When you meet Greenwich High School Senior Isabella Gega, her warm, outgoing personality comes across immediately.
The president of the GHS student body has accumulated numerous accolades, both academic and athletic. Not only is she the captain of both the girls soccer and rugby teams, but she is a winner of the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2023 for her project, “Synthesis of Polysaccharide-Encapsulated Hydroxyapatite Nanocomposites To Stimulate Plant Growth and Promote Phosphorus Absorption.”
But it is her ability to put people at ease combined with her passion for her school that has made her a good fit to lead the GHS student body coming out of the pandemic.
Isabella was half way through her freshman year at GHS when Greenwich Schools shut down in March 2020. Sports and activities were suspended.
“Homework, homework, homework,” is her memory of remote learning.
Her sophomore year was fully remote, and her junior year featured hybrid learning.
“Over time, you’re in your room on the computer, I don’t think people made friendships during remote learning.”
Then, during hybrid learning, where only half the students were in the GHS building at a time, the awkwardness came into focus.
Desks in classrooms were spread out and topped with plastic walls. Students wore face masks. And the the student center, where students walked in a one-way pattern around the perimeter, looked like a set from Squid Game.
Isabella said she believed cell phones had impacted social interactions prior to the pandemic, but the extended period of remote learning took a toll on teens.
“Pushing back into it, kids are disoriented,” she said. “During Covid you talked only to who you wanted to talk to. Covid re-established all the divisions….We’ve been apart so long it’s hard to put things back together.”
“In Greenwich, we’re a unique town, with both poverty and wealth,” she continued, adding that an emphasis on wealth can be divisive and results in conformity.
Her motivation in student government has been to push back against these tendencies.
While Isabella said traditional forms of school spirit took a hit because of Covid, today she is encouraged to see examples of school spirit everywhere.
Though the senior variety show called SRO was canceled in 2022 due to lack of interest, this year a hugely successful GHS dodge ball tournament featured 10 teams of 8-10 people. The event raised funds for prom and graduation gifts.
Isabella said students love taking photos and sharing them on school Instagram pages. Senior dress up day was ripe for photo opportunities, and Isabella had more photos than she had time to post.
Other dress up days included USA Day and “Anything but a Backpack Day.”
There was even a themed ‘Country Club vs Country’ Day, with some kids dressing like farmer-types and others with popped collars and madras.
The week before February break featured daily themes that culminated in pajama day and a very successful fundraiser for children’s cancer research.
Isabella said her enthusiasm about studying science in college was strongly inspired by her GHS teacher Andy Bramante.
“I love him with my entire heart. I don’t think anyone has motivated me as much as him. I did all my research by myself (during Covid) but having him behind me and supporting me was so validating,” she said of the Bramante who has taught her for three years. “My high school experience would be so different without him.”
During the pandemic Isabella embarked on a science project project, and when GHS didn’t have all the resources she needed, Mr. Bramante put her in touch with the head of CT Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven where she was given access to a greenhouse.
“Through Covid, I grew 300 coffee plants there and sprayed them with nanoparticles. I’d go in, double-masked, and be in the greenhouse two or three two or three times a week. I’d say, ‘I’ve got to make sure my plants don’t die.'”
Isabella also enjoys working closely with Karen Foster, GHS director of student activities. (“She’s my biggest advocate.”) And principal Ralph Mayo. (“I stroll in his office and share concerns of the other students.”)
Isabella will be the first in her family to attend college. “I’m first generation,” she said, with a smile that acknowledges all the connotations of the term.
The oldest of three girls, she explained that her parents immigrated to the US from Albania.
In fact, today Isabella speaks fluent Albanian at home with her parents.
“My parents grew up with nothing. I hear the stories of how they lived under the Communist Dictatorship in Albania,” she said.
Isabella’s father made his way to Greenwich via Queens, NY in the 1990s.
“He worked three jobs at once and collected recycling,” she said.
“My mother arrived in the US in the 2000’s. She was raised without a mother by the community around her,” she explained, adding that in the summer the family travels to Albania to visit relatives. When she is there Isabella volunteers through the Red Cross.
“I have my three aunts there, my great grandmother and great aunts. They’re all farmers. There’s four women in one house. They farm, trade and barter,” she said.
Isabella said her parents’ experiences coming to America with very little and pursuing the American dream, contributed to her motivation to be a student government leader.
“The essence is the same – divisions based on wealth,” she said. “People are people. Treat them how you want to be treated. Respect is the most important thing.”
“I’m hell bent on equities,” she continued. “You have to be equal because everyone is trying to prosper.”
This was her promise to students when she campaigned for student government.
“I promised I’d advocate for everyone,” she said.
During her sophomore year, Isabella was part of a food services sub-committee with staff, administrators and Javier Serra who became president of the GHS class of 2022.
She said a goal of the committee was to increase transparency in terms of ingredients, prices and the menu. Having established a good rapport with the Director of Food Services, David Nanarello, she was able to advocate for students on free and reduced lunch.
Isabella said food services has always been top-of-mind with students, but during Covid there were constant menu changes reflecting the cafeteria being short staffed, as well as issues with supply, transportation and inflation.
“At one point there were just five cafeteria workers for 2,800 kids. There was so much pressure on them. Cardinal Café closed and food was more grab-and-go,” she said, adding that there were no cash transactions. “Then we went to free lunch – everyone had free lunch until a month ago. For a year and a half everything was free except extras.”
Isabella described everyone having free lunch as an equalizer.
“It didn’t differentiate between the free and reduced kids and others,” she said. “No one was humiliated by waiting in a separate line for free or reduced lunch.”
Afterward, she said she worked with Food Services to put everyone in the same lunch line.
And when free and reduced lunch kids had to punch in a code, a subtle step that made them stand out, she worked again with Mr. Nanorello.
“That made me so sad,” she said. “Now everyone puts in a number. There’s one line and everyone puts in a code.”
What’s next for Isabella? This week she will deliver her monthly update to the Board of Education at their meeting on Thursday and is busy preparing her remarks.
“The Board of Education meetings are always a fun time,” she said. “It’s so interesting to hear all the different perspectives and see how people advocate for the town.”
And of course, the end of February break marks the home stretch of senior year. In just a few months, seniors will fan out across town and beyond for their internships, and Isabella is looking forward to interning with Ms Foster in student activities at GHS.