Catherine Cavanaugh-an academic unicorn

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Catherine Cavanaugh-an academic unicorn

NPHS junior Catherine Cavanaugh takes a moment from her busy schedule to pose for a picture.

NPHS junior Catherine Cavanaugh takes a moment from her busy schedule to pose for a picture.

Connor Niszczak

NPHS junior Catherine Cavanaugh takes a moment from her busy schedule to pose for a picture.

Connor Niszczak

Connor Niszczak

NPHS junior Catherine Cavanaugh takes a moment from her busy schedule to pose for a picture.

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TOWAMENCIN- An average five year old’s world consists of picture books, coloring outside the lines, and toys; not cable news coverage of caucuses and primaries. NPHS Junior Catherine Cavanaugh was no average five year old. 

“By the time I was five, I was really paying attention; those were the 2008 elections. We’ve always had the TV on and I’ve always wondered why. I’ve been looking at Mitch McConnell since I was little, and he’s still there,” Cavanaugh said.

 

Political Junkie

Cavanaugh has had a passion for politics as long as she can remember. Her passion recently reached a crescendo, as she was one of the Co-Chairs for the 2020 Mock Political Convention.

“I had the unfortunate moment of at one point going up to the mic after having spoken three times in a row and saying “You can’t get rid of me!” I feel like that kind of rings true to everything that I end up doing, because if I love it I’ll do it enough,” Cavanaugh said.

The Mock Convention is a uniquely North Penn event that occurs every four years, and Cavanaugh, along with the rest of the student leaders, spent weeks working to ensure a successful day.

I worked a lot with Mr. Haley and the student convention staff. It taught me how to deal with large groups of people, especially with apathy, because I understand that there are some kids who care, and care a lot, but it’s important to understand how to get the attention of those who don’t.  Backstage running the Convention, it was a lot of work. The kids who ran this, everyone (staff of 20 or so students) who put their time and effort into making sure that everything was right, everyone brought it,” Cavanaugh said.

When asked what it was like working alongside other students on this project, Cavanaugh beamed.

Submitted Photo
Catherine Cavanaugh (right) poses with her fellow Co-Chairs, Rachel Rubins and Alexis Bamford, after the 2020 Mock Political Convention.

“The kids who were running this knew what they were doing inside and out! It was a lot to manage people who, whether they believe what I believe or not and voiced it in a way that was strong, or if someone just said something risqué, we had to make sure the train didn’t fall off the tracks,” she added. 

Other than the Convention, Cavanaugh is involved in the NPHS political scene through her work with the Democrats’ Club, of which she is the Head of PR. She spreads the word and tells people “why they should come to this event or that event.”

“Once you go to local meetings and get to meet some local people, it’s exciting. They know your name. It’s hard for adults to find children who want to get involved with local politics. Doing that is an adventure…you meet a lot of characters,” Cavanaugh joked.

Despite all of that, Cavanaugh finds a unique way to squeeze in a little bit more of politics into her day.

Look, I am eccentric! I wear funny socks for testing days. I have a pair of lucky Ben Franklin socks, I have a pair of Abe Lincoln, I have the Queen, JFK, and George Washington!”

— Catherine Cavanaugh - NPHS Junior

“Look, I am eccentric! I wear funny socks for testing days. I have a pair of lucky Ben Franklin socks, I have a pair of Abe Lincoln, I have the Queen, JFK, and George Washington,” she laughed.

Cavanaugh’s political junkieness and unyielding moral conviction have sparked her interest in the true meaning of politics: bettering the public before bettering yourself.

“If I go into politics in the future, it’s because I want to help people. If I seem persistent or pushy and stubborn, it’s only because I care. Politics is not serving myself, it’s serving the good of the people. Helping them before trying to help myself. If I have the opportunity to run, and to better someone’s life, then I would gladly do that,” Cavanaugh remarked.

“However, I’m not 100% certain if I would go into politics and run, because I don’t have the money and I don’t think that I’m conventional enough. Honestly, I have a hard time dealing with things that are not morally just. I have a very strong sense of moral conviction. If something’s not right, I’m going to call everyone else out on it. If I’m being a hypocrite, I want to be called out on it. I’m completely fine with taunting, teasing, ridicule; I’ve dealt with it for so long, that that part of politics doesn’t phase me,” Cavanaugh added.

An excerpt from Cavanaugh’s opening speech at the 2020 Mock Political Convention.

 

Passion for Service

Political service aside, Cavanaugh is also very dedicated to serving her community. 

