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Best friends rise to top two

Seaford’s valedictorian, salutatorian inspire each other to succeed

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Asked what helped them cope and succeed in spite of the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, Seaford High School Valedictorian Julia Gambino and Salutatorian Kaylee Sanderson had the same answer: each other.

Students at the high school didn’t return to their classes in person, full time, until April 21 — much later than many of their peers across Long Island, as well as Seaford’s elementary and middle schools. “Being isolated is a challenge that affected all of us this past year, and really tested our ability to stay on track,” Gambino said, adding that she and Sanderson are close friends outside school and stayed in touch while in quarantine “so we kept each other motivated.” 

Sanderson added, “We tried to make the best of what we had and what we could do and make it work for us.”

Gambino is the associate general chair of the Model Congress debate team, and Sanderson is a member. Both are in the school’s National Honor Society, Key Club, Yearbook Committee, Science Research Program and Best Buddies — a mentorship program for students in special education classes. Outside school, they’re both Girl Scouts. Gambino is also a dancer at Downstage Dance in Seaford, and Sanderson is a student teacher at Spotlight Dance Studio in Wantagh.

Both were in the school’s Advanced Placement Capstone course, an interdisciplinary program that involved taking a preliminary class, called AP Seminar, as sophomores, before they took on research projects as juniors that culminated in 5,000-word papers and 20-minute presentations. Students worked independently, on their own timeline and mostly with their own resources.

“We gained so much from it, and it really helped us prepare for life after high school and the kind of work we’ll be doing in college,” Sanderson said.

For her project, she combed the beaches of the South Shore to test the sand for micro-plastic pollution. She collected and analyzed samples to determine whether there were any trends or patterns that could explain why and how micro-plastics were ending up here. While she didn’t find any conclusive patterns, she found evidence of micro-plastics across the beaches she sampled. “Even though I didn’t discover any patterns,” Sanderson said, “my research still reinforced the idea that the micro-plastics were there, and I was able to bring light to the issue.”

For her research, Gambino grew a number of plants using different probiotic fertilizers and nutrients in an effort to explore more alternative, sustainable forms of agriculture. Her results revealed which probiotics help plants grow the fastest and healthiest.

“We both started our projects really early in the year,” Gambino said, “so we had a jump-start before the pandemic happened and really slowed down the process.”

Asked about their greatest obstacles as they ascended to the top of their class, Gambino said, “We’re both overachievers and meticulous about everything we do. We had to learn to be OK with making mistakes and learning from them.”

Both she and Sanderson cited calculus teacher Kevin O’Reilly as their inspiration, and recalled staying after school with him several times a week for extra help. “He reinforces the idea of learning and understanding concepts instead of just trying to get a perfect grade,” Gambino said. “He taught us to be comfortable with asking questions and reaching out for help when we need it.”

This fall, Gambino plans to study biology on a pre-medical track at Duke University, and Sanderson will focus on global business at Boston University. “It’s going to be very refreshing to get to meet new people from diverse backgrounds and demographics,” Gambino said. “I think the community here is very close, but we’re both excited to branch out and explore new opportunities.”

Both students look forward to having a chance to study abroad. Sanderson, who speaks some Spanish, is hoping to visit a country where she can practice the language. And Gambino, who is of Japanese heritage and has family living there, said she would love to study in Japan and explore her roots. But, she said, she would be happy to study “anywhere that has a rich history and good food.”