When I started at De La Salle Academy (DLSA), we were still in the old building on 97th Street. I’m sure my fellow alums can agree when I say those stairs stand out in my mind – they gave the school charm! Back before I started attending, I remember the day of the entrance exam in the packed cafeteria, and all that nervous energy among the kids. I finished my test early, and one of the facilitators asked me to lead the other students in “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”. It seems bizarre thinking backing on it, but I suppose the purpose of this was to calm everyone’s nerves, so I went around guiding the other students through the song. And it seemed to work!
For the simulated school day, I recall doing puzzles and activities with the other kids. Even though we were being observed, I remember feeling comfortable, and that this was a safe, community-oriented place. When we presented our Coat of Arms – an exercise in which applicants draw a picture presenting several things they are passionate about, including their hero – I of course drew Steve Irwin as my hero (I grew up to be a wildlife conservationist!).
I came to DLSA from a Catholic school, which was Pre-K through 8th grade. My fifth grade teacher was the one who took me aside and told me about this middle school, explaining that they were looking for academically high-performing kids like me, and a couple of my other classmates. At first, I resisted. I didn’t want to leave my friends or leave the last few years of this school unfinished. However, once I arrived at my new school, I knew I was in the right place.
A key memory from my DLSA experience was actually my grandpa. Growing up in the Bronx, attending DLSA was my first time venturing into the city regularly. My grandfather took the train with me to school every day – a 40-minute journey – and insisted on carrying my backpack up those stairs once we arrived, despite my protests. He returned promptly every day when school was finished to pick me up. He was well-known among the students and faculty and to this day, when I speak with Brother Brian, he still asks about grandpa.
One of my favorite classes was Ancient Civilization – or “Ancient Civ”, as we called it – with Ms. Hwang, who was also my Language Arts teacher. That class was unlike any other. I remember being constantly impressed with Ms. Hwang and her knowledge. Another class that really stuck with me was Biology. I have always been obsessed with nature and animals. As a wildlife conservationist and biologist, it was this class that laid the groundwork for my academic understanding of the natural world. I later understood that the biology class we took at DLSA was advanced, because most of us were already familiar with the subject matter when we reached high school bio. We had already been exposed to many of the topics at DLSA.
The culture of community at DLSA truly nourished me as a middle schooler. We had the tradition of “adoption,” where older students “adopted” those in the grades below them and took them under their wing. Of course I had to adopt everyone! I also learned that I could reach out to my own peers for support and advice. The 7th grade girls’ support group was my first group therapy experience. There, we could be vulnerable, and I think it helped all of us deal with personal issues we were having at the time. Among my friends, we had these informal, one-on-one “therapy sessions” with each other if we ever wanted to talk about an issue. As uncomfortable as it can be to confront your problems, I came to understand the importance of communicating, and that I had a supportive community to fall back on.
I’ve stayed in touch with the school over the years and have tried to give back as much as I can as an alum. For years after I graduated, I spent my summers working at DLSA to help the faculty and staff get organized for the upcoming school year. I worked on administrative tasks, cleaned, hauled boxes and books around…I loved being back in those halls, and my summers helping out as an alum are some of my fondest memories at DLSA.
Of all the important takeaways, the qualities of leadership are what stand out most. I remember how Brother Brian always taught us to practice what we preach and exemplify our values in our actions. Now, a central part of my character is leading by example and making sure people are heard, whether it’s at work or in social groups. Regardless of the setting, that’s my style.
Attending DLSA was a life-changing experience, a real fork-in-the-road moment. I was a studious person even before attending DLSA, but my time at this school opened so many doors and gave me access to so many opportunities. The values that are important to me – courage, sticking to my convictions, and being guided by my moral compass – all come from DLSA.