Alumni Success Stories
Benchmark School alumni are making their mark in the fields of government, medicine, finance, international aid, entertainment, technology, education, entrepreneurship, and the creative arts, among many others.
The Alumni Success Stories below highlight just a few of our almost 2000 remarkable graduates who represent Benchmark's legacy. We are proud of them, their achievements, and the contributions they make to their fields and communities.
- Lauren Pyle '04: Social Media Manager
- Dan Berger '93: Property Management Executive
- Nicholas Romeo '04: Business Development Professional
- Jonathan Saruk '94: Filmmaker & Multimedia Journalist
- Kimberly Dyer Martin '83: Pediatric Endocrinologist
- Adam Smith '95: Home Inspector
- Justin Shipley '95: Director, Photographer & Editor; Outstanding Alumnus 2017
- Joseph Caruso '86: Entrepreneur and Philanthropist; Outstanding Alumnus 2016
- David Caporaletti '83: Director of Operations for Penn State Men's Basketball
- Vanessa Kauffman '99: Doctoral Student in Sociology
- Tori Schelling Gregson ’98: Radio City Rockette/Professional Dancer
- Ted Levin '99: Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Linguistics
- Stephen Chase '06: 2015 Outstanding Alumnus Recipient
- Jackson Gordon ’08 Creates Functional Batsuit
- Joshua A. Bell '85: Cultural Anthropologist
- Amber West Buller '84: Clinical Psychologist
- Emily Kimelman '93: Novelist
- Andrew Repasky McElhinney '93: Film Director & Producer; Author & Editor
- Jamie Carr '93: Building Sustainable, Healthy Homes; Outstanding Alumnus 2014
- John Alex Brinson '00: Entrepreneur; Outstanding Alumnus 2008
Two years ago, Lauren Pyle —a self-proclaimed foodie—landed her dream job as Social Media Manager for Whole Food Markets. “In college, my friend and I would go to Whole Foods every weekend, and from there I fell in love with the brand and their mission,” she said. “As someone who is passionate about food and the environment, I made it my goal to work there.”
After double majoring in Communications & Anthropology/Sociology at Denison University, Lauren began her career in social media by spending four years at a tech start-up that offered social media support to local businesses. “I was an early adopter of social media (all those days on MySpace paid off, Mom!), but I never considered it as a potential career until I took that role and ended up really enjoying social media management,” she said. Never forgetting her goal, she continued to pursue a career with Whole Foods—and eventually ended up getting her dream gig!
Based out of Austin, Texas, Lauren spends her days on social media content creation, strategy, and moderation. “I like the variety that working in social media management gives me. It gives me the chance to flex in public relations, copy writing, analytics, and strategy. It’s also unlike traditional marketing in so many ways, which is equal parts challenging and exciting. There’s a lot you have to learn about how each channel can work for you…especially since the rules pretty much change on a weekly basis.”
It’s her continued love for learning that has helped her be successful in an ever-evolving career path, which goes all the way back to her Benchmark days. Lauren, who first came to Benchmark at the age of 8, said it was her time at the school that helps her continue to grow. “Everyone learns differently, right?” she said. “I came to Benchmark because it catered to my unique learning style; other places couldn’t do that for me which stifled my ability to grow. Benchmark took the time to understand how I was different then gave me the tools to be successful.”
It was the fact that Lauren learned how she learns while at Benchmark that has stayed with her all this time. “Helping me understand my learning style made me love learning even more (so much so that I won a “Love of Learning” award in college) and sparked my curiosity,” she said. “Having a toolkit that’s customized to my learning style has given me confidence throughout my academic and professional career. Even if it doesn’t always seem like it, everyone really does learn differently. You have to have confidence in your unique style and trust in the tools you’re given.”
Besides her love of learning, becoming a self-advocate has stuck with Lauren all these years. “Benchmark taught me what it means to advocate for yourself – to take charge of your own experience and ask for what you need,” she said. “Advocating for yourself is the biggest lesson I learned, and I can’t stress enough how much it’s helped me professionally and personally. Speak up for yourself!”
Today, Lauren says that she not only enjoys what she does, but that she also loves the people she works with. “Everyone is on the same wavelength,” she said. “We’re all driven, hardworking folks who really like food and really like to have fun.” Professionally, she would love to continue to build her expertise in the field—not just in marketing, but in food and drink as well. “It’s what makes me happy, so I’ll see where it takes me!” she said.
Outside of work, Lauren and her husband, Sam, enjoy cooking and trying out new restaurants in Austin, as well as spending time with their two dogs, Riley and Butter. She also loves exercise and regularly runs and practices yoga and barre, and even aspires to become a yoga instructor one day. “It’s given me so much, and I would love to offer that gift to someone else,” she said.
