Twenty-six students were inducted into Poly’s Cum Laude Society at a ceremony on May 19, at which we were honored to have as guest speaker NYU Professor of Philosophy and LawKwame Anthony Appiah, the renowned author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity and In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.
The members of the Class of 2021 who were recognized at the virtual Cum Laude ceremony were: Isadore Axinn ’21, Elizabeth Bentsianov ’21, Jack Boyle ’21, Samantha Chan ’21, Athena Chuang ’21, Shepherd Dzina ’21, Ilan Ezra ’21, Danielle Fischer ’21, Mati Hassan ’21, Charlotte Knutsen ’21, Kadyn Liburd ’21, Calliope Lissak ’21, Oliver Marker ’21, Tessa Marker ’21, Makieda McKenzie ’21, Henry Morris ’21, Avery Myers ’21, Emily Ng ’21, Narciso Novogratz ’21, Gauri Purohit ’21, Kahaliah Sandy ’21, Julia Schnipper ’21, Honor Seares ’21, Jack Slawner ’21, Lola Stephens ’21, and Zoe Tzivas ’21.
“I am so grateful to have been inducted into Cum Laude alongside some of my amazing peers,” said Gauri Purohit. “The ceremony was filled with so much love and support from parents and faculty.”
Assistant Head of School, Academics Michal Hershkovitz P’16, ’18 welcomed the honored students and their families to the Cum Laude ceremony and John Rankin, Philosopher in Residence, introduced Professor Appiah.
Honored Guest Speaker: Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU since 2014, was born in London and grew up in Ghana. He was educated both in Ghana and England and earned his B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and then went on to teach at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities before moving to Princeton in 2002. Among Appiah’s early writings were two books in philosophy of language, which was the area of his Cambridge dissertation. He also wrote a highly acclaimed book in the area of African Studies, In My Father’s House, which explores the role of African and African American intellectuals in developing African cultural life.
“When Professor Appiah learned of the fact that we were using his book on identity [The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity] as our core text for Philosophy,” said Anthony Gini, Chair of the Classics Department, “he made a sincere and magnanimous effort to tailor his talk for students who had read the book, and also generously added thoughts on another facet of identity—namely political affiliation—which was not addressed in the book, in order to make it clearer to the students just how much all these categories of identity are having an impact on the current societal polarization we are seeing in the U.S. and around the world these days.”
Rankin added, “Appiah was speaking about the idea of tribalism in modern politics. It is an idea that we discussed at length in the new required Grade 12 Philosophy Seminar this year, where we read his The Lies That Bind, which in part is about this very topic. The central premise is that sectarianism engenders rigid belief and ideological allegiance over open inquiry or maybe just plain truth. A lesson from it is that when we coalesce too narrowly around our own ethnic, racial, gendered, political, or class identities, it becomes necessary to dismiss and denigrate others, not to mention factual reality.”
Afterward, when asked what he hoped students took away from his presentation, Appiah said he hoped they consider at least two ideas.
“First, that we can work together even across the very serious divisions of political identities between, say, liberal and conservative, or Republican and Democrat, provided we are willing, as John Rawls suggested, to treat each other as free and equal persons, and offer terms of social cooperation that all of us can endorse. And second, that in that process, our other identities—as Americans, for example, or as members of faith communities and professions—will prove a resource.”
“To hear Appiah speak directly to us was incredibly exciting,” said inductee Gauri Purohit‘21, “especially since we had read and analyzed his work and ideas in the senior Philosophy Seminar this year. I felt that his presentation, centered around the notion of political identities, was a compelling continuation of what we had studied throughout the semester in philosophy. What most struck me from what he said was the idea of the applications of philosophy and theoretical ideas not being so tidy in reality. He specifically said this in the context of our political climate today, and how often we see people as identifying with the extreme ends of the political spectrum, when this is usually not the case.”
