The Tale of Two Valedictorians

Eleven years ago, writer Kate Stone Lombardi profiled two high school valedictorians from two very different school districts. She caught up with them to see how they’ve fared since graduation.

Eleven years ago, they were at the top of their classes. Alyson Baker was the valedictorian at Mount Vernon High School. Dan Adler earned the number-one spot at Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High. A decade later, we checked in to see how they are doing. The answer? Great. It turns out that Alyson and Dan have more than academic achievement in common—they share the gift of knowing how to live their best lives.

Alyson Baker

Go West, Young Woman

Alyson Baker is a little breathless. She is in a San Diego park, on her cellphone, answering questions about the last 10 years of her life, while Atlas, her miniature Australian shepherd, is trying to make off with someone’s Frisbee.

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“Atlas! Come here!” she calls, following up with a whistle. Then, without missing a beat, she resumes a description of her days as a junior publicist, when she would walk directors down the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival.

These days, Baker is far from her New York roots. Three years ago, the Mount Vernon native moved to San Diego, where, she says, there’s a better work-life balance than in New York. But as she talks about her life’s path so far, it’s clear that Baker remains driven, having taken her considerable energy, ambition, and people skills across the country.

As a high school student, she excelled in just about everything—academics, sports, and leadership. In addition to being smart, Baker had a gift for relating to people. Her friendships weren’t confined to her fellow AP students; they spanned nearly every group in high school. She had both a sense of enterprise and a steely determination. 

Though high school is far in her rear-view mirror, traces of that girl are still evident in the purposeful young woman who now manages a demanding job in publishing while still finding time for plenty of adventure. Baker loves her job as marketing director for Pacific San Diego Magazine, where, she says, “every day is completely different and challenges always pop up.” And she’s living the lifestyle her publication promotes, with a condo alongside Pacific Beach, a busy social life, and easy access to sailing, snowboarding, and plenty of weekend travel. 

When Baker and I sat down in her Mount Vernon kitchen a decade ago, she was still getting over her rejection from Yale University, where she’d applied early decision. Now she laughs as she describes ending her high school valedictory speech with, “Screw Yale.” But, she says, the basic message of her talk was: “I’m going to take every failure that I experience in my life and turn it into a positive.” 

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She went on to Barnard College, which she loved. Living in Manhattan was “a dream come true,” she says. Baker made a decision not to participate in college sports, so she could focus on her studies and career. But on one of her first days on campus, she saw a sign promoting the crew team and was intrigued. 

She made the team as a rower, but soon moved to coxswain (the person responsible for the safety of the rowers, steering the boat in a straight line, and motivating rowers during races). By senior year, she was captain of the team, and won both of the two big awards given for women’s crew.

Baker, who majored in English, with a focus on creative writing and literature, and minored in Environmental Science, made the dean’s list every semester and graduated with honors. Though she wanted to be a writer, for her first job after college, she craved an exciting, high-profile position in New York City.

She landed an interview at 42West, an entertainment PR firm. Baker laughs as she describes mishandling her first interview for a position as an assistant. When asked what her career goals were, she answered honestly that she wanted to be a writer. (“The correct answer,” she realized later, “was that my dream was to become a publicist.”) She wasn’t hired for that job, but later re-interviewed successfully as a receptionist, and got her foot in the industry door. 

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Baker’s work ethic and ability to interact with a variety of personalities was evident in her rapid rise within 42West. After a few weeks, Baker moved into a position as an assistant to a publicist. Within a year, she was an account executive, managing campaigns for directors and films at film festivals from Sundance to Cannes, as well as Academy Awards campaigns for movies like No Country for Old Men and Revolutionary Road. Her mentor, publicist Leslie Dart, represented Woody Allen, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese, and other high-profile clients. Baker had few “whoa!” moments, like being backstage with Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks at a Lincoln Center tribute. But she wasn’t as excited by celebrities as she was being around people who helped shape the culture.

“I was inspired by people like Mike Nichols, who created The Graduate, and these epic films that have made people’s childhoods and adolescence. Or Scott Rudin, who would pick up plays from the time they were manuscripts. He had a vision so early and put it out in the world,” she says.

