Homegrown Brilliance

  • Written by: David Port
  • Photos by: Kerri McDermid and Courtesy of the Alumni

These four people are doing amazing things with their lives, and they have one thing in common – they are all products of St. Vrain Valley Schools.

Remember the kid you sat next to in chemistry class who got a certain glint in his eye during lab experiments? How about the tall, skinny kid from down the block who seemed to be permanently attached to a basketball, or the classmates who told you exactly what they wanted to do with their careers and their lives — in eighth grade — then actually went out and did just that?

Everyone has a story. And thousands of them have begun in the classrooms of St. Vrain Valley Schools over the years, written by people just like you. Here we profile four St. Vrain alumni who are in the midst of writing compelling life stories of their own.

Annie Gorenstein-Falkenberg

Annie Gorenstein-Falkenberg

Longmont High
Class of 2003

Growing up in Longmont as the child of two St. Vrain educators, Annie Gorenstein-Falkenberg says she was pretty clear about not wanting to follow in her parents’ footsteps. “At least I wanted to tell myself that,” she recalls. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to live the lifestyle my parents had.” So when Gorenstein-Falkenberg left Longmont to attend the University of Wyoming on a basketball scholarship, her intent was to play hoops and study to become an accountant. A serious knee injury her sophomore year in Laramie not only changed her intentions, it steered her down a familiar path. “After the injury, I looked at what I thought would make me happy and realized maybe accounting was not the right fit for me.”

Next came a switch in majors to English and secondary education, and the rest, as they say, is history. “I went from running from what my parents had done to embracing it, and it felt really comfortable. I was a much happier person.”

Fifteen years later, that embrace of teaching has led Gorenstein-Falkenberg back to her high school alma mater, where she teaches English and runs the award-winning yearbook program. Other than the connections she makes in the classroom, yearbook, she says, “has been the single best thing that has happened to me as a teacher.” “I really enjoy the responsibility that my yearbook students and I have to create a product that people will be able to look back through to remember their high school experience.”

Gorenstein-Falkenberg says she is savoring the opportunity that her return to teach in Longmont has given her to re-engage in the community in which she was raised, and to teach alongside some of the educators who helped inspire and guide her, like basketball coach Jeff Kloster. As head of the local chapter of the PEO Sisterhood, a philanthropic organization that helps to advance women through education, she is also helping young women fulfill their dreams. “It is pretty special,” she says, “to be able to help empower other women on their journey to achieving their educational goals.” Gorenstein-Falkenberg appears already to have fulfilled hers.

Ann Yang

Ann Yang

Niwot High School
Class of 2011

It was insane,” 25-year-old Ann Yang says of the blur that was her final two years of college. When she was working to complete her undergraduate degree in culture and politics at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., she and her best friend were launching a business at the same time.

Three years later, her cold-pressed juice company, Misfit Juicery, is now established and growing. Yang admits she might never have followed her entrepreneurial muse if it weren’t for the inspiration, guidance, and financial support she got as a student at Niwot High, where outstanding academic performance earned her both a Daniels Scholarship and a Gates Millennium Scholarship, covering the full cost of college, including expenses. Those scholarships “fundamentally changed my life,” she says by phone from Misfit’s offices in Washington. “Without them, my college experience would have been a lot different. I was able to live the normal life of a college student, without having to work outside of school. Graduating without college debt was probably the biggest gift in my life. If I had that debt, I would probably be doing something in finance or investment banking.”

Instead, Yang, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is building a flourishing business around a socially conscious concept: tackling America’s massive food waste problem by turning “misfit” produce — fruits and veggies that have been deemed unfit for retail sale because of their appearance — into products like “24 Carrot Gold,” a healthful blend of carrots, apples, lemon, and turmeric. At least 70 percent of the juices the company makes come from produce that otherwise would likely go to waste.

The concept is catching on. Not only can Misfit products be found at retailers from D.C. to Boston, the company also is in the midst of a capital-raising effort to fund growth and the launch of a second, undisclosed non-juice product, proving, says Yang, that “a business can be socially impactful and financially sustainable.”

Jordan Cardenas

Jordan Cardenas

Erie High School
Class of 2014

To say science is in Jordan Cardenas’s DNA would be an understatement. This past spring the 22-year-old graduated from New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) with a degree in molecular bioscience and biotechnology, the latest step in pursuit of a Ph.D. in a field that, he says, has long beckoned him.

“I knew I wanted to be a scientist throughout most of my life,” says Cardenas as he prepares to depart for New Haven, Connecticut, and Yale University, where he plans to begin graduate work in immunology, with a focus on cancer research.

While Cardenas credits his AP Biology Teacher at Erie High, Shelley Greves, with helping to stoke his interest in science at a molecular level, the educator whom he says has had the biggest impact on his life to date — and the one he ultimately invited to stand with him during a ceremony last year honoring RIT’s outstanding undergraduate scholars — does not even teach science. Erie High Social Studies Teacher Kaitlyn Gentert, he explains, “had a huge influence on me developing as a person and an adult. She teaches more than history, she shows you different perspectives.”

Now Cardenas says he, too, wants to teach someday, perhaps as a university research professor. Before that, though, Cardenas will invest five or six more years of classroom work and lab research at Yale University, home to one of the world’s best immunology programs. Cardenas says he’s ready for the challenge. “I’m looking forward to being on the forefront of cancer research, and to sharing that research.”

Apparently a desire to use science to do good is in Cardenas’s DNA, too.

Piper Doering

Piper Doering

Lyons Middle Senior High School
Class of 2014

Graduating from high school, Piper Doering knew exactly what she wanted to do when she left Lyons for the University of Colorado Boulder. She wanted someday to be a pediatric speech pathologist.

Now, having graduated from CU this past spring with undergraduate degrees in speech/language and neuroscience, Doering, 21, is poised to fulfill her dream. She departed Colorado for Seattle to pursue a master’s degree in medical speech pathology at the University of Washington, a two-year program that she hopes will lead her to a hospital job helping kids who have had a traumatic brain injury regain their speech.

By the time Doering left high school, she had already taken important steps down that career path, having spent a year as a speech pathology intern at Lyons Elementary School. “It was hands-on work,” she recalls, “where I got to see kids make great progress. I discovered how resilient kids are, and how their brains have an amazing capacity to keep growing.”

Looking back, Doering says she is grateful to the faculty and administration at Lyons Middle Senior High School for supporting her with a flexible learning plan. “To make the internship work, I had to miss two days of calculus class a week, and they said, ‘Great, go do it!’ They gave me the freedom to choose my own path.”

That path led her to land a coveted Boettcher Scholarship for college. And someday, says Doering, perhaps it will lead her back home to Colorado. “I’d love to come back here to work. This community has given me so much. I want to be able to give back.”

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