Upper School faculty offered tributes to each of the Cum Laude inductees. Afterward, inductee Julia Schnipper ‘21 said, “I remember sitting in the Chapel in ninth grade listening to the incredible speeches about the Cum Laude inductees. I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to work my way to be one of the students in twelfth grade. To me, Cum Laude was the gold standard and I could not be more excited to have achieved it. My dad and sister are also Poly alumni, both of whom were also inducted into Cum Laude, and I am proud to have filled the shoes they left for me.”
Gallery of Faculty Tributes to the Inductees (The tributes have been condensed because of space. Scroll through gallery to view tributes.)
Congratulations to the 2021 Cum Laude Inductees!
Isadore Axinn ’21
What is perhaps most impressive about Izzy is that his excellence is not limited to one discipline. Izzy is a true Renaissance man who excels in every area. He is a deep thinker, an empathetic friend, an involved member of our community, and a family-oriented young man. His teachers comment on his creativity and curiosity, two qualities required of any ambitious learner. Izzy’s 11th grade English teacher comments: “It’s abundantly clear that you’re not only a talented reader and writer, but you’re also an enthusiastic student of English who enjoys diving deeply into complex texts, asking critical questions, and piecing together ideas. I always learn something new through your carefully-crafted observations and musings.”
Elizabeth Bentsianov ’21
Liz leads with modesty, kindness, and empathy. She leans into uncomfortable conversations in order to learn more and become a better human being. From presenting on the Nobel Prize in Physiology to researching the Space Race, she approaches projects with not only curiosity and intelligence, but true joy. The warmth and spirit she displays as editor of the school newspaper, a three-sport varsity athlete, and a sophisticated thinker inspire us all—classmates, teammates, and teachers included!
Jack Boyle ’21
Jack is a high achiever who masks his intellectual ambition with an air of casualness and calm. But just under the surface, the same competitive fire that propels him on the basketball court and baseball field fuels his desire to succeed in his classes. The results are manifest in the way his teachers assess his work: I do not think I have seen so many teachers use the term “excellent” to describe a student, let alone across all class subjects. Jack embodies what a student should do and illustrates by example what a student can do.
Samantha Chan ’21
Sam is one of our most talented and driven students, but she is also one of the most easygoing; her modesty and cool attitude define her. Her teachers comment on her command of content, her analytical skills, and her contributions to class discussions. Most of all, Sam is a team player; she encourages her classmates to share ideas and models respectful listening. When asked what her favorite experience in high school has been, Sam spoke about her work with Poly’s Summer Service and Sustainability program, specifically with Bed Stuy’s Food Pantry, the Hudson River Ecology Project, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Athena Chuang ’21
Athena uses her art to bring light to her community. In addition to being a brilliant singer/songwriter, Athena plays the violin with an organization called Face the Music, a non-profit that gives young students a chance to play contemporary music, and performs every few months at venues around New York. Her work with Face the Music is one of the most noteworthy experiences of her high school career but her teachers also celebrate her commitment to her studies and her creativity. With her conscientious, focused attitude, and her creative spirit, whether in the science lab, the art studio, or on stage, there’s nothing this young woman can’t do and do well.
Shepherd Dzina ’21 Shep is inquisitive, determined, and always up for a challenge. He embraces intellectual rigor, is attentively engaged in all of his classes, and is goal-oriented–there is no doubt that he enjoys the act of learning itself. Shep takes intellectual risks that most people shy away from. As a result, he not only raises the discourse in his classes but also lends a valued and brave perspective. According to his Physics teacher, Shepherd draws connections between the abstract and concrete that are both novel and practical. He builds conceptual models and colors them with thoughtful observations and clever associations, making those models more useful not only to himself, but to his peers as well.
Ilan Ezra ’21
Ilan is a decent and consistently committed member of the Poly Prep community. He readily demonstrates empathy and support for vulnerable peers, and has from a young age. Obvious by his induction tonight, Ilan is an intellectually gifted student. What speaks most loudly to me, though, is that his teachers remark as much on his character as his academic performance. Of his performance in history class, his teacher remarked, “I have been impressed by your willingness to take the lead when necessary, or just as often, allow others to voice their opinions or take a stab at answering a tough question. In this way, you have greatly contributed to the entire class’s understanding of the topics and ideas that we cover.”
