AP Chemistry has earned a reputation as the toughest class at Verona High School, a memorable but sometimes brutal grind for most of the students who take it. Not so for Veronica Valera, Verona High School’s 2021 salutatorian, who calls it her favorite class.
“I ate lunch every day in Dr. Wehbeh’s room,” she says. “I always had extra questions for her, and she was always so willing to answer them and work with me.” Valera thrived off the high standards set by the class, and threw herself into the study of chemistry heart and soul. “I love chemistry,” she says. “What you can do with it, it’s like magic!”
Valera has been a dedicated student-athlete at VHS, running track and cross country for all four years, to the point that in response to her success on the trail she decided to run a half marathon — simply because she could. She finished the race, and recalls with a broad smile her own surprise at her success. Distance running is about the long haul, careful and patient pacing from the runner, who’s also hoping to cross the finish line first; it’s about the grind, and that’s Valera’s specialty.
Distance running is also about keeping a pace that is sustainable, a word that connects to Valera’s intended major of chemical engineering at Princeton University, and an eventual career in researching and developing sustainable energy. It’s true that Valera’s interest in chemical engineering was sparked by AP Chemistry, and her natural affinity for science and math. But, Valera’s interest in sustainable energy is also rooted in a deep love of the natural world.
While Valera loves almost anything she can do outside, horseback riding is her main passion within the open air, and she’s more than happy to talk about her sport, her voice rising as she discusses her years-long commitment to riding, and her excitement to continue riding with Princeton’s equestrian club. She also describes how she worked at the barn to save up and lease a horse for the season, which can run up to thousands of dollars. “I’ve always wanted a horse,” she says, “and while it would’ve been great to have one sooner, it feels good that I really earned this horse, you know?”
Animals, plants, land, water, sky, sea, and the open air: this is what Valera loves, and what she wants to protect by becoming a chemical engineer. “I started to organize cleanups of Branch Brook Park, where we have a lot of our cross country meets, to pick up trash and such,” she mentions. “Going there, seeing all that garbage, it really made me realize how important it is to save the Earth.”
Indeed, it’s this strong compassion — not just for the planet, but for everything around her — that guides Valera’s actions, and what’s most striking about her is her warmth and kindness, her easy grin and her generous laugh. Valera sets high standards for herself, and her work to perform at her best certainly helped vault her to the spot of salutatorian. It’s her compassion, though, that sets her apart, and what led her to create what she calls “my most important project”: Beads For Hope, a charity that donates handmade bead bracelets to survivors of domestic violence.
“My aunt works at Massachusetts General Hospital with survivors of domestic violence, to understand the psychological effects of what they’ve experienced,” Valera says. “I got this idea to give away my extra bracelets to these women, and my aunt said it was a great idea.” From there, Beads For Hope became Valera’s ongoing project from eighth grade to senior year, and she describes how moving it’s been to do something whose only aim is to bring some small measure of joy to others. “My aunt will say to me how some of the women will come back, and they’ll be like, ‘I still have the bracelet!’ Some of these women have never even been given jewelry before. So to do something for them, that can help them deal with something so horrible, it’s been so great.We’ve sent over 550 bracelets, even to places like France and Colombia,” Valera says with pride.
As impressive as the numbers are, though, it’s clear that Valera wasn’t looking for a simple service project to check off a box on her college applications. As with everything she does, her steady drive and big heart pushed her to work as best she could — and in this case, not only for herself, but for others, an attitude with which she hopes to continue Beads For Hope in college. Veronica Valera is in it for the long haul as she continues on to Princeton, whether it’s her studies, her athletics, or her service to others. “I want to do my best at everything I do,” she says — and for Valera, her best is merely as high as she pushes to reach.
“What’s Next” is a series of profiles about what members of each Verona High School class intend to do after graduation. MyVeronaNJ has been publishing the series since 2010 and you can read all of them here.