During her time at Penndale Middle School, she was heavily involved with the Leo Service Club, National Junior Honor Society, and organization of the 9th Grade Day of Service.

“Now, I’m in the Spanish Honors Society and National Honor Society, and there is a certain amount of service that we have to have for those, but service goes beyond doing it for a club or activity. I do it because I want to. Given the amount of time that I have for most things, I don’t pick activities that I don’t want to do,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh is also a Champion Member of The Giving Tree service organization, which works to give supplies to homeless shelters in Philadelphia and surrounding communities. Recently, Cavanaugh organized a charity sock roll supported by Mrs. Franek’s classes.

“Here at the high school, I organized a charity sock roll. The most requested item from the homeless community is socks. Being able to relieve at least a little bit of that and giving someone a pair of socks, or a granola bar and crackers, and doing something to make them feel a little warm, a little loved when they’re walking down the streets; I think that makes us better people. We collected over 350 crackers and granola bars, and over 200 pairs of socks from just a group of science classes. I feel great about getting to do that, and the fact that other people decided voluntarily that “I want to do this” not “I’m forced to do this” because service has to be a labor of love. It can’t just be forced upon you,” Cavanaugh said.

 

Busy, Busy, Busy!

When Cavanaugh isn’t off working with a charity or political group, she’s almost certainly at one of the other 15 thousand extracurriculars that she is a part of.

From pit orchestras to Chamber Strings to Model UN, Cavanaugh rarely ever has a free moment.

Cavanaugh (far left) with members of Model United Nations at a Spring 2019 conference.

Monday night, I have pit rehearsal for the musical here, Shrek. I’m also doing a charity orchestra for Laymen Playmen for their production of Cinderella. Outside of school, I play for ArCoNet Youth Orchestra, which is a lot of fun. Typically, I try to fit in a couple of pit orchestras because I really enjoy them. Wednesday, I stay after school to participate in the Chamber Strings, and then cello lesson, and homework. Thursdays, I do Model UN. I’m one of the officers this year, and we’re currently working on creating our North Penn Model United Nations Convention,” Cavanaugh explained. 

As you might imagine, Cavanaugh has met many different types of people from being involved in such a variety of activities. Many high school students tend to find their niche and stick to it, but Cavanaugh doesn’t like to get too comfortable.

“Everyone you meet is different, in every activity. That’s what I love about doing so many different things. I’m not with the same group of people all day. I can’t do that. I like to bop from place to place,” she expressed.

 

Ella es una tutora

When asked to talk about all of the extracurriculars she is involved with, none made Cavanaugh’s eyes light up more than when she spoke about her work with tutoring ESL students.

“The kids are SO personable. These kids are some of the sweetest, smartest people that I could talk to. The only issue is that there’s a language barrier. If they were learning content in their native language, I have no doubt that they would excel. Some of the students, they just have a different culture,” Cavanaugh explained.

To communicate with someone in their native language is almost like you are giving them a gift. It’s saying ‘I value you enough to learn what you do’. I value you enough to learn your language, to learn your culture.”

— Catherine Cavanaugh

“That’s a big part of North Penn-we have a lot of different cultures! And I love tutoring because languages are so important. To communicate with someone in their native language is almost like you are giving them a gift. It’s saying ‘I value you enough to learn what you do’. I value you enough to learn your language, to learn your culture, to try and understand you because you’ve been trying to understand me,” she expressed.

Next summer, Cavanaugh is hoping to organize a workshop at the Lansdale or North Wales libraries, where high school students would get involved to help teach Spanish to young kids.

“I really would love the opportunity to teach little kids Spanish, because as much as I love America, where we fall flat is the fact that the average person speaks just one language. I think that the attempt to speak someone else’s language is incredibly important,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh knows first hand the power that learning a language at a young age can have.

“I got my love for Spanish because I started when I was three. I took classes, and they would have you play in Spanish, and then I got older and said I don’t know how to form real sentences-I need grammar classes! The school had once a week Wednesday morning for half an hour they’d teach me how to conjugate verbs. So I’d go and conjugate verbs and I realized that this is actually pretty cool,” Cavanaugh remembered.

Since Cavanaugh came into Penndale already knowing Spanish to some extent, she soon realized that the basics of Spanish One would not be enough for her.

“So when I got up to the middle school, I could not sit through ‘uno, dos, tres’; I needed to move on! So I’m in AP Spanish this year, and there isn’t a Spanish class for me to take next year, but I will be popping into the language department and hopefully sit in on some classes,” she added.