Danielle Fischer ’21
Danny is that happy student who is quick to joke and laugh, but at the same time understands weighty concepts and serious challenges; she is at once quick and unashamed to ask others for their opinion and confident in herself and her abilities. Danny exudes maturity and self-confidence, but balances both with a warm and approachable demeanor. And underlying those characteristics is a keen intellect that continually impresses those around her. Danny is an academic powerhouse, yet shies away from classifying herself in the context of her academic achievements.
Mati Hassan ’21
Originality and virtuosity are the hallmarks of Mati’s academic identity. There is an amazing contrast between Mati’s jaw-dropping academic accomplishments and his style: his is a mellow, philosophical, witty presence. He’s inclined to listen thoughtfully and mull over others’ words before offering his own excellent ideas. He takes pleasure in what is quirky, offbeat, and original. Simply, he is authentic, and that authenticity joins his outstanding talents in a truly powerful combination. Whether competing on our varsity swim team, singing with our boys’ acapella group, participating in urgent community conversations about Black Lives Matter and our school’s place in the history of white supremacy, or bringing startling insights into every classroom he enters, Mati models a kind of intrinsically-driven leadership that is rare and exemplary.
Charlotte Knutsen ’21
As I have learned more and more about Charlotte’s talents over the years, I am continually impressed with how she has managed to excel in so many different artistic genres and at the same time maintain an incredible academic record in her rigorous schedule. In reflecting on her Poly career, Charlotte remarked that starting intensive music practice at an early age helped frame her approach to her academics. Charlotte has a keen writing ability — her poetry is beautiful and her English teachers have remarked on the fluidity and style of her prose; she was lauded by her history teacher for being a true scholar through “careful and critical reading and the ability to tear apart nuanced ideas in sources and scholarly essays.” She is kind, warm, and passionate and epitomizes what teachers look for in a student.
Kadyn Liburd ’21
Kadyn excels when she is stretched beyond her comfort zone. From developing her Mandarin skills during a school year abroad in China to leading the Poly community and those of other independent schools as a leader of the Black Students Demanding Change organization, Kadyn’s strong moral compass and deep sense of empathy drive her. She is an exceptional role model for everyone in our community, student and adult. Her teachers continually comment on her engagement, curiosity, intense work ethic, and consistently positive attitude. She is an agent of social justice change, and has already left a significant footprint on the Poly community during her time here.
Calliope Lissak ’21
Calliope’s creativity, adaptability, and willingness to take risks make her a perfect candidate to lead this current generation. Her ability to connect with people is truly special. She loves learning for its own sake and has never been consumed by the product of her learning but rather the process she took to arrive at it. Her former history teacher writes, “[She] remains one of the most consistently engaged and discerning members of our classroom community. On a daily basis, [her] keen observations and unflagging dedication to uncovering enduring truths about past and present alike enrich our collective work, and mark [her] as a genuinely inquisitive and even unrelenting analyst—the best kind.” Calliope is wise beyond her years, determined to be a positive force for good in the world.
Oliver Marker ’21
Ollie Marker epitomizes Poly’s values of mind, body, character. Relaxed and self-assured, he is also introspective, emotionally mature, and very thoughtful. Ollie is a superb role model, both as an academic and an individual. His computer science teacher admires his “understated approach to excellence.” Ollie has always had incredible self-discipline. He has given back to the Poly community by being a peer tutor, a member of the robotics team and chess club, and a volunteer in our summer sustainability program on campus, where students work in the greenhouse and build solar-powered recharging stations on campus. Of his running career at Poly, Ollie noted: “[I]t taught me about hard work and dedication….I think going on runs and just thinking about things…has made me a better person.”
