Introducing the GW Class of 2019

Meet 10 motivated Colonials who are ready to make their mark on GW and the world.

Class of 2019
(From top left) Karena Halvorssen, Bray McDonnell, Hao Yu, Jordan Sherman, Christina Carte, Eric Cyphers, Libby Shoemaker, Josh Okoro, Ashley Atilano, Benjamin McSweeney
September 21, 2015

By Lauren Ingeno

George Washington University’s Class of 2019 is a talented and eclectic group of about 2,550 students from 48 states, 46 countries and the District of Columbia. The mix includes entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes and world travelers. Interests range from Tae Kwon Do and kayaking to journalism and Girl Scouts. One student has presidential aspirations. Another hopes to start her own mariachi band on campus.

As freshmen settle into their college routines, 10 members of the Class of 2019 talked with GW Today about their passions, their ambitions and what they are looking forward to as they begin the next chapter of their lives. (Photos by William Atkins)

Christina Carte
Hometown: Edina, Minn.
Major: International Affairs

When Christina Carte transitioned from an arts-focused middle school to DeLaSalle High School, she decided to give football a try. The 5-foot-4-inch teenager had never played before, and while the school’s coaching staff was on board, her teammates were more skeptical about having a girl on the team.

But they soon accepted the hardworking wide receiver as one of their own. Ms. Carte played on the junior varsity team for three years and moved to varsity during her senior year. Even though she was playing against guys twice her size, she never let physical setbacks discourage her.

“I think that football developed the amount of courage and confidence that I have. It not only helped me out physically, but also my mental health—knowing how far I can push myself and figuring out my limits,” she said.

Now, her old team includes another freshman girl, and Ms. Carte is happy to have served as her inspiration.

“She came to our games senior year, and she would run up to me like, ‘Oh my God, you’re the reason I wanted to play.’ And I just thought that was so cool, because it’s validating females really being able to try something new,” Ms. Carte said.

Also a singer, French horn player and pianist, Ms. Carte would like to use her degree in international affairs to make music more accessible to young people in places around the world.

“I love music, because you don’t even need to know other languages to share emotions that instruments can create,” she said.

Jordan Sherman
Rockville, Md.
Major: Exercise Science

Jordan Sherman has loved the thrill and unpredictability of whitewater slalom since he first tried the sport at summer camp when he was 10. The sport’s aim is to navigate a kayak through a course of hanging gates on river rapids in the fastest time.

“A lot of sports you know basically what is ahead. But in my sport, it involves constantly adapting, which is really, really cool,” he said.

In summer 2014, Mr. Sherman represented Team U.S.A. in the Youth Olympic Games held in Nanjing, China, where he competed with the top athletes in the world. He decided to attend a university close to home so he can continue to practice on the Potomac River and train with his coach, who lives in Maryland.

“D.C. is such an amazing city, and GW really uses the city to its full potential,” Mr. Sherman said.

Ashley Atilano 
Hometown: Santa Ana, Calif.
Major: Communication

Ashley Atilano wants people to know that being a Girl Scout is about more than selling cookies.

“And earning a badge is a lot more intense than people think,” she said.

Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic, low-income community, Ms. Atilano did not know much about the youth organization until she joined her high school’s Girl Scouts Club. As president of the club, she started a recycling initiative at her school, learned first aid and raised money for the girls in her club to do activities like whale watching and take a trip to Catalina Island.

“Those are experiences I know we never would have had without Girl Scouts,” she said. “I really felt empowered, because it made me realize that even though my friends and I were all teenagers, we could accomplish realistic goals.”

As the first person in her family to attend college, Ms. Atilano realizes the importance of goal-setting and taking advantage of the opportunities that her parents did not have as young adults. One of her top priorities as a freshman at GW is to start a mariachi band on campus.

“I’m very passionate about the music, and I know GW doesn’t have anything like that,” she said. “I keep telling everyone so that word will get around.”

Josh Okoro
Scotch Plains, N.J.
Major: Civil Engineering

Attending a boarding school 200 miles from your hometown may be an nontraditional experience for a teenager, but Josh Okoro said his four years at Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth, R.I., helped him to build a tight-knit community of friends and to gain independence early on in his life.

