JFK grad to follow dream across the pond


Marisa Papania awoke at 10 a.m. on the Monday of February break. Rather than go back to sleep, the John F. Kennedy High School senior decided to check her email — it was college acceptance season, after all.

A message telling her to check her school account made her anxious. But Marisa’s mood quickly changed to joy when she read, “Your offer for history major has been confirmed.” She raced to call her mom and dad, other family members and her teachers.

Papania, of Bellmore, a serious Harry Potter fan, had wanted to go to the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, since she was 10, and first looked into historic British colleges. Oxford and Cambridge were too mainstream for her, she said.

“I’ll never forget that a few years later” — after she read the books about the young wizard — “we were sitting in the kitchen and she said, ‘You know, Mom, J.K. Rowling really changed my life,’” Marisa’s mother, Lisa, recalled. “She was enthralled with that country, and the history of it.”

Edinburgh opened in 1583, and is the alma mater of many notable people, including naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin (see box, Page 2).

Marisa said that she always had a passion for British history and culture. After her acceptance, she visited the school. “The deal was already sealed by the time I was on the plane going there,” she said. “The second the plane got in, I said, ‘I’m going.’”

Edinburgh was no more expensive than the other schools that had accepted her — including George Washington University and American University, her father, Frank, said.

Although the school is 4,000 miles away, both of her parents support her decision. “I’m going to miss her unbelievably, and it’s going to be hard for me because I’m very close with her,” Frank said. “My plan is to visit her on Thanksgiving, though.”

Marisa isn’t worried about making friends; she has been in and out of public schools over the years, and many of her friends are going away as well.

“I’m used to switching schools, so I’m not worried about making friends,” she said. “I have friends going to California, upstate New York and even D.C., so we were all going to be separate anyway.”

Non-Britons, from countries around the world, make up about 40 percent of Edinburgh’s student population — the kind of diverse campus Marisa wanted.

“She was a little nervous to apply because she wasn’t sure she was going to get in,” Lisa said. “I told her she can’t give up on her dream, and she has to try — otherwise she’ll live with should-haves.”

Kennedy’s history department and historical research class also inspired her to apply. The department chair, Karen McGuinness, is Scottish.

Marisa plans to join some of the history societies at Edinburgh. She also likes politics — she volunteered on County Executive Laura Curran’s campaign.

“To actually see her go there, to a country that has so much history, it’s just where she’s meant to be,” Lisa said. “I was so proud of her as a mother because to see my child’s dream come to fruition, it’s just so amazing and it was one of the best moments of my life.”

Although she didn’t see all of the city’s museums when she visited in March, Marisa plans to do so, and to travel more in Europe. Between the castles overlooking the city and the landmarks across the continent, she’ll see plenty of history.

“She’s an old soul even as a child,” her father said. “She loves her family, and I’m proud to be her dad.”