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Gerstell Academy graduate CJ Kovalsky reflects on school he’s known since pre-K

CJ Kovalsky, a 2020 graduate of Gerstell Academy, will attend Elon University in the fall.
CJ Kovalsky, a 2020 graduate of Gerstell Academy, will attend Elon University in the fall. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Carroll County Times)

The first time CJ Kovalsky stepped into a classroom at Gerstell Academy, it was his first day of pre-school. Now, about 14 years later, it’s time to say goodbye, and he’s got some feelings about it.

“I’m just very lucky to have attended such a great school where it’s encouraged ... to reach out to others," he said. "Be open and ask questions and to work together and—.”

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Kovalsky paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.

“I don’t know. It’s just been such a big part of my life. Like I said, I was there since I was like four or five years old. I probably spent more time at that school than I did at my own house. I’m just glad it was there. It’s a great place.”

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Added Kovalsky’s Advisor Bruce Ryan: “If you wanted to portray a model student, that would be him. Very smart kid, three-sport athlete.”

As class advisor, he said the relationship with his students is kind of like their adopted grandpa. “You see the kids on all their good days or bad days,” Ryan said.

There was a point where he saw Kovalsky struggling with his physics work. But he also saw the student go to his teacher after school almost every day for extra help.

“He ended the semester with an A in the class,” Ryan said. “It didn’t come easy for him. But he was determined to score well in that class. And he earned every point that he got on his grade.”

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If you ask Kovalsky, physics was one of the subjects he enjoyed the most. He bonded with physics teacher Butch Hilliard, who was also his varsity lacrosse coach.

“No offense to any of my other teachers. I love all of my teachers, but he was probably the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Kovalsky said. “He helped me build confidence.”

During one of the early lacrosse practices this season, Kovalsky said “I took a look at the team and I looked to see how we had grown over the years. I was very proud, not even of myself, but just of the team.Just looking back and seeing how everybody came together. We all worked hard and how we all got to the place where we were at.”

It was a proud moment.

Kovalsky was a four-year varsity starter for soccer, wrestling, and lacrosse. Like many athletes across the country, Gerstell seniors’ last season was cut short with little warning when schools closed for in-person learning to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Lacrosse and Gerstell have been a part of my life for a very long time," Kovalsky said. "I started with them about the same time, when I was like 4 or 5 years old, and not being able to have that senior season and close out my senior year the way that I would have liked — it was like a blow to the heart in the beginning.”

Gerstell Academy senior CJ Kovalsky, who plans to attend Elon University in the Fall.
Gerstell Academy senior CJ Kovalsky, who plans to attend Elon University in the Fall. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Carroll County Times)

He looked to the principles and attributes he learned in school for guidance. He used his resourcefulness to keep busy with a steady exercise schedule, a new job and projects around the house. And he was determined to maintain a positive attitude.

Outside of the field and the classroom, Ryan said he could tell that Kovalsky’s volunteer work sincerely affected him.

With the school’s National Honor Society, he volunteered at the Westminster Rescue Mission, and outside of school he volunteered with The Shepherd’s Staff, taking on duties in clothing distribution.

“And I think one of the most remarkable things for high school students is this," Ryan said. "CJ is one of those people that can intuitively tell when one of his fellow students or anybody is hurting, is feeling bad about something. And he will go over, spend some time with those people, whoever it may be, and bring them out of their funk, so to speak, which I think shows a tremendous amount of self-awareness and a tremendous amount of caring for other people.”

Looking forward, Kovalsky is set to attend Elon University in the fall, and has his goals set on their business fellows Program. He sees business management as a way to learn skills that can pair well with whatever other interests he wants to pursue, whether he ends up at a company that sells socks or one that’s tied to the environment and the outdoors.

“It’s such an umbrella major,” he said.

If he could tell his freshman self anything, Kovalsky said, it would be to “enjoy every day because it goes by so much quicker than you would expect it."

“I remember my first day of soccer in the sweltering August heat. I walked into the field and I was like, ‘I never want to step on this field again in my entire life,’" he said. "And I wish that I could step on that field for one more day. I wish I could go back for one more day, because honestly high school goes by in the blink of an eye.”

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