By Jillian Risberg
Two graduating seniors from Morris Knolls High School have left an indelible mark on the school, and as the valedictorian and salutatorian get set to graduate — they are prepared to forge a path that’s all their own.
“They really will have a lasting legacy,” says Principal Ryan MacNaughton of their time at the Rockaway school. “It will be tough for other students to fill their shoes.”
“In middle school I started thinking about it but didn’t really seem like an achievable goal until the end of freshman year in high school,” the valedictorian says.
Just keep doing what you’re doing she told herself.
“Obviously it’s competitive to have to compete against other people,” Fortune says. “But it’s more of — work myself to my highest potential and do what I know I’m able to do.”
She is a varsity cheerleader and on the varsity lacrosse team. The valedictorian is also secretary of the HOPE Club, member of the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Studies Honor Society and World Language Honor Society, fall cheerleading coach and math tutor at Mathnasium.
“You have to have a certain GPA and grades and classes pertaining to whatever the society is,” Fortune says. “And sometimes the application contains an essay and/or you have to write a little thing about why you’re applying.”
Often her teachers would suggest the honor societies and in 2018 one of her teachers ran the HOPE club. He was the one who talked to her about joining and that’s how she first got involved.
“But a lot of the stuff outside of school (coaching and my job) I had to do on my own,” Fortune says.
Since she has her hand in just about everything — it’s rare that the valedictorian gets to just sit back and soak up all her accomplishments and relish in the moment that she’s made it.
“Especially because I found out the week before AP exams that I’m taking five so I’m hoping once exams are over it’ll feel a little bit more gratifying.”
With her exemplary academic record, test scores and GPA, Fortune had her eye on Cornell University.
“It was my dream school,” the valedictorian says. “They have an incredible veterinary program and that’s what I want to do, so I was really motivated to work toward that. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in.”
Instead she is going to the University of Connecticut and Fortune says she is excited about their excellent animal science program.
“I’ve loved animals since I was really little and always been involved with them… it’s just something that I’ve had a passion for.”
And Fortune only has the highest praise for the school that’s shaped her into the young woman she is today.
“I love Knolls (Morris Knolls High School). It’s gonna be hard leaving it,” the valedictorian says. “Everyone that I’ve met, every teacher that I’ve had has been great — so committed to helping the students in so many ways.”
“Obviously the teachers care about your academics but they care about students as people too,” Fortune says. “They’ll check up on you to make sure you’re doing all right and Mr. MacNaughton has been so nice to me — especially in the last few weeks, he’s been accommodating everything.”
According to the principal, the valedictorian had to dedicate a tremendous amount of time per week and per year to her academics. But the fact that she can balance her academics and extracurricular activities is really what’s amazing.
She’s also made many friends through lacrosse and beyond, with Fortune acknowledging that Knolls has given her the ability to advocate for herself.
“I think that’s going to be very valuable in college because then I’ll be able to handle myself and get what I need done with the resources that I have available,” she says.
As such a high achiever, the valedictorian has some advice for the next round of Morris Knolls students in achieving their best selves.
“Learn how to balance yourself and know your limits,” she says. “You can work your hardest but you also need to take time to have fun and experience what high school has to offer.”
According to Fortune, that means you might have a test the next day but sometimes you need to go to a football game.
“I think they define what it means to be a Morris Knolls student,” MacNaughton says of Hannah and Nicholas. “They’ve excelled academically, they’ve excelled athletically — and are very involved in their community. They represent the best of the best of Morris Knolls.”
According to the principal, the valedictorian is also in the SDCLA, the Bible Club and the Women’s Choir.
He says to get to her standing, a student must take high level courses and develop a really strong work ethic.
“You’re talking about someone who across the board is a tremendous athlete and heavily involved in clubs and activities. I think the fact that she’s so well rounded makes it extra special for her,” MacNaughton says.
“Hannah took 14 honors level courses and 11 AP (advanced placement) courses. She was a National Merit commended scholar and her seven semester average was 103.6, so you’re talking about a stellar student,” he says.
Salutatorian Nicholas Baranello is another student that excelled academically and he’s in six different honor societies.
“When it comes to Nick he’s a really good and effective student leader in our building,” MacNaughton says. “He’s the president of the National Honor Society, senior class president and he had a 103.18 semester average for all his years here. Just all around a really good kid and students look up to him and he’s heavily involved in the school.”
The principal says they’re extremely proud and honored to have such outstanding students like Hannah and Nicholas.
Baranello’s drive and determination started way back.
“I was always a good student in elementary school and then in middle school I still wanted to strive and do well,” the salutatorian says. “So it led me to get into the honor society there and then when I got to high school I kept having that drive to be the best.”
“I really didn’t care what it took me as long as I put in the work; because I just wanted the satisfaction of knowing that I gave my all,” he says.
Of his time at Knolls, Baranello calls it one of the best experiences.
“The teachers have had a huge impact on my life,” he says. “They’ve helped me see the world in a completely different light. They’ve been a constant source of support and allowed me to succeed not only academically but socially and athletically.”
If people were going out and partying and doing things he didn’t believe in, the salutatorian didn’t feel obligated to take part.
“My experiences at Knolls helped me see that I could be my own person and I didn’t have to conform with what all the other students were doing,” he says.
From class officer to football player to track star to various other clubs and community service — the salutatorian has been able to give back to the school since they helped him so much.
“I like helping others succeed and make the most out of their high school experience,” he says.
According to Baranello, having those leadership qualities will help steer him greatly in college.
“The fact that I’ve been able to have an impact on other people’s lives is humbling,” he says. “I don’t want to just go through the motions (in college), I want to make an impact so I know I made the most out of it like I made the most out of my high school.”
He has always had a strong-willed personality and never wanted to go with the flow.
“I want to be the one calling the shots instead of going with whatever shots other people call,” the salutatorian says.
When it came to choosing a college, the 17-year-old says the University of Notre Dame was big for him, but unfortunately he was weight-listed there.
Next stop: the University of Maryland, where Baranello plans on majoring in physics.
“Not actually because I want to be a physicist, I want to go into it because physics is like a jack of all trades degree which you can take into a wide variety of fields,” he says.
“You could take it into economics, into patent law, you could take it really anywhere because employers like to see that critical thinking ability and the hard math skills that you gained, so I want to use it to give myself a lot of options.”
And he eventually wants to join the FBI.
Morris Knolls High School has been a fantastic training ground.
“The environment really was ‘you can make what you want of your life and we’ll give you all the tools you need to get there,’” Baranello says.