Her advice to Benchmark students is “Trust in yourself and the skills you’re learning! I used to feel insecure about having a different learning style, and I’d compare myself to others; don’t do that. Being different is a good thing. Embrace it and focus on yourself.”
When Dan Berger first came to Benchmark his previous school experiences were much like those of many Benchmark students: struggling to read, falling behind in class, and low in confidence. “I remember being the only kid in my class who not only could not read; I didn't even know the alphabet!” Dan said. “But luckily, my parents knew that I needed special attention. I am very fortunate that they intervened and sent me to Benchmark.”
Today, as the successful president of Berger Rental Properties—an award-winning multifamily apartment owner and management company founded by his father and uncle in 1972—it is hard to imagine that Dan ever struggled as a child. If you ask Dan, his successes are the result of an incredible amount of persistence, dedication, and self-confidence—characteristics that were developed during his time at Benchmark School. “I have no idea where I would be today without Benchmark. Benchmark was pivotal not only to my professional successes, but it truly shaped every aspect of who I am today,” Dan said.
At Benchmark, Dan came to understand how he learns best, which helped him to develop confidence in himself and his abilities. “Benchmark gave me the tools and resources to overcome any obstacle I faced,” he said. “When I first came to Benchmark, my self-confidence was very low and I felt that everyone else was smarter. But when I left Benchmark, I was a very confident young adult and this confidence has remained with me.”
Armed with the self-confidence he gained at Benchmark, Dan saw no limits for himself. In fact, before joining the family business, he pursued a challenging educational and professional journey. After Benchmark, Dan attended The Shipley School, and then graduated from Boston University with degrees in finance and organizational development. Continuing his education, Dan attended Temple University School of Law and Fox School of Business, where he earned joint JD and MBA degrees. However, after being admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he decided to join Berger Rental Properties rather than pursue a law career. After several years of transitioning through various positions within the company, he became president in 2010 and is now responsible for all aspects of property management as well as acquisitions, dispositions, and financing.
Under Dan’s leadership, Berger Rental Properties has experienced a tremendous amount of growth and is a thriving leader in the rental property market. Dan was awarded the Philadelphia Business Journal 40 Under 40 Award in 2016, and the company has won numerous other awards as well. Dan said the award he is most proud of was being named as one of the “Top 25 Best Places to Work” in the multifamily housing industry across the country by the Multifamily Leadership group. “I am incredibly proud of my employees and the intentional company culture that we have built around trust, positivity, family, integrity, and results,” he said.
Along with the goal of continuing to expand Berger Rental Properties, Dan continues to challenge himself to grow personally and professionally. Dan says he is “passionate about educating, coaching, and mentoring others to help them be their best and achieve their dream.” He is even considering complementing his career at Berger with teaching at a high school or college. Dan certainly has no intention of slowing down. He believes that his “shoot-for-the-moon” mentality has a lot to do with the fact that “Benchmark provided me with the tools and resources to learn and instilled a strong work ethic so that I learned to trust myself, my abilities, and my aptitude.” In addition to self-confidence, he credits Benchmark for his “healthy self-esteem” and providing him with “the courage to rise to new challenges, seize opportunities, deal with difficult decisions, be passionate about my values and beliefs despite outside influences, and to be a leader.”
What’s more is that Dan has accepted—and loves—who he is as a person. “I used to think of my learning difference with a negative connotation because my learning difference caused me to work a lot harder than I would have had to do if I was a typical learner,” Dan said. “I now look at it in the completely opposite way; I appreciate my learning difference and look at it positively. Through my learning difference and my experience at Benchmark, I have an advantage over my peers. There is no substitute for hard work, dedication, and passion—all of which were taught at Benchmark.”
In addition to work, Dan says he cherishes his time with his children—Isabella (7) and Hudson (4), and his wife Ashly, and enjoys traveling and long-distance running.
Nick Romeo remembers struggling with reading and writing in first grade and that his teachers recommended to his parents that he attend Benchmark Summer Camp. Following a successful summer experience, his parents made the decision to enroll him in Benchmark for the school year. “I remember it being a huge change,” Nick said. “It was a completely different environment from my previous school because we were so immersed in building [language arts] skills.” Though Nick struggled for a little while with getting acquainted to the new environment, in hindsight, he is so thankful that his parents “did their research” and allowed him to gain the experiences he did while he was a student at Benchmark. “Benchmark was a challenging place,” Nick recalls. “But that’s the whole point—to push you, make you think critically, push you out of that comfort zone to work harder, be persistent, and learn from failure.” But Nick believes it’s not just on the shoulders of Benchmark to build that foundation—it has to start with the students themselves. “As much as Benchmark is invested in you, you have to be invested in Benchmark,” he said. “Benchmark has a proven path of success if you are willing to put in the work and time.”After leaving Benchmark in 2004, Nick attended The Haverford School, where he says he believes “work ethic was leaps and bounds better than the other [Haverford] students.” Furthermore, he said that he finally realized just how much the challenges he faced at Benchmark had shaped him and prepared him for high school. “Benchmark did a really incredible job of allowing you to express yourself and what your challenges were and then encouraging you to come up with a plan to work through those challenges,” Nick said. “The students who can recognize their weaknesses and then figure out how to turn those weaknesses into goals and strengths will be able to use that skill for the rest of their lives. It’s something I apply to my day-to-day now, and a lesson I’ll cherish forever.”