 

Jumping Notes

Spanish isn’t the only passion of Cavanaugh’s that she discovered at a young age; she found music. When she was 5, Cavanaugh started learning to play the piano, but quickly realized it would be harder than it seemed.

“So I started music when I was 5, on the piano. I played piano for about 8 years. Partway through I realized that I could read the clefs, but the notes were jumping, and because it was on the grand staff, everything looked kind of blurry. I definitely needed glasses,” Cavanaugh explained.

“Even after getting glasses, the notes still looked like they were jumping, so that has been one of my biggest musical obstacles. When I see notes, they’re not stationary, they’re kind of wobbling. Even though I love music, I had to develop a better ear than I had eyes, because they just weren’t working! I did music theory, which helped a lot because it allowed me to understand the differences between different keys so that I could pick up different instruments when I needed to. My real passion now is the cello, which I have been playing since third grade,” she added.

Cavanaugh poses with a fellow ArCoNet Orchestra member after a holiday concert.

 

Teachers

Cavanaugh has accomplished a lot and taken advantage of every opportunity that North Penn has to offer, but she wouldn’t be who she is today without all of the incredible teachers that she has worked with along the way.

“My first formative teacher was Mrs. Mattis in second grade. We latched onto each other and we understood that we were academic unicorns, because I’m not in school for the grade, I’m in school for the education. The fact that I think that every day I’m coming in and I wake up in the morning not because I want another A on my report card, but because I want the knowledge in front of me, and she knew that about me, and she would give me little challenges, and she was the first one to say “I think that you’re gifted.” In sixth grade, Mrs. D’elia was the one who put me on the track and said whatever you do, you’re gonna be great, so don’t worry,” Cavanaugh said.

Once she got to Penndale, Cavanaugh began to work with a number of impactful teachers that she continues to be in contact with to this day.

“Seventh grade, Mrs. Poley let me sit in her room during lunch, and I’d tutor kids in English. I went there because I didn’t feel comfortable in the lunchroom, there were kids who were throwing clementines at me everyday, and I just thought, ‘my hair shouldn’t be this sticky when I leave school. Maybe the classroom is where I belong,” Cavanaugh joked.

Seventh grade, Mrs. Poley let me sit in her room during lunch, and I’d tutor kids in English. I went there because I didn’t feel comfortable in the lunchroom, there were kids who were throwing clementines at me everyday, and I just thought, ‘my hair shouldn’t be this sticky when I leave school.”

— Catherine Cavanaugh

“Eighth grade, I had Mrs. Bernardini, who let me work on her election board for the 2016 election. Mr. Adornetto, who came in and I wrote a petition to keep him at the school, and since then he’s signed a contract and he’s a full time English teacher. Of course, in ninth grade, Mrs. Bratina was my history teacher; I loved that class so much! She taught me that sometimes, I have to put myself in a position where I’m not helping others to the point where I’m disregarding what I need. She was the one who set me on the track for taking AP classes because you love them. I had Senora Kriebel, who has since retired; I wrote the appeal to have her win Teacher of the Year, because it was really important to me. She was like an at-school mom,” Cavanaugh added.

Cavanaugh also had close relationships with the Penndale guidance staff, particularly Mr. Michael Flynn.

“The guidance dept played an incredible role. Mr. Flynn, I worked with him on scheduling peer tutoring…he’s just my little leprechaun of joy! I really love him so much. He made me understand that not every kid is the same, and we’re not going to value the same things, but that I didn’t have to think that I was weird because I wanted to be in school. Associating with everyone else wasn’t going to hurt me, it was going to adjust me to how people are. You have to stand up for yourself, which is something I think my parents ingrained too,” Cavanaugh explained.

Of course, there are a number of North Penn High School teachers that Cavanaugh sung the praises of as well.

“Then coming up to the high school…Mrs. Cassel, who has retired, was amazing, Mr. Likens made my day every day with those Presidents’ videos, Mrs. Franek-I’ve had her tenth and eleventh-she’s such a sweetheart. Mr. Haley is a big influence on me. He’s my at-school father. Mrs. Giermann taught me that you have to work hard; it’s going to be a good time and you’re going to get through it and there’s going to be challenges, but you can do it! And my teachers this year, I love them all so much! Mrs. Marino. Hrinyak, they’re so special! Señor Vidal is such a big inspiration. He’s really bolstered my love of the culture, and I appreciate it so much more,” Cavanaugh said.

 “I rarely ever meet a teacher who isn’t up to snuff,” she said.

Clearly, many teachers and staff members have had a lasting impact on Cavanaugh, but she has impacted many of them as well.

