Valedictorian engineered her path at Nansemond River

Published 10:40 pm Monday, June 13, 2022

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Evelyn Taliaferro had no design on studying engineering when she left Isle of Wight Academy after the eighth grade, but she knew she was ready for a change.

She applied to get into the Project Lead the Way programs at Lakeland and Nansemond River high schools, and the International Baccalaureate program at King’s Fork High School.

Taliaferro, 18, who lives in the downtown area with her parents, Tom and Megan Taliaferro, and her sister, Claire, ultimately chose Nansemond River and its Project Lead the Way engineering program and didn’t look back, as she was named valedictorian for Nansemond River’s class of 2022.

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“I didn’t even know what engineering was,” said Taliaferro, though she noted how much she used to enjoy building things with Legos when she was younger. “I applied on a whim because I’m out-of-zone and wanted to go to Nansemond River. And I ended up just falling in love with it and realizing I would want to do this as a career.”

Graduation had not sunk in for her, even the day before the ceremony, calling it “a little surreal.”

“It’s so crazy being at the end and looking back and seeing all the dedication and hard work that I’ve put in over these last four years of high school, all coming to a close,” Taliaferro said, “which is exciting, but kind of sad at the same time.”

She said that working through the pandemic was a huge challenge.

“I never realized just how much my teachers and in-person learning and sitting physically at a desk and being actively engaged in my classes, how much that really helped me learn,” Taliaferro said. “I noticed I had to put a lot more effort, especially last year, for virtual learning, learning on my own, and being self-sufficient and learning time management skills, definitely, because you don’t have those teachers making sure that you do your assignments on time, making sure that you’re engaged in class. That’s really up to you, and that was my responsibility, but … I’m just so grateful that this year has been relatively normal.”

She also learned not to take routine activities in the high school experience for granted.

“I think before COVID happened, I just assumed, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll get a prom, I’ll get a graduation, I’ll get a graduation, I’ll get all of those things that seniors get to do and hopefully, a normal college experience. But now, since COVID, and even though it’s getting better, things are still a little uncertain. It’s made me that much more grateful for each moment and each experience that I get to have with my classmates.”

Taliaferro said she got to enjoy engineering, and after her freshman year, she knew engineering was something she wanted to pursue as a career, but had not narrowed in on what aspect of engineering she wanted to focus on. It wasn’t until her junior year when she took a pair of engineering classes — civil engineering and architecture, and digital electronics — that she learned she was not interested in civil engineering, but did have a strong interest in electrical and computer engineering.

In the summer between her junior and senior years, she went to the Governor’s Residential School for Mathematics, Science and Technology and took a class in electron control, in which she built her own circuits from scratch and built her own battery. That confirmed she wanted to study electrical engineering.

She will do so at Princeton University, wanting to find a smaller school similar to the one her parents attended — the College of William and Mary. She had resigned herself to attending a larger school that was more tech-focused until the unexpected acceptance from Princeton came.

Taliaferro, while navigating her academic workload, also played varsity soccer all four years, and was in the National Honor Society, Beta Club and a new club for her senior year, the Travel and Culture Club.

She also earned a Gold Award in Girl Scouts for a community service project in which she designed a website (EngineerKids!) and curriculum to help young girls learn about different engineering fields. To earn the award, she had to work a minimum of 80 hours on the project, which had to address a global issue in her community. She focused on the gender gap in STEM-related careers — science, technology, engineering and math.

“It was just an amazing experience that I was able to really, genuinely, make a difference in my own community and guide this whole project to completion,” said Taliaferro, whose program is now being used at her former school, Isle of Wight Academy, as part of its STEM curriculum.

She thought about this as she reflected on what message she wanted to leave behind.

“You don’t have to wait until the future,” Taliaferro said. “You don’t have to wait until you’ve graduated college and entered the workforce and became a real adult to enter the real world to make a difference in your community and change the world for the better. You can do that now. You can do that anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to wait until the distant, intangible future to make it better.”


Name: Evelyn Taliaferro

Age: 18

Family: Tom Taliaferro, father; Megan Taliaferro, mother; Claire Taliaferro, sister

School: Princeton University

Major: Electrical engineering