After developing a passion for politics in high school, Nick went on to study political science at Gettysburg College and pursued a number of politically-focused internships before realizing that he wanted to enter the business world. Nick felt lucky to combine his new found interest in business with his love of politics when he stumbled upon Bloomberg Research, a subsidiary of Bloomberg L.P. that is dedicated to providing data, intelligence, and analysis to businesses that are directly impacted by the federal government. “It was the perfect match for me since I could keep up with politics and still be in the business world selling software to clients,” Nick said.
Four years later, Nick is a Director of Business Development at Bloomberg Government and says he is very much enjoying his career path. His favorite aspects of the job include “interacting with and meeting new people” and “seeing my efforts pay off and problems being solved in real time.” Also, he enjoys working in a collaborative environment—one that he said reminds him very much of his time at Benchmark. “At Bloomberg, it’s a very collaborative work environment where people share and learn from each other, including learning about each other’s mistakes,” Nick said. “It gives me a very familiar feeling to what I felt at Benchmark in the sense that everyone is constantly developing and redefining himself or herself—never being satisfied with the status quo.”
Today, Nick continues to climb the corporate ladder and aim high in his professional endeavors. Though anyone who speaks with Nick would agree that he is confident and poised for future success, his path today is one that he was not sure he would ever have. “Without Benchmark, I don’t think I would have had the skills to be successful at Haverford for high school, or Gettysburg for college, and then I probably wouldn’t have come to DC and be working for Bloomberg,” he said. “It’s all been connected and it all goes back to where that foundation came from that really shaped me into who I am.”
Nick has been staying busy with his career, checking out the food scene in DC, and enjoying being a new homeowner. But he never plans to stop dreaming and working towards his next goal. In fact, one day he would like to start his own company and be able to lead a group of people.
His advice to Benchmark students is: “Don’t give up on yourself and ask for help when you need it! It’s not easy, but if you are willing to put in the work and are not afraid to fail, you’ll take what Benchmark has ingrained in you and you will achieve great things.”
Fifteen-hour days, traveling, and working in conflict-ridden areas are all in a day’s work for Benchmark alum Jonathan Saruk ’94. But as a photojournalist, documentary film maker, and production company partner, Jonathan says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Armed with the confidence and determination he learned at Benchmark, Jonathan found success at Salisbury School in Connecticut, Trinity University in San Antonio, and NYU, where he earned an MA in print journalism. While interning as a reporter at the New York Daily News, Jonathan spent a lot of time with newspaper photographers, which sparked his early interest in editorial photography. “From there, I began to focus more on visual journalism and experimenting with video,” he said.
After earning a certificate in photojournalism and documentary photography at the International Center of Photography, Jonathan gave up his apartment and hit the road to take pictures—continuing a globe-trotting streak that had previously included a French immersion program at the University of Grenoble and a semester at the University of Copenhagen.
At first, Jonathan was based between Malmö, Sweden, and Kabul, Afghanistan, and spent several years taking photos for news sources documenting active war areas—often while embedded with the military. Though sometimes dangerous work, he believes that “documenting what is going on in regions of conflict is of utmost importance” so that others can see what is happening in these regions.
After capturing “compelling imagery from conflict zones,” Jonathan spent the next two years photographing Kabul’s daily life, offering a different perspective on Afghan life. Using this work, he compiled and published The Forbidden Reel, a photographic monograph about the movie theaters in Kabul, which was published in 2014 and selected as one of the year’s best photography books by Time Magazine.
In 2012, he also took a leap into documentary film, which eventually led to the creation of Fox Tale Films, a Swedish-American production company. Today, Jonathan serves as a partner in the company and heads up Blake Street Films, the firm’s Malmö-based partner.
While his demanding schedule often takes him away from home, Jonathan loves his work, especially “getting to travel and meet people from all walks of life” and “the challenge of storytelling with a camera and the logistics of producing.” And his hard work has paid off: his videos have been published on many networks, such as the BBC and EuroNews, while his photography has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Newsweek, among others.