Tessa Marker ’21
Tessa has a deep passion for inquiry, service, and the humanities. One of the fibers of her being is the impulse to make the world better. Since Grade 9, Tessa organized a textbook recycling drive on campus and a march for women’s rights and environmental protection; served as an editor of The Polygon; ran three seasons of track and cross-country per year; and continued to excel academically. Tessa’s English teacher comments, “[She] continue[s] to be a gifted and hardworking reader, writer, speaker, and thinker. I’m always impressed by [her] astute contributions to class discussion…and the care with which [she] read[s] and write[s].” A member of our Student Service board and Model UN, Tessa continually gives back to the Poly community in myriad ways and is an incredible role model for our students.
Makieda McKenzie ’21
Regardless of her eventual path, Makieda’s deep humanity, thoughtfulness, discipline, and talent will take her far. We’ve been lucky to benefit from her judicious but potent leadership, shown so clearly in our classrooms and hallways as well as in community forums and conferences. She is praised by teachers for being “a major leader in our class,” and for having “a powerful spirit of curiosity and commitment to pushing boundaries for intellectual growth” as well as “a gift for seeing the essential issues long before others do and articulating them verbally with grace and clarity.” A social justice advocate and changemaker, Makieda also immerses herself in school activities with unparalleled commitment.
Henry Morris ’21
I have never met a student who can absorb and just simply “learn” as effectively and efficiently as Henry. He is the first to tell you he is a “math and science” student, though his humanities teachers have noted his “brilliant” work and lauded Henry’s ability to engage his classmates in discussions, but also aid them in deepening their own understanding. It is the mark of someone who has a true understanding of the material that their main concern is not showcasing their knowledge, but using that knowledge to facilitate learning by others — and Henry does that in every class and in every subject. He has an agile intellect and perceptible integrity that make him empathetic and acutely aware of those around him. Henry’s successes also include his steadfast dedication to the wrestling team, where his leadership was evident not only in the accolades he received, but also in the way he created a welcoming and open environment for younger, more inexperienced students.
Avery Myers ’21
Avery is the kind of student who leans into challenge. Her thirst for knowledge has no bounds, nor does her drive in the classroom and on the volleyball court. Avery is a model student across disciplines. Her tenure at Poly has included advanced coursework in math, history, and Latin. Avery’s teacher narratives tend to start with something along the lines of, “It has been a pleasure working with you this year,” because that statement is so true. She is curious and dedicated, and she sets a high standard for her classmates to follow. She has also made a name for herself in the arts, singing with the concert choir for the past four years. On the volleyball court, Avery shines. She was elected MVP in both Grades 10 and 11, and was named “First Team All-Ivy,” too.
Emily Ng ’21
Emily exudes intense focus, thoughtfulness, and confidence. Her academic success is the manifestation of profound interest in myriad subjects: politics, creative writing, community activism, and problem solving. Her work is indicative of both deep understanding of the content and the ability to forge connections between classroom topics and her own personal experiences. Each success in her classes over the years is due to a pure, lived interest in those subjects. She is an award-winning writer, keen editor, and ambassador of the written word. Her commitment to history is inextricably woven with an interest in local politics, one that focuses on providing a voice to the Asian-American community. Her success in math and science reflects her commitment to pursue a career in the medical field, one that focuses on providing care to non-Native English speakers.
Narciso Novogratz ’21
Nacho engages with academic pursuits for his own edification, but the manner in which he does so raises the intellectual level of any conversation in which he participates. Nacho acutely understands classroom dynamics and can more often be found listening to his peers than dominating class discussions. It’s one thing to be able to always test well; it’s another thing entirely to bring your best each and every day in class. Nacho makes his classmates better, while also learning from all of them. His ability to collaborate and problem solve means that he contributes extensively to any space of which he is a part.
