EAST HANOVER, NJ - Lauren Palmieri pulled her hands from her lap to reveal yellow and black paint splatters—evidence of the mural she was painting during her final weeks at Hanover Park High School. “It’s still in the process. That’s why I have paint all over my hands,” she said, laughing. “238 handprints,” her friend and the valedictorian of the class of 2016, Karen Gu, explained. Each senior was to help complete the painting in the hallway by placing their handprint and the college they would be attending on the wall. It would serve as a memorial for years to come, both of Gu and Palmieri’s graduating class as well as a teacher who passed away last year.

As their senior year at Hanover Park High School comes to a close, the two girls are preparing to start college with plans, along with the rest of their tightly-knit group of friends, to send each other local food from their various colleges. “I’m sending waffles from waffle house,” said Palmieri, who will start the honors program at James Madison University in the fall. “And I’m sending cannolis from the north end of Boston,” Karen chimed in, as she will be attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The girls explained that one friend will distribute beignets, and another who is remaining in New Jersey will supply the bagels.

As the class of 2016 leaves a literal mark in the form of a mural on the wall of their high school, the girls explained that Hanover Park made its mark in their lives by fostering their passions and post-high school goals. “[Hanover Park] definitely shaped my interest in history,” said Palmieri, who wants to earn her Ph. D. in history and become a professor. “I remember freshman year I was like, ‘I can’t wait until I’m a senior so I don’t have to take a history course,’ and now I’m doing an independent study project writing a research paper on nativism throughout American history.”

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Palmieri’s interests go beyond art and history; however, the soon-to-be high school graduate boasts an all-state record in archery as well as first place at a regional poetry competition. She spoke of archery as a sport which taught her lessons for all areas of life. “I’ll never forget the one thing that [my coach] always says, ’When you’re missing, it’s because you’re focusing on the target and not on your actions,’” she said, explaining that his words served as encouragement through everything from late night studying to choosing a college.

Through her involvement in various clubs, including the debate team, the academic team and mock trial, Gu similarly explained that high school played a major role in shaping her as a person. She described the debate team as both a “humbling” and an “eye-opening” experience, in which she awed at the intelligence of her classmates. On the other hand, the academic team pushed her in the area of self-motivation. “I thrive in the sort of environment where it’s on you to get things done,” she said. “I feel like it’s applicable to Hanover Park too, because if you want to do something that’s never been done before, it’s so easy to do it.” She explained that the teachers, as well as Principal Callanan, were always approachable and eager to help the students bring their ideas to life.

Though she was not quick to disclose her many accomplishments, Gu’s friends were eager to brag about her. The class of 2016 valedictorian not only competed in the United States Biology Olympiad last year, but was also accepted to both California Institute of Technology and the very exclusive Management and Technology program at University of Pennsylvania. After college, she hopes to work in the field of sustainability technology.

Gu explained that, in her valedictorian speech, she plans to talk about the theme of perspective, as well as the imperfect nature of people. “The world isn’t perfect,” she said, summarizing the words she wishes to share with her classmates at graduation. “But the world is also full of people that are kind of just like you, and that’s how you understand and interact with people.”

Palmieri and Gu, along with their 236 classmates all dressed in caps and gown, will be sent off into their various future endeavors at graduation on Thursday, June 23. But even as they say good bye, Hanover Park High School will leave a lasting impression in their lives, just as their hand prints will mark the halls for years to come.