More than 20 years since Jonathan last sat at a Benchmark School desk, he still fondly remembers the school and the impact it has had on his life. Arriving as an “active child who was behind in reading ability,” his parents hoped that “Benchmark’s environment and teaching methods could be beneficial” to him. And beneficial it was! “What stands out most to me when I think back on my Benchmark experience is the level of support I received—both through my greatest successes and my most difficult moments. The faculty at Benchmark was indispensable, and...I was very fortunate to be a student there.”Jonathan believes that the practical skills he learned at Benchmark such as problem solving, reading comprehension, and note-taking, coupled with finding a balance of pursuing his interests, helped him to become successful. “Benchmark instilled a level of confidence and determination to succeed that I probably would not have found anywhere else,” he said. “Certainly these characteristics, along with perseverance, are invaluable for an adult pursuing a professional career.”
Today, Jonathan lives in Malmö with his wife and three children (ages 6, 4, and 3). “It has been a fantastic experience living abroad, but not without challenges,” he said. While it took several years to become integrated into Swedish society and learn the language, he said it has “become home...and we intend to stay here for the foreseeable future.”
With exciting projects on the horizon, Jonathan is enthusiastic about the future. “My advice is to find something you are passionate about and trust your instincts,” he said. “It gets easier.”
For Kimberly Dyer Martin ’83, the sky is the limit. It’s been a mindset she’s had for years—even as she has overcome some obstacles along the way.
Today, as a Pediatric Endocrinologist at Akron Children’s Hospital, she has the opportunity to help children who are experiencing problems with growth, puberty, diabetes, and other disorders related to hormones and the glands that produce them. “I initially thought about becoming a general pediatrician, but during my pediatric residency, I really enjoyed learning about endocrinology,” she said. “It involved the entire body and was very methodical.” From there, Kim pursued her fellowship in pediatric endocrinology and has been in the field ever since.
It is a career she loves, not only because it combines her love of working with children, science and mathematics, but because she also gets to build relationships with the families she works with as she follows children with chronic illnesses.
“I’m proud of where I’ve come,” Kim said. “My path wasn’t always direct or easy, but Benchmark and my parents played a big role in teaching me that it had nothing to do with my intelligence, but just that I learn differently.”
Kim came to Benchmark in second grade after having difficulty with reading and keeping up with her classmates (she later was diagnosed with dyslexia). “I remember my mother telling me, ‘They [the teachers are her previous school] would teach you something, you would do really well at it, and then you would come back to it half a day later and it would be completely gone.’” she said. “Retention was just not there for me. I was far behind in my reading, I had an inability to sound out words, and my writing was delayed.”
Of her years at Benchmark, Kim not only recalls fond memories of the playground, zip wire, and outward bound course, but she also remembers the strategies she was taught to overcome her learning differences—many of which she still uses to this day.
“First of all, I have to be very organized by making lists,” she said. “I get easily distracted, but if I make lists, I can keep up and keep on task. That is a skill I learned at Benchmark that I still use on a daily basis.” She also said that she is big on highlighting and re-reading—especially when she needs to retain information. “When someone is giving a lecture I have to write everything down, I can then go back and read it to learn the information. I am much more of a visual learner than an auditory one,” she said.
Kim said she also regularly uses strategies she learned at Benchmark to help overcome her issues with phonetics—especially being in the medical field. “I found that when I started medical school, people thought I had a stuttering issue because we were learning a lot of new words and I couldn’t pronounce half of them,” she said. “So I would be very careful to listen to how people would say the words and then I would just use the common vernacular. Over time, and with repetition, I eventually learned how to say most of the words.”
Having earned a BA in Biology from Lafayette College in 1996, an MA in Biomedical Ethics from Case Western Reserve University in 1999, and an MD from Case Western University School of Medicine in 2003, Kim has come far since her Benchmark days. And while she admits that it has not always been an easy road, her mindset of “anything is possible” has helped lead her to the success she has found today.
“With the support of my parents and Benchmark, I’ve always been very open about my learning differences,” Kim said. “I was always told that I could do whatever I wanted to do; I just may have to work harder. That has taken me a long way. Benchmark is the only school I donate to because it’s the only one that really mattered. Had I not been accepted to Benchmark, who knows where I would be.”
Upon earning her MD, Kim moved back to the Philadelphia area, where she spent 2 years as a Pediatric Endocrinologist at Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia before moving on to her current role at Akron Children’s Hospital in 2013.
For the future, Kim looks forward to the prospect of starting a fellowship program at Akron Children’s Hospital, as well as spending time with her husband, Chuck, and their two children (ages 8 and 5). She said they are also excited to be in the process of adopting a third child.
Her advice to current Benchmark students is to “have faith that with hard work, you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to. There are no limitations to what you can accomplish.”