Between playing three varsity sports and DJing for school dances on the side, Mr. Okoro still found time to give back to his community as a student. His school required freshmen students to complete service hours, so Mr. Okoro joined Portsmouth Abbey School’s cancer walk society. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to stay on the cancer walk committee for the next three years.

“I enjoyed the appreciation I received from others,” Mr. Okoro said. “There was appreciation from cancer survivors, other participants in those events and people who had family who were victims of cancer. I think those walks made everyone feel a little bit better.”

For Mr. Okoro, GW runs in the family. His sister graduated from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2009 and now lives in Arlington, Va. After visiting his sister in Washington, D.C., while she was an undergraduate, Mr. Okoro knew that he also wanted to attend a mid-sized school in the city.

The opening of Science and Engineering Hall last winter solidified his decision to become a Colonial. Stemming from an early obsession with Legos, Mr. Okoro plans to study civil engineering. He would also like to join the club lacrosse team and continue to play basketball and soccer in his spare time.

Hao Yu
Hometown: Qingdao, China
Major: Political Science

How did a student from a port city in China first learn about GW? She stumbled upon it by accident. Hao Yu traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the cherry blossoms during a gap year she took between middle and high school. As she exited the Foggy Bottom Metro Station, she was surprised to find that she had walked on to a university campus positioned right in the epicenter of the D.C. hustle and bustle.

“That was the first time I got to know the university,” she said. “It’s in such a special location.”

Ms. Yu returned to the United States two years later to live with a family friend and attend her junior and senior years of high school in California. Each day was a “new learning experience,” and she embraced the hands-on learning style that her new school promoted.

“In American schools,” she said, “whatever you want to do, you can make it happen.”

After meeting the editor of the Gazettes—a local community news website—at a Chinese New Year party in Long Beach, Calif., Ms. Yu began to share her international perspective with local readers in a bi-weekly column. She wrote about her childhood, her travels, visits to local cultural destinations and small acts of kindness she encountered in her new hometown.

Throughout her time in California, Ms. Yu kept her sights on the university she had discovered on the opposite side of the country two years earlier. At GW, she plans to study political science but also will keep up with her passion for journalism by writing for campus publications.

Eric Cyphers
Hometown: Warrington, Pa.
Major: Biomedical Engineering

When Eric Cyphers took his first private lesson with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, he was shaking so hard that he “couldn’t make a sound.” Since then, the musician has become a friend and a mentor to Mr. Cyphers, who has performed for President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. In fact, Mr. Cyphers credits Mr. Ma for his decision to apply to GW.

As a high school junior, Mr. Cyphers practiced eight hours a day, attended night lessons at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and had his sights set on Julliard. Eventually, he felt burned out and started questioning his future as a musician. Mr. Ma told him that maybe music would not be a good fit as a career but suggested he use what he learned from cello playing to excel in other academic areas.

“I got to see how music correlated with math and science, and that really helped me out,” Mr. Cyphers said.

Now, Mr. Cyphers is majoring in biomedical engineering and plans to attend medical school to become a surgeon. However, he is not abandoning his first love. He also will study cello performance under the experienced cellist Professor Lori Barnett and perform in the University Orchestra. And he already has figured out a way to marry his interests in music and medicine: He’d like to volunteer to play for patients at GW Hospital.

Libby Shoemaker
Los Angeles
Major: Political Science

Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan captivated Libby Shoemaker’s imagination when she paid a visit to Marlborough School in Los Angeles in 2010. The queen joined Ms. Shoemaker and hundreds of other girls for a pep rally to celebrate the United Nations Foundation’s “Girl Up” campaign.

Her visit inspired the seventh grade student to learn as much as she could about Jordan. Her research led her to King’s Academy, a U.S.-style boarding school in Jordan, founded by the country’s King Abdullah II. The co-ed private school offers an Advanced Placement curriculum and makes education accessible to students from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. The school also offers the opportunity for students from foreign countries to attend for a semester or year, in an effort to encourage international camaraderie.

