learned how to bet on yourself,” Piedrahita said. “You put in the time and effort. You’re going into a test — the heart’s pumping, you may be nervous, but then you build muscle memory. You put in that hard work, and you believe or trust in the work you put in. I’d say the biggest takeaway is that you have to put in the work, but then you can also trust yourself.”

The pair expressed gratitude for the support they received from teachers, peers and family members — all of whom they will have the opportunity to address at next month’s commencement.