Adam Smith ’95 first came to Benchmark in second grade after his parents became aware that he learned and processed information differently than most of his classmates. Though the change of schools was confusing to him at first, Adam said it ended up being a blessing in disguise as he discovered his learning style, interests, and passions.
He said it was specifically in science class with Mr. Warren Young where he first discovered his fascination with taking things apart and putting them back together. From there, Adam’s interest in art and design grew into what would become his career path.
In fact, what Adam remembers most is the long-lasting impact his Benchmark teachers had on him. He said that his biggest issue in school settings was “finding it difficult to concentrate,” but that his Benchmark teachers “really did a good job of making class interesting.” Adam also recognizes how his Benchmark teachers inspired both curiosity and self-confidence. “My teachers always pushed and prompted curiosity and helped me to think critically, and I’ve certainly taken those things with me,” he said. “I also remember a certain warmth and patience among the teachers, and that they made me feel so much better about my situation, cared for, and more confident.”
Utilizing his new found confidence and his passion for structure and process that he first recognized at Benchmark, Adam pursued a study of sculpture and graphic design at the University of Hartford and then acquired a BFA in industrial design from the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Mr. Young deserves some, or all, of the credit for my pursuing that line of work,” Adam recalled.
Following college, Adam spent some time working as an apprentice woodworker before starting his own company, GlueLine Inc., in 2004, where he designed and built furniture for several Philadelphia bars and restaurants. “A lot of my artistic and design work revolved around my interest in processes, which is why I was so absorbed in woodworking, because there was so much process involved,” Adam said. Though his company was very successful for several years, a downturn in the economy made it difficult to sustain.
While he had a few rough years transitioning careers, Adam recently became a home inspector, and said that he absolutely loves this new line of work. “It took me about a year to figure out that I wanted to be a home inspector, and I’m really glad I did it,” he said. While very different from his artistic past, Adam said that he has found that his learning differences have helped him in this new career path as well. “Because I learn differently, I’ve learned that I also communicate with others differently than most people, which has been a benefit to me as I work to educate my clients about my findings.”
Adam continues to dream big and even aspires to one day own his own home inspection firm. “My advice is to stay close to the things that drive your passion,” he said. “The closer you stay to those passions, the happier you will be.”
Rather than following a given path, Justin Shipley ’95 is more apt to create his own. That is how he has always lived his life, and it is one of the reasons he has found professional success in the film industry and a love and passion for his craft.
Today, Justin works as a director and director of photography for the Traveling Picture Show Company, which is based in Los Angeles. Mostly involved with commercials and documentaries, he has the unique opportunity to be on both the production and post-production sides of the business. “My job is to deliver stunning images, stories, and human moments,” he said. “Being able to make the agency and the client happy while still fighting for what I feel is right is very satisfying.”
Justin began at Benchmark as a summer camper who had been struggling with organization skills and writing. After quickly seeing an improvement in his abilities, he stayed on at Benchmark for all of his middle school years. Though Justin said much of his drive and persistence comes from his parents, it was his time at Benchmark that reaffirmed those characteristics and has continued to contribute to his success.
“At Benchmark, it was the first time I remember learning how to learn,” he said. “Benchmark helped me feel as though I could succeed…which was a great motivator. I have very fond memories of my time there and appreciate that Benchmark understood that everyone learns differently.”
With self-confidence in tow, he moved on from Benchmark to The Shipley School, where he spent his high school years becoming increasingly interested in film and photography. Having been exposed to the film industry for his entire life (his father was a director), Justin knew that he wanted to be an editor by age 16.
After high school, Justin took a leap of faith and drove to Los Angeles to find work in the film industry. Beginning as a design assistant and production artist, he quickly gained experience as a director, director of photography, and editor. “As I grew in my shooting and editing style and my work took me further out in the field, I found that I was drawn to all parts of the process,” he said.
As a young film enthusiast, Justin was up for just about anything—including traveling to places such as East Africa, Costa Rica, Guam, France, and England to film. Many years later, his assignments continue to take him to a variety of locales and settings, ranging from air-conditioned sound stages to extreme conditions (his personal favorite!). “If I’m really muddy, sweating, and sore when I get to where I’m shooting, then that’s when I feel like I’m actually doing something. I throw my passion into any product and love the feeling of working hard,” he said.
One would never believe he had organizational problems as a child since his work requires him to be highly organized. In fact, he said the organizational skills he learned at Benchmark “couldn’t be more applicable” to his career. “It’s all about having everything organized and being ready to work. If I’m organized, it not only helps with the efficiency of the project, but it also helps in post-production when editing.”
His strong organizational skills, coupled with his drive, have led Justin to many successes over the years, including an Emmy nomination in cinematography for his work on The Horseman Cometh, a one-hour documentary that aired on PBS in 2012.
