Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Okoth and Martinez lead PHS’s 100th class

Both headed to Ivy-league schools on full scholarships
Ariana Okoth (valedictorian, fifth from left) and Janira Martinez (salutatorian, fifth from right) pose with district officials and school board members.

For the past eight years, young women have prevailed academically at Peekskill High School, achieving the status of valedictorian and salutatorian every year since 2017. Through hard work, focus, and perseverance, Ariana Okoth and Janira Martinez have continued this trend, graduating as the class of 2024’s valedictorian and salutatorian.

Class of 2024 Valedictorian: Ariana Okoth

Okoth is this year’s valedictorian. She will be attending Harvard University this fall on a full scholarship, majoring in African American Studies on the pre-medical track. Okoth tells the Herald she is the third person in PHS history to attend the prestigious ivy-league school.

While Okoth remains grateful and humble for the opportunity to attend Harvard, she revealed in an interview with the Herald that if it weren’t for one PHS faculty member believing in her, she would have never gotten the courage to apply.

“The reason I got into Harvard is because of Mrs. Maria Gordineer. She is the only reason why.” Gordineer is the school’s College Resource Center counselor. 

“Everyday in December, I would go into her office because she had scholarships, and she would always be like ‘Ariana, have you applied to Harvard yet?’” Hesitant at first, Okoth eventually applied to Harvard after being convinced by Gordineer, but she wasn’t enthusiastic about her chances.

Recounting the faithful day when she got the news that she was accepted, Ariana said “When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it, I literally started screaming. My mom came up the stairs and she was like ‘Are you okay?’ She saw my computer and literally got on her knees and started praising God.” After the emotions died down, Okoth called Gordineer and before she could utter a word, Gordineer knew Okoth was calling about being accepted to Harvard. 

Okoth attributes her success in school to a few different people, beginning with her mother, Florence Omuga, who instilled the value of education in Okoth at a young age. Omuga is from Kenya and immigrated to the United States with no family to support her. She has three children, Okoth and two boys, whom she raised as a single mother. From a very young age, Okoth remembers her mother making a lot of sacrifices to support her family, including working two jobs and overnights. “When she would get home, she would get us ready for the bus and we would go, then she would go home and sleep,” said Okoth.

Okoth and her mother, Florence Omuga.

As she got older, Okoth used her mothers sacrifices as motivation. “There were nights where I was pulling all-nighters and got tired and was like ‘what’s the point of this?’. Then I remembered how hard my mom worked, I said to myself I have to make her sacrifices mean something.” 

In addition to honoring her mother’s sacrifices, Okoth views performing well academically as a way to honor her ancestors. “If I was living 60-70 years ago, I wouldn’t even have these opportunities, so why waste it.”

Everyone knows how influential a good teacher can be in a student’s life, none more than Okoth, who says she couldn’t have made it where she is now without three special instructors. First, Okoth applauds Jodi Fernandez for always providing class materials that require students to think critically. “The way that she sets up her classroom, it makes you think in divergent ways. I’ve constantly been challenged in her class,” said Okoth. Fernandez teaches Introduction to African/African-American History, Introduction to Hip-Hop Studies, and Writing/Literacy Lab. Okoth also thanks April Kellam for helping her become a more effective problem-solver. Okoth says that Kellam taught her that, just like in math, she can approach and solve a problem in different ways. Kellam teaches Geometry Honors, Advanced Algebra, and Trigonometry. And Okoth praises Erum Hadi for preparing her for college through her courses, which mimicked the standards and expectations of a college classroom. Hadi teaches Freshman Science Research and the Peekskill Science Research Program.

When asked why she chose African-American studies as her major, Okoth explained “I want to work with underrepresented groups because oftentimes, especially in the healthcare system, they [doctors] kind of look at people of color as symptoms rather than actual souls.” She added that she wants to work on and explore the iatrophobia (fear of doctors) that has affected people of color for centuries, stemming from medical abuse endured by enslaved African-Americans. 

