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North Kingstown High School valedictorian Alaina Minarik, left, and salutatorian Julia Totten, right, finished first and second in their class rank but shared much more together than strong academic performances. Both leave NKHS saying that, despite the coronavirus pandemic, their high school experience was one they feel they made the most of.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Last fall, the North Kingstown High School Girls Tennis team was facing a dilemma. When senior Alaina Minarik’s doubles partner was unable to play a match, they needed to pair her up with a new partner — and fellow senior Julia Totten stepped up to the plate.

While they might not have won the match, both said they played well together and enjoyed the experience. Now, the two find themselves paired together again, but this time with a new distinction: valedictorian and salutatorian of the class of 2021, respectively. 

“It really meant a lot to me (to be named valedictorian) because I’ve worked so hard over the last few years,” Minarik said. “Obviously I didn’t do it all for the reward, but it was very nice to receive the recognition.”

Minarik said she heard the news from her neighbor while studying for her AP exams. Her neighbor should know, as she’s Barbara Morse, the principal of the high school.

“(Morse) showed up at my house and told me, so that was really exciting,” Minarik said. “I was really nervous about AP exams and other things, so that really made my day and helped me go into the rest of the week confidently.”

For Totten, it was her mom who told her after receiving a call from Morse.

“(She) called my mom, and then my mom came and told me, and I was so excited to hear,” Totten said. “The next week at the beginning of the week, they announced it over the loudspeaker for everyone to hear, and it was just super exciting in that moment of having everyone know, and I was just really happy to represent my school and my peers by being the salutatorian, and it was just a huge honor to be recognized in that way.”

Finding out that they would be up there with each other only added to the experience.

“It was awesome,” Totten said of Minarik being named valedictorian. “I was so happy to hear it was her, especially having been on the team with her since freshman year. I know her really well and I know how great of a person she is and how much she deserved it.”

“I thought it was cool,” Minarik said. “I’ve known Julia throughout the last four years of high school and I knew that she was very smart and talented, so I wasn’t exactly surprised when I found out that she was at the top of the class.”

In addition to playing tennis, both young women were involved with the school’s music program, with both playing in the school band, an activity both said was one of their highlights from their time at the school. 

“I’ve had a really great experience at North Kingstown High School. I think that I am very fortunate to have gone there, because it’s a really good school with really dedicated teachers, who care about what they’re teaching and they really want to help their students out,” Minarik said. “I really appreciated that, to have a lot of support from teachers, so the academic experience was really good. I feel like all of the teachers that I had were really good and I learned so much, and also the social experience was pretty good.”

Minarik said that she joined several clubs throughout her time in high school, including the school band, its jazz band, and its tennis team.

“Being part of each of these groups allowed for me to meet a lot of different people with a lot of different interests, so throughout my years of high school I’ve really met a lot of people and I’ve become friendly with them,” Minarik said. “I think it’s helped me to expand my worldview a little bit by getting to know more people and what their experiences are, because a lot of them have had some pretty different experiences from what I’ve had.”

Totten said she had “an amazing experience” in all facets of her time in high school.

“Academically, obviously, the classes there are amazing and all of my teachers were amazing and always a great help — always there when I needed anything and always pushing me to do my best,” Totten said. “And then outside of academics, being part of the music program was also amazing. I play the flute in the band, and that, I feel, was the core — besides academics — of my high school career. Going through the band with my fellow musicians and Mrs. (Toni) Silveira was just an amazing experience, and the music program is incredible at our school. Also, being on the tennis team and making all of those bonds with my teammates — I had a great experience at NK and just all of these different parts of it were wonderful.”

Like all high school seniors, both Minarik and Totten had to navigate a totally new world once the COVID-19 pandemic hit toward the end of their junior years, impacting their end of high school as they figured out distance learning and alternate schedules while dealing with the impacts of living through such an experience.

Minarik said she feels fortunate that no member of her immediate family contracted the virus, and credits the time spent with them as what helped her get through the past year and a half successfully.

