Astrophysics at Princeton via Lake View High School and the American Dream

Astrophysics at Princeton via Lake View High School and the American Dream

There are stories of inspiration and success in education - and then there is Don Geci.
The LVHS senior’s acceptance to Princeton is one chapter in an incredible 18-year story: Stillborn and revived during the Kosovo War; four months trekking with his family through forests and mountains, searching for safety; arrival in the US with little knowledge of the language, nearly no money, and one American family willing to host them.

Don offered to share the story of how LVHS helped him achieve a goal he has held for 10 years – being able to repay his parents for their hardship while simultaneously achieving his dreams in astrophysics.

In the process, he provides a real-world look at Chicago’s Premier High School – the actual inside story about the school’s teachers, student body, academic rigor, spirit, and achievement.

Q: Chicago has a “selective” process around high schools, which can create the perception that neighborhood high schools have a less capable student body. Tell us a little about the cohort at Lake View.

A: The student body here is very much like a family. Since the week I found out about the acceptance, I've almost been late to some of my classes because of high-fives, hugs, and congratulations from so many students (editor’s note: I witnessed several of these first-hand while we walked through the school). That is the sort of spirit you find here.

Prior to Lake View, I attended a private school in the city because my parents had heard misconceptions about Lake View. They can't be blamed; we arrived in Chicago a month before the school year started, and misconceptions are mostly what are available. After a couple days of attending the private school, I asked my parents to transfer me, as I wanted a more advanced science program. When my parents were called in to meet the counselor at my private school about the transfer, I was asked to leave the room - but I continued to listen through the wall. The counselor gave them the same uninformed story that I guess is going around: “I’m just worried about his safety at LVHS.”

Where do they get this? They've probably never been inside Lake View. In four years, I have never had a confrontation with another student. This is as supportive and safe a high school cohort as can be.

But at the time, not knowing any better, the counselor’s words worried me. However, in the second period of my first day, I had already made five of my first friends. And it’s felt like home ever since.

Not only have my peers been very supportive of my goals, but also of my passion for astrophysics. Over the past four years, I’ve given hundreds of “lunchtime lectures” – discussions on science over lunch with students and faculty.

And while astrophysics isn't the sort of topic that’s paramount in everyone’s mind, my peers show great enthusiasm for it during the lectures, an appreciation for the knowledge. This was even more evident when Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and Interstellar were released. Many came to me with questions regarding the films. Discussing Cosmos was especially significant, considering Sagan's series served as one of my inspirations, and I've dreamed of hosting the third.

Overall, there really is a spirit at LVHS that’s pervasive - and I’ve felt it rising over the past couple of years, with our new administration and partnerships. When you actually spend time in the school, you can feel the school rising. I’m proud of that.

Q: Our readers will be interested in your insight into LVHS’s academics. Where has the school most supported your success?

A: Every time I’m asked about LVHS, I always mention the faculty first.

So many of my teachers have become mentors and counsel. Because my first passion is science, I’ll give you one quick related example.

Mrs. Zagorski, my freshman physics teacher – and now one of my closest friends and counsel - shares my inquisitiveness and passion, and this was apparent to me in the classroom. But to my surprise, she invited me to an incredible series of astrophysics lectures at the University of Chicago outside of the school day, and this became a tradition of ours. We have a great history together, and I've had a similar relationship with other teachers. Astrophysics/Cosmology with Mrs. Zagorski; Chemistry with Mr. Cram; World History with Mr. Vast-Binder; Bach and Debussy with Mr. Mendoza; Ayn Rand and Fitzgerald with Mrs. Stephani, and more. What all these teachers have in common is that they have a passion for the subject they teach. To me, there's no better characteristic to look for in a teacher.

Q: What extracurricular activities have you taken advantage of at LVHS?

A: I have been captain of swim team for two years and MVP for the last three. I’ve been the National Honor Society VP, and VP of the Key Club, which does community service.  I was the founder and lecturer of Science Club, which I began with the help of Mrs. Zagorski. I’ve been a Chicago Scholar and Cubs Scholar for two years. I had a great internship at Northwestern University, where I learned more about exoplanets through data from the Kepler Space Telescope. I also served on the Lake View Peer Jury – this is the “judicial branch” of the LVHS student government. If a student has a problem – tardiness, for example – we talk about the consequences, and discuss how something like tardiness is not trivial. Five students and a teacher discuss the problem with the student, and we focus on working out a solution with them, to work themselves out of that situation. Another great resource within LVHS.

Q: What are your post-LVHS plans?

A: I plan to go to university and complete my undergraduate with a degree in astrophysics, likely at Princeton. I'll go onto graduate school for my Ph.D and stay in university as a post-doc for research purposes. I would love to make a significant contribution to my field. From there, I hope to slowly start in science communications, perhaps author a few books, give guest lectures, host a television show, that sort of thing.