Okoth hopes to become a perinatologist in the future. She is considering double-majoring in biomedical engineering due to her interest in using technology to advance health equity. In addition, after medical school, she plans to obtain her Ph.D. in Health Policy and Management.

Looking back at her four years in high school, Okoth revealed what she loved the most: “I enjoyed spending time with my friends and the student body. Pep rallies were so much fun, when we would all go to basketball games and soccer games. Those were my favorite times.”

As Okoth prepares to leave Peekskill for Massachusetts, she is proud to see the transformation of Peekskill High school. In her four years, Okoth and the class of 2024 got to experience the new STEAM center, a renovated cafeteria and auditorium, and new technology and classes. 

Okoth (center), in a 2022 PHS production of Legally Blonde.

According to the Peekskill City School District, during her time at PHS, Okoth was vice-president of the Class of 2024, Student Council President, a member of the Debate Team, a Peekskill Science Research program student, a member of Concert Choir, Concert Band, and City Singers, President of the Black Culture Club, President of the Science National Honor Society, Captain of the Girls Varsity Swim Team, and an active member in the high school’s drama productions. Outside of school, Okoth is the former Vice-President of the Peekskill NAACP Youth Council and she works as a youth mentor for New Era Creative Space Girls Empowerment Group.

Anyone wishing to support Okoth can do so by listening to her and Helen Steger’s podcast “My Activist Life”, produced by New Era Creative Space. It is available on Spotify.

Class of 2024 Salutatorian: Janira Martinez 

This coming fall, Salutatorian Janira Martinez will be attending Columbia University on a full scholarship. She will be double majoring in Computer Science and Business Administration. 

Photo courtesy of Latino U College Access.

Like Okoth, Martinez credits all of her success in school to her parents, especially her mother Mirian Berrios. When asked what her motivation throughout high school was, she stated her mother’s sacrifices. “Truly, every time I even thought about giving up on a certain task, I remembered my mom, the woman who personifies strength, valor, and courage. I thought about what a wasted opportunity it would be for me to throw away all of her hard work.” Berrios immigrated to the United States from Guatemala at 17, seeking a better life for her soon-to-arrive baby (Martinez). To provide for her family, Berrios secured a job working late night at a factory.

Martinez and her mother, Mirian Berrios. Photo courtesy of Latino U College Access.

Seeing how hard her parents worked, Martinez began to prioritize school at an early age so her parents wouldn’t have to worry about putting her through college. Her determination paid off when she found out she would be getting a full-ride to Columbia University. “I always said I would never place an economic burden on my parents to pay for college.”

Martinez has set a philanthropic goal for herself to start a non-profit organization while attending Columbia, to help Hispanic students access scholarships, academic help, and guidance for the future. “It would almost be like a College Access Program, but I want to branch out more, knowing first-hand the struggles of going to school, having a rigorous course load, going to work, sports, clubs, etc. and not knowing of opportunities that are out there. In other words, I know how it feels to lack an academic support system, as a child of immigrants, and I want to be that support system for a network of students.”

According to the Peekskill School District, during her time at PHS, Martinez served as Class President for all four of her high school years, served as the President of the Spanish Honor Society for three years, participated in the PHS Drama Club, and was an active member of several high school clubs. Outside of school, Martinez works as a waitress at a local restaurant and has volunteered with Peekskill Hispanic Community Corp and Drum Hill Senior Living facility. 

Okoth and Martinez are a part of the historic 100th class to graduate from Peekskill High School. 228 other students will join them in graduating on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 at the Westchester County Center. Photos from the graduation ceremony at the County Center are available here

About the Contributor
Jeffrey Merchan
Peekskill native Jeffrey Merchan is a 2022 graduate of Peekskill High School. He is the Collegiate Journalist at Peekskill Herald, funded by a grant from the DJ McManus Foundation. He is currently enrolled at Westchester Community College where he is studying journalism. As the inaugural recipient of the McManus grant, he will be covering city government, schools and feature stories with a focus on Peekskill’s growing Hispanic community.