Baker’s days began early, accompanying clients to tapings for morning TV shows, and often went late in the night with film premieres and industry parties. Email was 24/7. There were long hours, hard work, and moments of both drudgery and glamour. After a few years, Baker was ready for a new challenge.

“Being in PR, I got to work with all these amazing people who were going out and creating stuff and fulfilling their life-long dreams. I needed to find that in some way—if not through my job, then through my life,” she says. 

She’d visited San Diego a few times with her best friend and loved the city, so she decided to quit her PR job and move out West to create a new life. 

Baker came across Pacific San Diego Magazine on Facebook and decided it would be an interesting place to work. She showed up at their office—they weren’t hiring. At the time, the magazine was a start-up, with just four employees. She kept showing up and eventually became employee number five. (Today, the magazine has 15 full-time employees and a 30-person “street team” doing promotion under Baker’s supervision.) “We’re definitely still growing,” she says. “It’s a cool experience to see how a small company works. Every single thing we do and every person is so vital.”

She met her boyfriend, Anthony, at a party. They share similar outlooks on life and politics—they are both conservative, almost libertarian, she says. (When they were naming the dog, Baker’s eyes came to rest on her copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.) Weekends are spent together biking, sailing, exploring, giving parties, and taking Atlas to dog-friendly restaurants in San Diego.

As for the future, Baker sees herself staying out West. She does some writing for the magazine, but says her own creative work requires a different kind of inspiration than journalism assignments. Meanwhile, Baker is content to “let the cards fall where they will.” 

Her advice to this year’s crop of high school valedictorians? “Don’t relax yet, but don’t take everything so seriously,” she says. “I’m always thinking: Where are the opportunities? What’s the next goal? Working your way up—to me, that’s fun.”

Dan Adler

From “Pointless” Work to Passionate Profession

Right after graduation from Yale, Dan Adler went to work for a management-consulting firm in Manhattan, putting in 80- to 100-hour weeks advising clients on strategies to maximize profits. Today, Adler is still working those crazy hours. He drives to his job at 5:45 am, and drops off to sleep soon after he finishes his paperwork late into the evening. 

The 28-year-old says he’s working harder now than he ever has. But one thing has changed dramatically. While his professional demands may be as intense, Adler is now serving a far different constituency: he is a seventh-grade science teacher at a public school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the lowest-income city in the state. Ninety-eight percent of his students are Hispanic—most are originally from the Dominican Republic—and 96 percent qualify for the school lunch program. Dan makes less money than he did in his first job out of college. But he is far happier.

“The problem with consulting was I didn’t care enough about the work I was doing for the amount of time and energy it took,” Adler says. “I didn’t wake up in the morning and get incredibly excited to help a large company expand its paper goods operation into a new country.” Teaching, on the other hand, is something Adler is absolutely passionate about. 

“I don’t have that feeling I once had, which is, ‘What’s the point?’ I know what the point is, and I do my best work when there is something meaningful at stake. And to me my work is so important: providing a solid education to students who’ve been historically denied access,” Adler explains.

Adler lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, a town he describes as “like Brooklyn without the hipsters.” He shares a house with three women, “a lucky find on Craigslist.” They have a backyard and the house is 50 feet from a running path that Adler uses frequently for running and biking. Despite his long hours, he says he still finds time for fun with a great group of friends. 

Soft-spoken but intense, he is quick to describe some of his more innovative lesson plans. (Check out “Mr. Adler Eats Sewer Lice” on YouTube for an unforgettable explanation of organisms.) And he’s confident that, over the last three years, he has grown into an effective teacher. He is excited about where his career has taken him so far, and fascinated by the bigger-picture questions on education reform.  

When I last spoke with him, Adler was a diligent, over-achieving 17-year-old with a 4.1 GPA at Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High School and an early-decision acceptance to Yale. Even as an adolescent, he was thoughtful, pausing before answering each question. He was also a bit self-deprecating, anxious not to sound boastful about his myriad achievements. 

Now, that teenager has become a grown man, still cerebral and deliberate, but far more confident. He has transformed from a very smart teenager who wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life—in fact, he wrote his college essay on how much he disliked that question—into a man who is energized by and devoted to the field of education. 