Gauri Purohit ’21
Gauri’s omnivorous intellect, resilient energy, and kindness to all around her have raised the bar for every Poly student. It’s crucial to note that Gauri raises that bar by spreading her infectious enthusiasm for school, not by making anyone feel ‘less-than.’ She buoys people up with her presence. Although her STEM accomplishments are above and beyond our uppermost curricular offerings, it’s an English teacher’s words that are most illustrative: her achievement, Mr. Rearick wrote to her, “isn’t just a story of unceasing hard work; you seem to have a beautiful emotional connection to literature.” Gauri takes pure delight in her intellectual adventures—she could never achieve as she has without that beautiful emotional connection.
Kahaliah Sandy ’21
Kahaliah is a force to be reckoned with—smart, determined, and deeply curious about the world around her, Kahaliah has a passion for learning and commitment to academic excellence that is evident every day. She grapples with the interesting and the complex, as she masters concepts quickly and possesses an innate desire for deep learning in all of the disciplines. Kahaliah’s selflessness and thoughtfulness are unmatched. Kahaliah is truly the embodiment of Poly’s defined values of ethical leadership and global citizenship. Her presence and level of empathy remind us that while we might come from diverse places and be of different races… our hearts beat as one.
Julia Schnipper ’21
Julia Schnipper pursues her goals with clarity of purpose and remarkable tenacity. A rockstar student and an ethically-minded member of our community, she exhibits empathy and care in all she does. Even in the midst of the pandemic, Julia continued to work virtually in a medical lab, and completed virtual programs in an NYC hospital’s neurology department and with the CDC doing COVID-19 research. Julia’s interests truly consume her, in the best possible way. One of the most capable students I’ve worked with, she is also humble and genuinely, deeply curious.
Honor Seares ’21
Honor is a thoughtful young woman whose main focus is becoming a fully-formed, complex human being. Honor is an academic powerhouse but it’s her contributions to the community that set her apart and distinguish her as an excellent representative of our school. Honor is most proud of her work on the editorial board of The Polygon, our student newspaper and as a four-year member of our peer tutoring program; in these and other ways, her positive influence has made such a difference in the academic lives of Poly students. A dedicated member of Blue Key, our Student Ambassador and Poly Tour Guide program, she shines in this role—her positive, nurturing attitude makes her a perfect candidate for showcasing Poly to prospective students and families.
Jack Slawner ’21
Jack is a formidable individual, unafraid to ask follow-up questions of his teachers, and unsatisfied with merely absorbing information. Determined to find evidence for his and others’ positions, he works hard to fully understand complexities, and is comfortable choosing the “unpopular side,” of any argument. In this and other ways, he has matured into a thoughtful, eloquent, and impressive student. In his own words, his embrace of argument does “not only…help me think more deeply about a topic or idea, but also makes my friends clarify their views and deepen their thinking by having to argue with me instead of having everyone always agree with them.” Jack is unwaveringly committed to achieving his best, and does so with confidence and optimism.
Lola Stephens ’21
Lola has an enormous capacity for thoughtful, passionate embrace of learning. She is an artist, an activist, and an academic—excelling in all areas. Keenly attuned to the world around her, Lola embraces challenges with patience and fortitude. Over the years, Lola’s teachers comment frequently on her “keen intelligence, careful preparation, and dedication to learning,” marking her as a true scholar across all disciplines. In addition to her academic accomplishments, Lola is an award-winning performer and musician with a passion for environmental and racial justice. Her perseverance through adversity and careful attention to those around her are complemented by a fierce intellectual curiosity.
Zoe Tzivas ’21
Zoe understands difference as an essential part of a strong community and greets all with a smile, acting as a true and supportive friend to students from disparate and contrasting New York worlds. Her teachers praise her for her “enthusiasm for learning,” for “[coming] to class well-prepared and with a great attitude,” for approaching classes with “ebullience…and [a] joyful disposition.” A gifted, natural and sophisticated writer, she pursues humanities at a high level, but her math and science chops are equally strong. Her combination of intellect and heart as a student makes her a true achiever, but also one who is principled and humane. An invaluable member of our learning community, she has distinguished herself in countless ways, and is so deserving of this honor.