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Busy Lyme-Old Lyme senior advocates for the environment, social justice and naps

Old Lyme — Lyme-Old Lyme High School senior Connie Pan remembers an incident in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis that helped shape her as an advocate for diversity and inclusion.

Back when the Chinese city of Wuhan was in lockdown as the epicenter of a virus that had not yet gained pandemic status, Pan experienced something she didn't recognize at the time as a form of discrimination known as a microaggression.

It happened when a student coughed, prompting another student to make a comment about the possibility of spreading the virus.

Then a separate student said, "Connie's going to give us coronavirus," she recalled.

Pan, who was born in the United States to Chinese parents, said the incident has stuck with her.

"I did not love it," she said with her characteristic dry wit. "It did not spark joy."

Now, the 17-year-old student shares stories like that to illustrate subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism.

"This is a pervasive issue. We have kids that use slurs. We have all these voices that aren't being heard. We have a very limited curriculum in terms of diversity," she said.

Last year, she spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in Lyme. From there, she said she was recruited by teachers at the high school to be part of a diversity panel at a teacher development workshop. She talked about her experiences so teachers would be aware of what's happening in the schools, and so they might be able to help prevent it from happening in the future.

"Sometimes I feel duty bound as a person of color in a school district that's like 97% white to speak up about things like that," she said.

Pan is the youngest child of Gonghua Pan and Wen He. Her brother Kevin is 27 and her brother Eric is 24.

Social justice advocacy is one issue to which Pan committed herself over the past four years. Other areas of her intense focus have led to leadership roles as a student environmentalist, prestigious art awards at the state level, one particularly improbable victory as a one-woman High School Bowl trivia team, and years as a competitive swimmer.

She said her schedule, when it was at its busiest sophomore year, left her with about three hours of sleep each night. On occasion, that meant dozing off in class.

"I took my sleep where I could get it and, oftentimes, that was during pre-calc," she said. "And my math teacher knows this, so it's no huge secret."

She pulled off a 96 in that math class back in 10th grade. And now, as the pace slows down in the well-earned second semester of senior year, she's being recognized as the class valedictorian.

It's not surprising that several people have told her she deserves a break.

"And honestly, I agree. I am taking a break now. But I am always going to be really, really passionate about the things that I do," she said.

Pan will attend the University of Pennsylvania as a design major in the fall.

Lyme-Old Lyme High School art teacher William Allik described Pan as "phenomenally talented," hardworking, creative and introspective.

The teacher worked with Pan on a collection of drawings and paintings that earned her the coveted best portfolio award at this year's Connecticut Scholastic Art Awards, along with Gold Key designations in the drawing and portfolio categories.

"It's been amazing to watch her mature and have more and more fun with what she's doing," Allik said. "She started out very serious, very hard on herself. And she's just really lightened up a lot and gotten I think a lot of joy from the work."

Allik said the 15 pieces of art in Pan's portfolio represented different techniques that are "impressively well rendered" despite never having been attempted by the artist previously.

"What you're seeing for each piece is really her first try at a new process," he said.

Connie credited Allik with helping set her on a career path in design. While she's not yet sure where she will end up, she said she envisions a job that blends design with science.

Her field of choice is sustainable agriculture, where she can design urban farms or lay out "green farming" scenarios designed to help protect the planet and the people who live on it. If there's not enough demand in agriculture, she might go into sustainable architecture instead.

She said she would not be studying design if Allik hadn't worn her down "year after year."

"I would be doing something science-y and boring," she said.

Both Pan and Allik noted that her artistic side extends to poetry, a gift that gained wider recognition when she was published in a national anthology of high school poets.

"She just has a lot to say and I think she'll go on to change the world somewhere," Allik said. "I can't predict how yet, but she's going to do something big."

e.regan@theday.com

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