“I’ve always had really close ties with my parents and my sister, so I think that the time we spent together really helped me through,” Minarik said. “I didn’t really get to see a lot of people from school for a long time when we were staying home last year, and then when we were coming in every other day at the beginning of this year, it was still a little bit lonely, but I always had my family there to support me and so I’m very grateful for that. We would go for walks and do a lot of things together, and it definitely helped to keep up my spirits and kept me motivated and helped me focus and stay positive.”

For Totten, it was a spirit of unity among her classmates and teachers that helped her through it.

“In the beginning, I remember I didn’t know what we were going to do or how we were going to get through it with all of these new things, but I think the way that I got through it and all of us got through it was by going through it together,” Totten said. “All of my classmates didn’t know what to do either, and we have to survive together and we had to adapt to all of the changes. And our teachers were so helpful, like they didn’t know what they were doing either, but they were always there for us with our questions and just working through it together (with us)  so we could learn how to survive a pandemic and all of these different things in school that we had never done. We had never learned from home, we’d never done a Google Meet, it was just working together and knowing that you had the support of everyone around you. That’s what got me through it.”

Now, the two prepare to depart North Kingstown —Minarik is shipping up to Boston University to study chemistry, while Totten heads down to the University of Virginia. She’s looking at a major in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or medical fields and said she is very interested in doing research work.

“I’m so excited to go to Virginia. I can’t wait,” Totten said. “I don’t know exactly what my career is going to look like or even what my college experience class-wise is going to look like, but I’m just so excited for the next step and I’m so excited to go to a new place and meet all these new people and hopefully make a positive impact on the world eventually.”

Minarik, too, is interested in working in research.

“I’m going to major in chemistry and hopefully go into research after that, because Boston University is a really great research institution,” Minarik said. “I hope that I can find a field of chemistry that I like and that calls to me, because there is so many different areas within the field of chemistry, and hopefully I’ll find an area that appeals to me and I can start doing research and other things to make a difference in the world.”

Minarik said she’s pretty excited to go to Boston University, though nervous about living on her own. However, she feels that’s something she’ll adapt to — especially because she is familiar with the school, as her older sister currently attends it.

“I’ve been on the campus and I can definitely imagine myself there,” Minarik said. “I feel pretty comfortable in the area, and the fact that it’s in Boston is very advantageous. There’s so many different service opportunities and internships that you can access from there, and also it seems that the BU community is really inclusive and friendly.”

As their time as Skippers comes to a close, both Minarik and Totten shared their advice for the incoming freshman class of 2025 to make the most of their high school experience.

“Going into high school is really intimidating and daunting, but I think one of the best things you can do is to just enjoy the ride,” Minarik said. “It’ll go by really quickly, and if you try to immerse yourself in what you’re learning and think of the classes as fun or things that you were interested in, it really makes you more dedicated and invested in the work and it usually makes it a lot easier to get things done. It’s really tough to handle all the coursework and other obligations when it seems like some sort of thing you have to do that you don’t really like, so I would definitely recommend trying to think of school as a fun experience, a way to grow and really expand your knowledge and your worldview, because it goes by really fast and when it’s over, it’s really sad.”

“It’s very scary at first, and you kind of feel like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this,’ but you just have to stay calm and focus on just taking it one day at a time,” Totten said. “When you walk through the doors for the first time, don’t worry about what you’re going to do when you’re a senior or what teams are you going to join or what clubs are you gonna join. Just take it one day at a time and meet new people, make friends in your classes, enjoy each one of your classes and try to form those relationships, try to join as many things as you can. Don’t stress about what it is, just do what you like. Do what you’re interested in and make a lot of friends, and it’ll be over before you know it.”

The North Kingstown High School class of 2021 will graduate in an outdoor ceremony tonight at the school’s stadium after the event was pushed back a day due to weather concerns. That story will appear in next week’s edition of The Independent.

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