Despite many accolades, Justin has no plans to curtail his work or his ambition. “I feel like I’m at 10 percent of my capacity,” he said. “I have great drive and ambition for never-ending growth and want to be able to separate the money from the drive. My goal is always to be better than I was a week ago and to continuously sharpen my craft.”
While Justin is incredibly passionate about his work, he is quick to point out that the most important and favorite part of his life is spending time with his wife, Ann, and his children, Willow (9), Scout (6), and Jude (4), in their Chester County home.
The future is wide open for Justin—and it appears that nothing is out of reach. His advice to Benchmark students is to “be honest with yourself and pursue what you enjoy the most…. And when you fall on your face, get up and move forward.”
When students enter Benchmark School, they typically have challenges in learning related to how they process language and/or a mismatch of their learning styles and the instruction they have received. For Joe Caruso—who entered Benchmark in 1979—having been born with congenital cataracts and being legally blind took his challenges to another level. “I couldn’t read and I couldn’t see,” Joe remembered.
Although he struggled to maintain his vision through numerous surgeries, he distinctly remembers the day that his teacher, Sally (Ross) Laird—now Benchmark’s Assistant Head of School and Head of the Lower School—had an “aha moment” and figured out that Joe was actually able to read, but he just could not see the small letters. Sally gave him large print books and his reading improved immediately. For that he is “forever grateful” to Benchmark School.
“The learning skills you acquire here [at Benchmark] are incredible,” Joe said. In particular, he believes that Benchmark helped him with confidence and in teaching him how to learn. “Benchmark hones in on what a student’s strengths are and focuses on them to build self-confidence,” he said. “For me, it was building my confidence in gym class, and that confidence eventually bled into my academics.”
After leaving Benchmark, Joe went on to attend Sanford School, Springfield High School, and Drexel University. After college, he joined the wholesale wine business—working for others at first, and then starting his own wholesale and import wine business with his father, based in Cape May, New Jersey, in 2007.
While Joe’s successes were abundant, he had the unfortunate experience of re–living his vision and learning challenges after his two daughters—Parker and Shea—were born with congenital cataracts similar to Joe’s. The numerous surgeries and long hours in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia began to wear on Joe, and he sought out the high–intensity training for triathlons as an outlet to deal with the emotions of the situation. It was during this tough time that his family decided that they were going to give back as much as they could to support the efforts of the hospitals that had helped his daughters and many other children with vision–threatening medical issues.
Since Joe had been enjoying the challenge of triathlons (he has completed nearly 40 of them!), the idea of completing an IRONMAN crossed his mind after hearing about a Cape May friend who had qualified multiple times for the IRONMAN world championships. However, Joe remembers that he immediately said that there was no way he could ever do that. “After I said it, the words made me sick, and I signed up the next morning for the race,” he said. “Benchmark taught me that I can’t is not an option, and I did not want to be an example like that for my daughters.”
Using his first full IRONMAN race in 2012 as the inspiration, Joe raised and donated nearly $50,000 to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Soon after, he began the FOCUS Wine Foundation. After completing his second full IRONMAN in 2014, Joe decided to further expand his foundation by adding his own private label brand—FOCUS Wines.
Launched in June 2015, FOCUS Wines gives a portion of its proceeds to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and other premier children’s eye institutions. In this way, Joe has hopes to give children from around the world their chance to experience life the way all kids should: with health, joy, and hope. Continuing to use his daughters as inspiration, the first wines under the FOCUS Wines brand were fittingly named “Parker” Pinot Noir and “Shea” Chardonnay.
In his business life, Joe still utilizes many of the strategies he learned at Benchmark. “I plan things out, create outlines, and set short– term and long–term goals,” he said. “Benchmark taught me goal setting and that small accomplishments can lead to big accomplishments, and that’s how I navigate business.” Joe has set big future goals for himself and FOCUS—to sell one million cases of wine and donate $1 million to worthy medical institutions. With the “tenacity and persistence” his Benchmark experience taught him, he will not accept “can’t” and there is no doubt he will meet these goals as well.
Years ago, David Caporaletti ’83 could have never imagined that his days as a 7th grade basketball player at Benchmark were preparing him for life in the Big Ten. But today, as Director of Operations for the Penn State Men’s Basketball team, Dave (or “Cappy” as his friends call him) finds himself living that life and frequently referring to life lessons he learned at Benchmark.
One such lesson is about attitude—the word that hangs prominently on the wall of the Penn State team’s private locker room—and the foundation of the program run by Head Coach Pat Chambers. “Coach believes that attitude is the only thing you can control,” Dave explained. “So you decide when you wake up in the morning if you’re going to be happy or sad, if you’re going to work hard or you’re not going to work hard. We try to instill in our players to always keep a good attitude whatever the situation.”
