WALLINGFORD — Lea Cioffi can’t remember a time when she wasn’t passionate about learning.
“I’ve always been so curious about the world,” Cioffi said. “I feel like my brain is a sponge and I just want to suck up everything I can.”
That quest for knowledge led her to the top spot in her senior class.
Cioffi, 18, was recently announced as valedictorian of Lyman Hall High School’s class of 2020. She will be attending Yale University in the fall and is considering studying political science or history.
In addition to taking a slate of Advanced Placement classes and receiving all kinds of academic honors, Cioffi served as student government president and won recognition from the town of Wallingford for her volunteer efforts with Best Buddies, the Key Club, and more.
Jeff Horton, Cioffi’s junior year AP English teacher, watched her evolve. Always an excellent student, the change came in how she viewed her learning, he said. Rather than simply parrot answers, Cioffi was becoming an original thinker.
“She was always working on something, always doing a little more. She had this intellectual curiosity,” said Horton, who believes that Cioffi has the potential to be a serious academic, if that is the direction she chooses.
He focused his AP class on American literature. Cioffi was taking a class in American history at the same time and bringing the two disciplines together in a way that was exciting.
“It became a sincere search for knowledge and information and for new things she could be exposed to,” Horton said.
“It made me excited to come to school every day … We had these amazing, thought provoking conversations,” Cioffi said.
In addition to her intellectual capabilities Joseph Corso, Lyman Hall’s principal, saw another facet to Cioffi’s character: her leadership.
In the wake of schools shutting down for the remainder of the 2020 school year due to COVID-19, Cioffi’s classmates were upset. All of the rituals and celebrations that mark the end of a school year were wiped away. Her peers were struggling and needed to express those concerns. Corso said Cioffi, as president of the student government, showed poise.
“The moment she started speaking you could see everyone take a deep breath,” Corso said. “In my mind that is what separates her from everyone else. She remained calm and made good decisions.”
This connection with her classmates is genuine, Corso said.
“She has done everything she can to be as involved with as many students as possible,” he said. "We couldn’t be more proud of Lea, proud of what she accomplished and what she’s going to accomplish in the future.”
“I never tried to be something I am not … I never want smart to be the first word someone says about me. I want it to be kind or fun,” Cioffi said.
Horton saw something similar, noting that when Cioffi worked with a student in her English class doing peer critiques, the student’s work improved.
“Everything is ingrained in who she is,” Corso said.
It was through student government that Cioffi found her voice. She liked the give and take with her classmates and felt it was important to have a hand in the life of her school community. It opened up her eyes to a way of engaging with the world that she felt was appealing.
“I want to be the one up there to help make decisions and help make things better for everyone,” Cioffi said.
While it is early to say exactly, Cioffi sees a career in politics, working behind the scenes to enact change. She doesn’t expect to run for office herself, but is interested in shaping policy. She is motivated by a saying her mother always tells her: “I don’t care if you are a ditch digger or a CEO, you are going to be kind.”
“My voice can be used for good. I can use what I know to shine a spotlight on issues that I believe are overlooked,” Cioffi said. “I can have a hand in making our country and our world be a better place.”
There is no way to avoid the impact the coronavirus has had on the class of 2020. But Cioffi sees it as something that reveals the character of her classmates.
“I think this is showing how resilient, innovative, and strong the class of 2020 is,” Cioffi said. “Yes, we’ve lost something, but we are strong enough to keep going.”