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After starting school during pandemic, St. John’s seniors say faith, academics and activities there laid groundwork for future success

At left, Anikwe Duru, a member of the class of 2024 at St. John’s College High School in Washington, will be attending the University of Pennsylvania this fall. At right, Colleen Maloney, a member of the class of 2024 at St. John’s College High, will be attending Georgetown University. (Photo courtesy of St. John’s College High School)

After starting their freshman year with online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anikwe Duru and Colleen Maloney of the class of 2024 at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., said their experiences in peer ministry and religion classes, and through academic and intellectual pursuits and athletic competition there will prepare them to pursue their dreams for the future.

Coming full circle

Anikwe Duru, who is 17, said things have come full circle for him as he has participated as a peer minister at St. John’s, because in his freshman year during the challenging COVID-19 pandemic, students serving as peer ministers were the first people he met there.

“They were so welcoming. They made it feel like a true family. They were there for me. I could confide in them,” he said.

His class pivoted to hybrid and then in-person learning at St. John’s. “My class showed the strength and ability to form close bonds, even when we were far apart (initially),” Duru said.

As a peer minister, he has helped lead retreats and worked to welcome underclassmen there and help “build the culture that makes St. John’s special,” he said.

His leadership there extended schoolwide, as Duru served as the president of the Student Government Association at St. John’s College High School. “It’s been a way to lead a community I’m so thankful to be a part of, to lead my fellow students in their journeys of faith and in excelling inside and outside the classroom. It’s truly been an incredible honor,” he said.

Duru’s first name, Anikwe, translates as “May God and the Earth be at peace” in the Igbo language of Nigeria. His father, N. Jeremi Duru, is of Nigerian heritage and works as a professor of law at American University, and his mother, Mellissa Duru, is a native of Jamaica and works for the Security and Exchange Commission. The couple met at Harvard Law School and their family, including sons Kanayo Duru, 20, a student at Brown University, and Nnaji Duru, 10, a student at Stonegate Elementary in Silver Spring, attends St. Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Silver Spring.

The Catholic education at St. John’s College High School “has been incredibly helpful in my own faith journey,” said Anikwe Duru, who added, “I’ve been able to grow in my faith and grow closer to God.”

At St. John’s, Duru is the co-founder and co-president of the school’s Chess Club. “My dad taught me chess when I was young. It became an outlet for me… Chess is something I’ve played my whole life,” he said, noting how it involves creativity, strategy and forward thinking.

While participating in the De La Salle Scholars Program that provides opportunities for St. John’s highest achieving students to pursue intellectual pursuits outside the classroom, Duru parlayed his interest in chess to research the connection between chess and cognitive development, and he started the NextGen Chess group there to bring chess to elementary and middle school students in the Washington area. The NextGen Chess group at St. John’s provided chess boards to students at the Washington Jesuit Academy and San Miguel School in Washington and sponsored a chess tournament for students.

“This is something I believe can continue to impact the community after I graduate,” he said. “…Through NextGen Chess, I’ve learned business can be a tool to impact the community.”

This fall, Duru will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and plans to study entrepreneurship at the Wharton School of Business there. Duru will also have the opportunity to run track at Penn, and plans to train to compete in the decathlon. At St. John’s, Duru competed in track after suffering two ACL tears in his knees. Through those experiences in athletics at his school and overcoming those challenges, Duru said he learned the importance of hard work and dedication.

At St. John’s, he also played tenor saxophone in the school’s Wind Ensemble.

As his graduation day approached, Duru expressed gratitude for St. John’s College High School, which is sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. “The Lasallian mission is something I’ll always hold close to my heart. Sharing God’s love with the world is something I’ll take with me, because I had so much love in this community,” he said.

A lesson in resilience

Fellow St. John’s graduating senior Colleen Maloney agreed that it was challenging taking online classes and being apart from classmates during their freshman year. “Since we were the COVID class, I’ll definitely take on resilience from our rough beginning,” said Maloney, who added that as she moves on to college, she will take with her “the friendships I fostered here.”

Maloney, who is 18, attends the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington and graduated from Blessed Sacrament School. Her younger brother Matthew is a freshman at St. John’s and her young sister Claire will be a freshman there this fall. Their father Brian Maloney works as a teacher, and their mother Beth Maloney founded a communications company.

At St. John’s, Colleen Maloney is the salutatorian of the class of 2024. Her favorite classes there have included Advanced Placement calculus and micro and macro economics.

“I just really like math. I like how there’s always an answer,” said Maloney. “…I think it’s interesting you can apply math to government issues, to policies on inflation and unemployment.”

Maloney, who was the co-president of the Entrepreneurship Club at St. John’s, will be attending Georgetown University this fall and plans to study business there. Her involvement in that club helped her see the creativity and collaboration involved in business, she said, noting that one of their projects was to plan a fictitious business.

While at St. John’s College High School, Maloney also played for the Cadets’ field hockey team, which won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship for the past three years after not being able to compete when she was a freshman due to the pandemic. She appreciated the team’s supportive environment, and some of her favorite field hockey experiences include scoring game-winning goals during her junior and senior seasons, including a memorable overtime goal.

“Everyone dogpiled on top of me. I felt the weight of happiness, not the people,” said Maloney, who will compete in field hockey as a student at Georgetown.

As a St. John’s peer minister, Maloney like Duru helped to lead retreats for students there. Her service activities included tutoring youth at San Miguel School and volunteering with the Wider Circle outreach program, sorting baby clothes and other donated goods.

Maloney said that at St. John’s she enjoyed learning about different ways to pray, such as taking time during the day to reflect on “where did I see God, when did I meet Jesus (or) how did I feel the Holy Spirit” that day. She is looking forward to taking religion classes at Georgetown University, which is a Jesuit school. “I like how it focuses on the mind, body and heart, a holistic approach,” she said.

Asked what she will take away from her Catholic education at St. John’s that will help her as she continues her education and begins life after that, Maloney said, “My religious journey has really grounded me. It grounded me in a sense I know I’ll always have God, no matter where I am in life. I know how to serve Him.”