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Liz Gaccione liked representing her high school at mock trial competitions, and she thought one day she would be a lawyer.
Then in April, during her senior year at St. Bernard School, Gaccione went to Nicaragua with nine other students for a week to help build an orphanage. When the students were not making and pouring concrete for the building's foundation, they played with the children. When a child was sick, Gaccione said she was the one who reached for the first-aid kit.
Now, she wants to be a doctor and volunteer in the Peace Corps.
"I fell in love with the kids so fast, and I fell in love with the place I was in. I want to spend my life in those kinds of places. That's where the Peace Corps part came from," said Gaccione, 17. "And whenever people got sick, I would automatically try to help them. It was my first reaction. I realized that was what I was supposed to be doing."
Jill Patten, the director of campus ministry at St. Bernard, led the trip.
"What I saw of her was just that capacity to love," Patten said. "I'm thinking of the pictures I have of Liz holding the babies and caring for them, and caring for her fellow student missionaries. She really looked out for everyone."
Patten said Gaccione is determined and focused, and "whatever she sets her sights on, she's going to achieve, I think, through hard work and dedication."
The trip, Gaccione said, not only changed her career plans, but also her outlook on life.
"It made me want to be the person I was to those kids a lot more," she said. "I was kind and open and not self-conscious in any sort of way. I was just willing to give whatever I had. They really brought that out in me, and that's more how I want to be all the time."
After graduating from St. Bernard on Friday, Gaccione will attend Brown University. She plans to take pre-med courses and study Spanish.
On May 23, Gaccione received the Henry F. Salvatori Memorial Scholarship in Washington, D.C. Gaccione was one of eight winners in this year's National Leadership Grant Competition for the Sons of Italy Foundation.
At St. Bernard, Gaccione coordinated projects to raise money for the orphanage and to send candy and letters to troops overseas. She organized events to welcome new and prospective students as the president of the Student Ambassadors Club, and she tutored her peers. She was a member of the National Honor Society and the school's Campus Ministry, the assistant cross-country captain this year and a three-year varsity starter on the lacrosse team.
On Sundays for the past 10 years, Gaccione has sung in the choir at St. Mary Mother of the Redeemer Church in Groton. Gaccione's father, Daniel, is an orthopedic surgeon. Her mother, Heather Wood, is a clinical psychologist and her younger brother, Tyler, is in eighth grade at St. Bernard. The family lives in Groton. For the past year, a student from China has lived with them while studying at St. Bernard.
Gaccione said she is looking forward to this next chapter in her life.
"I feel like I really took everything that I could from these years, and they've been great," she said. "I've grown from them and learned from them, but it's time to move on to other things. I just feel so excited. I know there will be a lot of challenges and times that really aren't good, but I think that excitement and that hope is what keeps me moving forward."