I remember Catherine to be kind, patient and humble, but most of all, my impression of Catherine is someone who is fully engaged in all the wonders of life. I cannot recall a single time where she was engaged with a cell phone or playing a computer game, because she was too busy living life instead of being distracted by technology that for so many has a way of robbing them of it. Catherine is fully engaged in life and all of its wonders.”

— Deanna Bratina, Penndale History teacher

“I remember Catherine to be kind, patient and humble, but most of all, my impression of Catherine is someone who is fully engaged in all the wonders of life. I cannot recall a single time where she was engaged with a cell phone or playing a computer game, because she was too busy living life instead of being distracted by technology that for so many has a way of robbing them of it.  Catherine is fully engaged in life and all of its wonders. She is one of the most kind, even tempered, patient people I have ever met. By far one of my all time “stand out” students I have had in my 22 year career as a teacher,” Penndale history teacher Deanna Bratina reflected.

 “Catherine Cavanaugh is one of the smartest, kindest and most generous people I know.  Students of her caliber don’t come along very often. She excels in every endeavor she undertakes and does so in a manner that makes it look easy.  I feel lucky to have been an influence in her life (and to have had her as an influence in mine). I can not wait to see where she goes from here and the impact she has on our world (which I have no doubt will be substantial),” added Penndale Guidance Counselor Michael Flynn.

One House, Two Phds

If you’ve been wondering just where Cavanaugh gets her hard work ethic from, look no further than her family. Both of her parents have Phds; her mom’s is in Chemistry and her dad’s is in Chemical Engineering. 

“My mom has taught me a lot about compassion. She’s the one that I get this strong moral conviction from. She taught me that I have to be a good person, that I have to want to learn. My dad taught me how to be resilient and persistent, and he’s where I get a lot of my Type A from. He taught me that you can’t let people walk all over you. You have to fight back, but you have to pick your battles. Being passive is just as bad as being actively awful. My sisters have taught me that you’re not going to agree with everyone, but you love them anyways. That’s the saying in our family-”I love you anyways.” Despite the fact that no one is going to be perfect, you take what you can get. I understand that they have flaws, and they have to understand mine,” Cavanaugh said. 

My mom comes from a big Italian family from New York, and my dad comes from an Irish family up in Connecticut. When we all get together, it can get pretty interesting,” she joked.

 

Academic Philosophy

Cavanaugh is clearly not a typical student. When she walks into North Penn High School each morning, she looks at the day in a way that very few students do.

“I want to be the best person I can. I want to get to know as much as possible. My philosophy is to be a sponge, learn it all, and then pick the lessons that resonate with you most. I’m a big advocate for learning things that you completely disagree with and just going with it, because you’re not going to get any better by reinforcing your values every single day. There are some things, like common human decency, that I think everyone should learn across the board; there should be a shared set of how we deal with people,” Cavanaugh expressed.

“My time in the NPSD has made me understand that not everyone is me.There are so many different people, and I can’t go on assuming everyone values what I value. That’s not at all true! Whether it be academically, socially, economically, racially diverse, It’s so important to surround yourself with that. I’m at school because I want to learn, not because I have to be here,” Cavanaugh emphasized.

Cavanaugh (far left) at the charity sock roll she organized in January 2020.

Many parents scrutinize their kid’s grades by checking every week or even day, but Cavanaugh’s parents have given her the freedom to learn how to manage herself and achieve academic success.

“My parents have never once learned how to access Home Access Center or Infinite Campus, and I don’t think they ever will. The biggest key for my success was [understanding] when you need to have a break. Feed your soul enough to be able to get your work done because we have to be good people, we have to do our jobs, and we just have to contribute something. And if we have a whole society contributing nothing, then we’re screwed,” she added.

 

Future Plans

As she continues the second half of her junior year, Cavanaugh is in the process of college searching, school visits, and applying for scholarships. She plans to major in neuroscience and minor in political science, then continue on to law school.

“I’ve been trying to apply for scholarships, because I understand how expensive college is. Maybe I would go to a school like UPenn for law school or some kind of graduate degree instead of going there out of the gate and being pummeled with debt. I’m thinking of maybe going to a state school, maybe Penn State or Pitt,” Cavanaugh said.

As for what makes a school the right fit?

“The biggest thing for me is finding where [my people are], because academically, I like to think I’m a little bit of a unicorn. I’ve met very few people who learn because they want to learn. I want to go to a school where I can talk to people about something that’s not superficial.  I want to go to a school of academic unicorns.”