After a lengthy application process (and persuasive talks with her parents), Ms. Shoemaker found herself in an airport in Jordan, ready to begin her junior year living and learning at King’s Academy.

“I remember getting off of the plane in the hectic airport, and I was the only blonde-haired blue- eyed person in the whole place,” she said. “I maybe had a few Muslim friends. I didn’t know that much about Islam.”

But she was ready to learn. Not only did she gain a better understanding about the culture in Jordan, but she also found out how many similarities she shared with her new friends—including a love for Taylor Swift.

“I think going to Jordan helped me solidify that I wanted to study international affairs and politics because I learned so much about the culture and the people. It made me excited to find out what the other countries are like,” she said. “Not just what you see on TV, but what is real and true about these places.”

Bray McDonnell
Hometown: San Francisco
Major: Business Administration

Bray McDonnell has been eyeing the White House since he was kindergarten age.

“The pipe dream of five-year-old me was president of the United States,” he said. “But I’d be OK with chief of staff.”

He satisfied his wonky appetite by launching his own political blog and starting a public affairs club at his high school, which mirrored the Commonwealth Club of California—a forum that hosts weekly discussions on public affairs.

“I thought, we don’t want to take truckloads of rowdy high school students downtown, so let’s bring something like this to our school,” he said. “So I started our own Commonwealth Club.”

But American politics is only one of Mr. McDonnell’s interests. He has been a member of the Golden Gate Boys Choir and Bellringers since the second grade and has performed in Rome, New Zealand and Washington, D.C.

GW was an attractive option for Mr. McDonnell because it seemed like the type of university where he would be able to pursue many of his diverse passions, including music, politics and business. And while he originally imagined attending a “gated university” with a campus “separate from the rest of the world,” a visit to Foggy Bottom changed his mind.

“Walking through the campus I was like, ‘This is actually pretty cool. I’m not just in a university bubble; I’m part of the fabric of the neighborhood and of D.C.,” he said.

Karena Halvorssen
Hometown: Aventura, Fla.
Major: International Affairs

Conversations at Karena Halvorssen’s dinner table usually centered on politics and social justice issues. Her grandfather and other family members were heavily involved in Venezuela’s political opposition, and her uncle is a founder of a human rights organization.

“That has always been a seam in my life growing up,” she said.

At age three, Ms. Halvorssen and her family left Venezuela and moved to Miami. Although Spanish speakers outnumbered the English speaking population in her new neighborhood, the flashy American city still seemed a far cry from Ms. Halvorssen’s home country.

Now, after living most of her life in the United States, Ms. Halvorssen is hoping to focus her studies on Latin America and to learn more about Venezuela along the way.

At GW, she is excited to be member of the Women's Leadership Program and also wants to continue with the sport she fell in love with during high school: Tae Kwon Doe. Ms. Halvorssen is a black belt in the sport and won gold medals at the 2014 Taekwondo National Championships held in San Jose, Calif.

Benjamin McSweeney
Hometown: Ottawa, Canada
Major: Biology

Washington, D.C., is not so different from Ottawa, according to Benjamin McSweeney. Both capital cities are lively, international and home to national research centers.

“I wanted to leave home, but one thing I love about my city are the influences from many other countries and cultures. In choosing a university, I wanted to go somewhere that had similar qualities,” he said. “GW was, frankly, perfect in that respect.”

Mr. McSweeney was attracted not only to the District’s international flavor but also to its proximity to national research centers like the National Institutes of Health. Mr. McSweeney was a member of his school’s medical society, has worked in a cancer research laboratory and shadowed doctors in operating rooms. His dream is to become a cancer surgeon.

At GW, Mr. McSweeney is a member of the Scholars in Quantitative and Natural Sciences program. The program is designed to involve undergraduate students in research projects beginning their freshman year. Mr. McSweeney said he is looking forward to continuing his research at a university level.

“The program really piqued my interest because it allows you to explore how all of the sciences are interconnected,” he said. “That’s something I learned while doing research. Biology, chemistry, physics—they’re not separate from one another. And that’s something this program heavily emphasized.”