Luckily, having a good attitude comes pretty naturally for Dave. He entered Benchmark as a fifth grader in 1979, at the recommendation of his reading tutor. Though he wasn’t immediately convinced that he needed to attend the school, his tutor took the time to carefully explain how his reading comprehension level was different from other students in his grade. He said he remembers that day “like it was yesterday” and, from that day on, he accepted Benchmark as his school.
“Benchmark was fun for me and I loved going there,” he said. “In fact, Benchmark helped make me the man I am today. I learned hard work and how to compete. Nothing was ever handed to me in my time there. [Additionally], the teachers instilled in me that it’s about knowing what’s on the piece of paper, not worrying about what other people think of me. They helped me understand that it’s okay to be the way that I am. This is who I am.”
Besides gaining confidence in academics, Dave—who has always loved sports—also gravitated towards athletics at Benchmark. Not surprisingly, Wayne Reichart was the Benchmark faculty member who had the biggest impact on the impressionable young student. “[Wayne] taught me how to work hard, how to compete, and to just try to be a good person,” he said.
After leaving Benchmark, Dave entered 8th grade at E.T. Richardson Middle School and then went on to Springfield High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Philadelphia University, which is where he would meet his friend (and future boss) Pat Chambers. Following graduation, he first worked for former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, then as an assistant to Philadelphia University coach Herb Magee. During that time, he also started his own painting business. After that, Dave moved north in order to join the coaching staff of his friend Pat Chambers at Boston University. After two successful seasons there, Dave followed Coach Chambers to State College when Chambers was named the Nittany Lions’ head basketball coach.
Today, from his office in the Bryce Jordan Center, Dave handles a wide variety of the team’s logistics including scheduling practices, assisting with student housing, working with the academic advisor to meet the needs of the student athletes, handling the Nike clothing allotment, running summer sports camps, assisting with Coach Chambers’ schedule, organizing player appearances, and coordinating special events. It’s a long list of responsibilities, but a joy for Dave.“I love my job,” he said. “I don’t even consider it a job. It’s my passion and what I was meant to do.”
Now totally enveloped in the Penn State community, Dave is starting to bleed blue and white. He and his wife Amanda—a UConn grad and a big sports fan herself—met on campus when she was studying for her doctorate. They married in May 2015 and are expecting their first child in November—hopefully not on the night Penn State plays perennial powerhouse Duke as part of the NCAA Tip–Off Tournament. “If you don’t see me in the first seat, you’ll know something is happening,” he joked.
His advice to current students is to “enjoy your experience and be confident with who you are and don’t worry about what other people think. What matters is what you think and the people who care about you. I tell players all the time—just be who you are. That’s good enough.”
Since 2014, Vanessa Kauffman ’99 has been a part of the sociology doctoral program at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), where a typical day involves attending graduate seminars, teaching undergrads, and doing her own research. She is truly in her element, but it’s something she never could have imagined when she was that young child who first attended Benchmark. “There are facets within graduate education that make it difficult for people who learn differently,” she said. “Certain aspects [of academia] have been really challenging, so I’m really proud to have gotten into an excellent doctoral program and to be fully funded for six years.”
She entered Benchmark as a seven year old who was struggling with learning to read. She soon found Benchmark to be a good fit for the academic support that she needed. Hard work and a different approach to learning have changed her path. “At Benchmark, I not only learned how to read based on how I was processing material, but I was given the support and opportunities to succeed,” Vanessa said. Additionally, Benchmark helped her develop self-confidence. “After not feeling good about myself, it was such a wonderful feeling to be with supportive teachers and other kids who were like me.”
Vanessa looks back fondly at her Benchmark days and said that one of her greatest accomplishments has been the journey of getting to where she is today. “Benchmark changed my life 100% and I know for a fact that without Benchmark I wouldn’t be doing what I am today,” she said. “The teachers at Benchmark really changed my life and instilled in me a strong love of learning.”
Following her time at Benchmark, Vanessa went on to Radnor High School and then Temple University, where she earned a B.A. in political science. While she knew at that point that she eventually wanted to go on to get her doctorate, she took a few years off to work and had several life experiences that changed her focus of study from political science to sociology. She notes that her experiences teaching environmental education to at-risk youth, founding and directing the environmental social service non-profit Big Blue Marble Inc., and backpacking through the Canadian Arctic where she interacted with people who were native to that area, helped her realize that her interests were actually in the field of sociology. She followed her new-found passion to the University of Chicago. There, she completed a one-year M.A. program in the social sciences with a concentration in sociology, followed by her current studies at UCI.