While at Yale, Adler double-majored in History and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. He wrote two theses: a science thesis on drug development that might potentially combat Alzheimer’s disease, and a history paper, exploring the relationship between the press and the government during the Vietznam War. As an undergraduate, Adler sang with an a cappella group, Out of the Blue. He also worked as a staff writer for the Yale Daily, ultimately becoming sports editor for the paper. 

Journalism had long been an interest of Adler’s, and was another career track he considered pursuing. After his sophomore year at Yale, he worked as a summer intern at the Journal News, but felt journalism was a bit “vicarious”—he wanted to be part of the action. 

Adler continued to cast around for work that would interest him after his junior year. He was chosen as a summer fellow for New Sector Alliance, a Boston-based organization that pairs young professionals with nonprofit organizations. (The summer program is for undergraduates interested in the social sector.) Adler was placed at Cradles to Crayons, an organization that
collects donations of clothes, shoes, and books and then distributes them to homeless and low-income children. He spent the summer creating a curriculum designed to help volunteers understand the importance of their work and to encourage them to return. Adler also developed metrics to measure how effective the curriculum was in retaining volunteers.

“It was the first time I realized you can do interesting nonprofit work while also doing some pretty high-octane intellectual work and some really neat problem-solving,” Adler recalls.

At summer’s end, the president of the Alliance advised Adler to get some experience in the for-profit sector and then come back. Following that advice, Adler began work after graduation at Oliver Wyman General Management Consulting in Manhattan. The work and the travel sounded glamorous, but, in the end, it wasn’t for Adler. (“It’s only so exciting to be sitting in a conference room ordering Thai food for the third time that week,” Dan says.) He stayed a year and half, and then began flirting with journalism again. 

Next on his plate: an extended internship at Forbes magazine. Meanwhile, he’d applied to, and was accepted for, a full-year fellowship at the New Sector Alliance, and was waiting for his placement. While researching his last story for Forbes, about effective nonprofits, Adler came across Year Up, a program that provides training and internships to 18- to 24-year-olds who have fallen off the education track. After Adler finished interviewing Year Up’s CEO for his article, a funny thing happened: The CEO opened his briefcase and pulled out Adler’s résumé. New Sector Alliance had sent it to Year Up that morning, thinking it would be a great assignment for Adler.

Dan spent two years working at Year Up, helping develop a five-year strategic plan followed by a prospectus for fundraising. He also worked with the students in the program, first as a math and writing tutor and then as part of a larger learning team. Just as he was contemplating his next professional move, an email arrived in his mailbox, touting Teach for America (TFA). He applied, was accepted, and began his teaching career.

Adler started as a sixth-grade science teacher at a charter school in Somerville, outside Boston. Like most new teachers, he struggled with classroom management, but found professional support both from TFA and a mentor at the school. By his second year, Adler was a finalist for the TFA teaching award. This year, he has moved to UP Academy Leonard School, a public school in a district that was taken over by a receiver two years ago, after years of failure. UP (Unlocking Potential) specializes in turning failing schools around. 

Adler is particularly excited about dramatically improving a school on a public budget, because he believes what’s being done in Lawrence can be a model for the rest of the country. Just a few weeks before our conversation, the Massachusetts State Secretary of Education and the State Commissioner of Schools visited his classroom.

“The question is, can we provide the education these students deserve, regardless of the fact that their parents don’t speak English, regardless of the income of their parents, regardless of the legacy of this city—and the answer is yes, we can,” Adler says.

Despite his intellectual rigor, he is willing to show an endearingly goofy side to his students. How else to explain “Mr. Adler sings ‘Call Me Maybe’” — a YouTube video of Adler performing at the school talent show, complete with hand gestures, as a reward for good student behavior? The kids jump with excitement and applaud him like a rock star.

What’s next? For now, he’s happy teaching. But at some point he wants to start a family and wonders about supporting one on a teacher salary. Moreover, he wants to combine his classroom experience with his interest in bigger-picture thinking—ensuring that even more students have access to an excellent education.

“You graduate high school and go to a place like Yale with 20 million valedictorians and three kids who cured cancer while they were doing advanced gymnastics from the age of two,” Adler said with a smile. “And then that goes away and you are responsible for figuring out who you are and what you care about and what’s going to allow you to do your best work.”

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