Class of 2019 Reflections

Three students look back on their K-12 experience and ahead to what comes next.
July 01, 2019

On June 6, a total of 563 brilliant scholars graduated from Hopkins High School. As part of our mission to go from Great to World Class, Hopkins aspires to deliver students to the world who are confident in their voice, critical and holistic thinkers, well-traveled and global-minded, and cultivators of empathy. In the final story of the year, we profile three seniors ­— Deb Chepkemoi, Isaac Gotlieb, and Leah Stillman — who have these attributes and are prepared to walk into a future that is complex, unknown, and exciting. Congratulations to them and the entire class of 2019 — the future is yours! 

Deb Chepkemoi: Born to lead 

If there is such a thing as an ordinary student, Deb Chepkemoi is certainly not it — and she does not want to be. She seeks experiences that are both unconventional and out of her comfort zone. Born in Kenya, she immigrated to the United States in 2008. This experience has both shaped her and provided her with a deep maturity. She is a leader, a change-maker, and an activist. And for Chepkemoi, this is only the beginning. 

Chepkemoi has an innate curiosity about her peers. This skill has helped her facilitate complicated conversations. As part of her work with HHS Responds, a student group that brings people of different backgrounds together to gain new perspectives, she led a fishbowl conversation about immigration, creating a space for students on all sides of the issue to be heard and to learn from one another. Many people would struggle with this task, but Chepkemoi thrives in this space. She is always challenging her view, and trying to understand others.

“I feel so constrained when I am not doing what I want to do,” she said. “I love leadership. There is always a need for a conversation, and I push myself to see all sides of an issue.” 

Hopkins was a place that allowed Chepkemoi to find her voice. It supported her need to explore new areas, test herself, and carve out an individual plan. She describes the teachers as caring and passionate. Their enthusiasm for teaching made it easy for her to stay engaged and feel a sense of belonging. 

“When a teacher likes what they do, you can tell,” she said. “It draws you in immediately.” 

It was important to Chepkemoi that her high school valued not just academics, but also her as a person. An experience that continues to stand out to her is the Unity Day she attended in her junior year. The entire class took a day off from high school to examine who they were as individuals. Being allowed that time and space to be vulnerable led to students having a deeper understanding of each other.  

“When you see someone open up and be vulnerable, you are able to build relationships, which is the foundation for a strong school,” she said. 

Chepkemoi has an entrepreneurial spirit. After graduation, she plans to join a startup technology firm and give herself five years to learn as much as possible about networking, leadership, and team building. She is not quite sure what her future looks like, but she knows she is destined to do something bigger than herself. She also plans to take online courses at a community college because her mother convinced her that a backup plan is important. 

“I like coding and technology, in general,” she said. "Artificial intelligence is a huge part of our future, and that is what I want to be working on. I want to use my skills to do something good for the community.” 

Isaac Gotlieb: High achieving, service minded  

Isaac Gotlieb sets the bar high for himself. He does well academically and enjoys challenging himself, but he knows grades are not the only measure of success. Being of service to others is at his core, and he values maintaining strong and meaningful connections with those who are important to him. These values, which he learned through his parents, were reinforced in his school experience at Hopkins. He is grounded, humble, smart, and ready to embark on his next adventure. 

Gotlieb’s roots are strongly tied to Hopkins. He is the youngest of four siblings, all of whom attended the same sequence of schools — Tanglen Elementary, North Junior High, and Hopkins High School. He appreciated the ability to interact with a wide variety of people with different interests. This helped shape him. Hopkins was home base, and a good testing ground for trying new things. Gotlieb played tennis and competed with the swim team in junior high, but changed his focus to music in high school, performing in both band and orchestra. He even earned college credit for music through PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Opportunities). 

Gotlieb is always thinking about how he can be of service to others, whether he is volunteering in his synagogue or working at his part-time job at Starbucks. Given his mindset, it’s not surprising that what stands out most to him about Hopkins is the positive learning environment created by his teachers. They made learning relevant and fun. He could feel it, and he appreciated it. He was always aware of how much they cared. 

“The teachers have made my school experience strong,” said Gotlieb. “I’ve had good experiences across all subjects, and not only in their academic approach, but also in their relationship skills. I consider many teachers here my mentors and friends.”

During his high school experience, he pushed himself and was encouraged by his teachers to take risks. This helped him develop a healthy resilience to failure. He would encourage other students to embrace the same mindset and for teachers to not be afraid to have high expectations of their students. 

“The worst thing that can happen if you push someone is that they will fail, and that is how you learn.” 

This fall, Gotlieb plans to attend Harvard University where he will study biology, and eventually go to medical school. Medicine appeals to him because he wants to make a difference in people’s lives using a combination of science and relationship-building skills. 

“I have always been drawn to connecting with people,” he said. “It’s undervalued how much doctors need to connect with their patients to be effective.” 

Leah Stillman: Focused on the greater good 

Leah Stillman jokes that she feels much older than she is, and those that know her would likely say the same thing.  She is mature, well-traveled, pragmatic, motivated, and whip smart. Grounded in doing the right thing, she uses her position in life to help others. When she encounters problems, she creates solutions that will not only benefit her, but benefit everyone. That’s who she is. 

In her sophomore year, she started experiencing stress that comes from a rigorous schedule. She found a solution that worked for her — yoga. Before long, she was teaching yoga at Hopkins High School to a small community group, putting her in the unique position of being both a student and an employee of Hopkins High School at the same time. 

During her time at Hopkins, Stillman has been involved in several clubs and activities, from ultimate frisbee to environmental social media campaigns; however, the area of advocacy she always returned to was mental health.  

In fact, Stillman has been involved in pretty much all of the wellness work that Hopkins High School has championed over the last two years. Last summer she interned with Hopkins One Voice Coalition, and this fall she began working with Royals United, a student-led group focused on improving mental health supports for students. She helped bring therapy dogs into the high school — a huge hit! — worked to increase traffic to the secondary schools’ wellness centers, and carved out a legislative plan to make mental health support more accessible for students. She is most proud of a video that she participated in featuring not only students, but Hopkins High School staff, talking about their mental health. It was shown to students in November.

“That video had such an impact,” she said. “You realize that you are not alone. There were 30 people in it overall, and the message was that everyone is going through something.” 

One of the things that Stillman enjoyed most about Hopkins is the opportunity to engage with people who are different from her and learn from them at the same time. She is fluent in Spanish and uses this skill to help others. While on a student trip, she encountered a Spanish-speaking woman in an airport who lost her wallet. Stillman was determined to help and accompanied the woman throughout the airport, retracing her steps with her and translating along the way. In the end, the woman found her wallet, and Stillman just made her flight. These experiences are not unusual for Stillman, who said she uses her Spanish almost every day.

"I use my Spanish skills in my retail job all the time," she said. "I can stop what I am doing and help a customer who does not speak English. I am thankful we have such a good language program at Hopkins.” 

Before heading off to college in the fall, Stillman plans to spend most of this summer traveling — first to Cuba as part of a school trip, and later to Europe with a friend. This fall, she will attend the University of Minnesota. Passionate about human rights, she intends to major in political science. However, she would prefer to keep her life-long career aspirations open. 

“I don’t want to do the same thing forever," she said. "I want to help people, and I see myself doing human rights work.”

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