When Everett High School (EHS) Senior Karen Portillo was checking all of her acceptance letters last April while on a Zoom call with her friends, most of the dream schools and Ivy League schools she applied to weren’t panning out.
She checked the last one, which was Harvard University, and surprisingly, she saw the word ‘Congratulations.’
“I thought it was a mistake when I first saw it,” she said. “I refreshed the browser, and logged out of the portal and logged back in to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a surprise.”
Not only was her acceptance to Harvard a surprise, but also her rise to be the top student in the EHS Class of 2021 was completely unexpected.
“Being valedictorian was 100 percent a surprise,” she said. “I knew for a while I was second for the past two years. At some point, I went to number one but didn’t know about it.”
Portillo, the daughter of Jorge and Ligia Portillo, will be the featured student speaker as the valedictorian at Wednesday’s Commencement ceremonies at Everett Veterans Memorial Stadium – the first time in two years that a traditional graduation ceremony will be held due to COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.
Portillo, who attended the Allied Health track at EHS and is about to gain her certificate as a licensed EMT through Cataldo Ambulance, said she has found a “fascination” with biology and health at EHS – whether that be in humans or animals.
“I really have a fascination with all things biology and human health, but I really do like animal health as well,” she said. “I have a bunny (named Cinnabon) and cats and my dad sometimes brings home stray cats that we take care of. That’s something I grew up with and am fascinated with too. At the same time, I don’t think I could find a good paying job in that field unless I had my own veterinarian practice. I know I like health and I want to pursue a career in that area.”
Portillo attended the Webster School and the Keverian Middle School, and at EHS, she said she had nothing but good things to say about the Allied Health program, which she spent three years in. Overall, she said she has had a good experience with teachers at EHS, even though she has been doing remote schooling her entire senior year and part of her junior year due to COVID-19.
“I feel it motivates and inspires me when I have a teacher that loves what they do,” she said. “I feel there are a lot of teachers at EHS like that. When I’m in a class where the teachers loves what they’re doing, I can’t help but like it and be passionate about it too.”
First and foremost for the Class of 2021 is the fact that COVID-19 robbed them of almost all of their senior year, and part of their junior year. Some students were able to come back in person for the last three weeks of school, but most like Portillo chose to stay remote. That said, she said she didn’t feel “cheated,” but would take it as a life experience that no one could control.
“I don’t feel cheated necessarily because it’s not lie anyone could do anything to really change it,” she said. “It’s unfortunate not to have key events that people make memories with. However, we did get a Senior Week. It was so refreshing to see everyone again. It was surprising how refreshing it was to reconnect with everyone at the events. I know there will be things that I wished we had – like Prom – but I don’t feel cheated.”
Portillo said she and her friends stayed the course through remote schooling by staying connected online – texting one another and helping each other when things got tough. Though it was tempting during many of the long days to go back to bed or take a nap while at home, she said she focused and pushed forward.
“I knew my parents and my family are expecting a lot from me,” she said. “I wanted to maintain it, keep my grades up. Some parts of remote were nice, like turning in assignments at home or being able to catch up with work. But it was very difficult.”
Portillo is part of the Key Club and the Green Monster Team in school, and said she has since middle school enjoyed community service. She said she feels it’s important to get involved in the community and to know other people who live in Everett. That is something she hopes to continue doing on weekends and breaks when she comes home from Harvard.
Headed to the other ‘Crimson’ – not Everett but Harvard – Portillo said she is nervous that other students might be ahead of her.
“It’s exciting and scary because I’m well aware there are people out there in schools that have a more accelerated curriculum in their district,” she said. “Some people pay for that acceleration too…I’m afraid I might be a bit behind them, and it’s scary to think I might be behind.”
But right now, Portillo is focused on one thing at a time, and at the moment that is delivering her Valedictorian speech today, June 9, at the Everett Commencement ceremony.