From the age of 7, when she saw the original production of “Annie,” Angela Baker Howard yearned for a career on the Broadway stage. And by the time she was a freshman at New York University, she had achieved that goal, sharing the footlights with the likes of Tony Randall, Lynn Redgrave and Rob Lowe.
But at the same time, Howard began to lose friends to the scourge of AIDS. And the experience took her on a different career path: a psychiatric nurse practitioner specializing in hospice care, treating and comforting those approaching the end of life’s journey.
In between – because the bills need to be paid – there were stints as a waitress, tour guide and even security guard.
Life “is a winding and bumpy path, filled with both beauty and heartache – truly a mystery,” Howard told members of Oakcrest School’s Class of 2019 during a June 8 commencement ceremony on the campus, located amid rolling hills between Vienna and Reston.
“The fact that we are given no road map is a reminder that God is in charge,” said Howard. “Have faith and courage. Stay true to your inner self. Pause, breathe and listen – be open to signs along the way. Trust and believe in God’s plan.”
Among those in the 40-member Class of 2019 – the school’s 39th graduating class – were two students headed to service academies: Cora Haefner won appointment to the United States Military Academy and Alexandra Murphy, salutatorian of the class, will attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Murphy didn’t arrive at the all-girls, Catholic-centered school until her junior year, but “I immediately felt like I belonged,” she said.
“The diversity of talent in our class continues to amaze me,” Murphy said. “Our class is full of leaders. We support each other – we will always be there for one another, in good times and bad.”
She recalled the day she was on the school track, alone, preparing for a time trial in the 1.5-mile run required as part of her application to the Coast Guard Academy. Without warning, the school’s entire Advanced Placement calculus class turned out to cheer her on.
“You will never know how much that meant to me,” Murphy said.
Haefner, who grew up in an Army family and attended school in South Korea before coming to Oakcrest, said being in an all-girls environment provides some advantages.
“You are not afraid to speak up – everyone’s got your back,” she said, praising teachers as true mentors.
(Any down side to a relatively small all-girls school? “Everyone knows your business,” Haefner said with a chuckle.)
Haefner’s first year at Oakcrest was the last in which the school occupied its former McLean campus. Two summers ago, the transition to the Crowell Road campus took place.
“It’s a nicer atmosphere,” Haefner said of the expanded facility, “with more space. Our class has grown closer.”
(Oakcrest’s development continues: a new wing with classroom space and common areas will open in the fall, a full gymnasium is expected to be in place by 2020 and, down the road, a theater and arts center is planned.)
Among those receiving recognition at the ceremony were valedictorian Josephina Ouyang, along with Helen Molteni, who received the Outstanding Achievement and Commitment Award, and Emma Pelletier, who received the Sportsmanship Award. Seven students received the “Charger Award” as scholar-athletes.
While students like Murphy and Haefner arrived at Oakcrest during their high-school years, nine of the 40 graduating seniors were “acorns,” the name given to those who have attended since sixth grade. Members of the class are headed to 27 different institutions of higher education, six in Virginia and others as far afield as California and Texas.
Head of School Mary Ortiz said the Class of 2019 included many extroverts, a large number with an artistic bent, a commitment to athletics and a “definite sense of patriotism.”
It is, she summarized, a “fun-loving, funny and rather direct group” who are now off to “adventures as well as challenges” that await them.
And as Murphy said, members of the Class of 2019 will always carry with them not just an Oakcrest diploma, but “a bunch of friends you can count on.”