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Ivy League Valedictorian: My Rochelle Park Teacher Saw Something In Me

Michael Abolafia of Rochelle Park was named valedictorian of Columbia University's class of 2017.
Michael Abolafia of Rochelle Park was named valedictorian of Columbia University's class of 2017. Photo Credit: Michael Abolafia

ROCHELLE PARK, N.J. – As valedictorian of Columbia University’s class of 2017, Michael Abolafia of Rochelle Park will soon give a speech to about 10,000 people at the Ivy League school in Manhattan.

But the English Literature major said he wasn’t always at the top of his class. And he credits a Rochelle Park teacher, and the gifted and talented program she ran at the township’s Midland School, with helping him to believe in himself.

“I was essentially like kind of a mediocre student before that. And Ms. Purcell saw something in me and accepted me into her gifted and talented education class,” Abolafia said about his teacher, Barbara Purcell.

Purcell introduced him to the works of William Shakespeare when he was in just seventh grade, he said.

“She gave me incredible confidence. Telling me to take compositional risks, and to pursue my writing, and telling me that I sort of had things to say, and that I was kind of good at this reading and writing thing,” he recalled.

As an eighth-grader, Abolafia was named valedictorian of Midland School’s class of 2009. Then as a high school senior, he was named valedictorian of the Academies at Englewood’s class of 2013.

Even with those previous accomplishments, Abolafia still said he was “shocked,” to get an email from Columbia University alerting him that he was the top student in his class at the university’s Columbia College for undergraduates.

“I wordlessly showed my iPhone with the email open to my girlfriend and had her read it back to me to make sure I wasn’t imagining it,” he said.

“I was incredibly humbled, grateful and honored, because Columbia University has given me so much,” he said.

Abolafia will be speaking at Columbia College’s class day on May 16, then participating in Columbia University’s commencement the following day.

In the fall, he’ll be headed to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom to pursue a master’s degree in English.

Abolafia said his ultimate goal is to teach -- like Purcell.

“I always land back on this original idea of mine, which is that I wanted to teach literature, probably at the college level,” he said.

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