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Norwich - At the start of her freshman year of high school, Breanna Lack said she wouldn't talk to anyone.
She said she had been picked on in middle school for being shy and nerdy and had few friends. She went to Norwich Technical High School for a fresh start. Four years later, she is outgoing, confident and at the top of her class with a 4.0 grade point average.
"I'm definitely more at ease with myself," said Lack, 17, of Salem.
In her valedictorian's speech, Lack plans to tell her classmates that graduation is an opportunity to reflect on how much they've grown as individuals and as a class. If she had to speak in front of her classmates four years ago, she said, she would've fainted.
Now, she says, "I know what I've learned here and I know what I want to tell people. Not everybody is going to necessarily agree with me all the time, and I accept that."
She is a 2011 Connecticut Governor's Scholar and she received Newbury College's top merit award, the presidential scholarship of $18,000 per year. It is given to only a few students with outstanding academic records and leadership potential.
At Norwich Tech, Lack made many friends among the diverse group of students, who she said were more welcoming and supportive than her middle school peers. William Lack said his daughter now has a circle of close friends and a take-charge attitude, two things she never had in the past.
"She was bullied a bit before high school, so basically she went to high school and she made up her mind she wasn't going to go through that again," he said. "Her whole personality changed. She's much more outgoing than she used to be."
Chef Mario Longo, the culinary instructor, said he watched Breanna "come out of her shell" as a culinary arts student.
"Her confidence has skyrocketed, and it's evident on a daily basis," he said. "I can see it, and so can her peers. She takes over in a leadership role often."
The school's dining room is open to the public, with up to 60 people sometimes eating there at once. When Lack is in charge of the room or running a station in the kitchen, Longo said he doesn't have to worry.
"She performs at such a high level that even when other students are in charge of certain areas, they ask her questions," Longo said.
Her senior culinary arts project, featuring chicken Marsala, earned a perfect score. Lack hopes to one day open an inn in New Hampshire. She will start Newbury College's hotel, restaurant and service management program in Massachusetts in the fall.
"Breanna is just tremendous," said her school counselor, Krys Konow. "She has overcome a natural shyness and taken the lead as a scholar. She's going to go far."
Lack plans to climb Mount Washington with her father before she goes off to college, a feat they have been training for with weekend backpacking trips. This summer, she also wants to take time to think about what she learned at Norwich Tech.
The biggest takeaway, she said, is to be confident in yourself.
"If you show you know what you can do without being egotistical, then you'll really come across as somebody people can look up to and someone your employer can depend on," she said.