Using her current locale of California beaches to the fullest advantage, Vanessa’s most recent research is focused on studying how women succeed in spaces that are typically male-dominated—specifically female surfers. But her time at UCI has also helped her develop a love for teaching. “I really value the Benchmark teachers who instilled that strong love of learning in me, and it’s been great to help other students in the same way,” she said. “It’s fun introducing young people to a different way of thinking about society. Plus, being around people who are excited to learn re-invigorates you, and I have learned so much in the process.”
In addition to continuing to enjoy the sunshine and outdoor activities that California offers, Vanessa looks forward to completing her doctorate and then hopes to work for a university and teach and do research—perhaps on the East Coast closer to family. Regardless of where she ends up, she knows that the skills Benchmark taught her will help her to continue being successful. “I don’t take the literacy or reading skills I learned at Benchmark for granted, as I read quite a bit in my profession,” she said. “I also still use the organizational tools, make mind maps to diagram papers, and use the confidence Benchmark fostered to be a strong self-advocate.”
Her advice to current Benchmark students is to “trust and feel good about yourself. What you are learning at Benchmark will help you through your whole life, and the tools you are learning will set you up for success.”
Victoria (Tori) Schelling Gregson ’98 is proof that dreams can come true—if you’re willing to work for them. Recently coming off her fourth season “kicking” as a Radio City Rockette, the nearly 27-year-old professional dancer is truly living her dreams.
Yet Tori’s road to success was anything but easy. While she has always loved dance (she began dancing at age three), it was not until high school at The Shipley School that she decided becoming a professional dancer was the dream she wanted to chase. “I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy,” Tori said. “Dance never came naturally to me, and I was never the star dancer dancing up front. I’ve always had to work the hardest, and I knew this dream was something I’d really have to work at.”
Luckily, learning how to persevere past obstacles was nothing new for Tori. When she was seven years old, she and her parents decided that Benchmark was the best fit for her after recognizing that she had learning differences and was struggling with reading. Tori said that Benchmark “definitely changed the course of my academic career. I remember my teachers being so encouraging and celebrating our differences as students.”
For Tori, it was learning who she was and that it was okay to be different that changed her outlook on school and life. “My time at Benchmark was definitely the most influential of my early childhood education. The foundation that was laid there helped me to be confident and taught me the perseverance to push forward even when it was hard. I realized [at Benchmark] that I wasn’t alone in learning differently and instead of being punished for that, I should celebrate those differences. Those years at Benchmark are definitely something I hold close to my heart.”
Years later, that same perseverance came into play again when, at age 18, she first auditioned to become a Rockette and realized that she was vastly unprepared. But Tori never lost sight of her dream. She spent her college years at Oklahoma City University studying dance performance, learning the ins and outs of the professional dance business, and continuing to audition for the Rockettes—a total of eight times over five years.
After graduating college in 2011, she moved to New York City and “did the artist life” of auditioning and waitressing. During the summer of 2012, she was thrilled to receive an opportunity to fulfill another dream when she landed a gig as an ensemble dancer at Disney’s Hollywood Studios Beauty and the Beast show in Orlando. Much to her surprise, the summer of 2012 also held another wonderful opportunity. “I was just three months into my contract at Disney when I finally got the call to become a Radio City Rockette,” she said. “It was insane that two dreams of a lifetime happened in a three-month period.”
Today, she is still honored to be in the famed troupe. After spending three years on the road “spreading Christmas cheer throughout the U.S.,” Tori had the opportunity to “kick on the big stage” this past season at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Yet just because she has “made it” does not mean her perseverance is gone. Because Rockettes have to re-audition every year, Tori has to continue to work hard all year long. “I still take dance classes, do cross training, and eat well,” she said. “Nothing comes easy, but I just try to stay focused, work hard, and stay positive. I am lucky to have a lot of support from my family and friends.”
Tori has also been enjoying her life’s journey off stage. After a whirlwind year, she is excited to be working as a dance instructor at Barre3 during her off-season and spending time with her husband, James, and two dogs, Boots and Gus, in their new house in Connecticut.
Her advice to Benchmark students is to “…never give up. Know that it’s not easy, but keep working at it because dreams can come true. Your path in life will be different than the person sitting next to you, and that’s okay. Celebrate your differences and know that whatever your end goal is, it is achievable.”
For Ted Levin ’99, attending school as a young child was a frustrating experience. “I had some pretty significant learning differences,” Ted said. “I struggled to stay focused in the classroom and was not really receptive to learning. I also struggled with reading which only compounded these issues.” So if you had asked him 22 years ago if he would someday be happily working in the world of academia—and studying language—he would have scoffed at the idea. And yet, that is precisely where he is today.
Having recently earned a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ted is now enjoying his new role as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the University of Maryland’s Department of Linguistics. Ted recalls that his interest in linguistics (the scientific study of language and its structure) first sparked during his high school years at Harrisburg Academy and further flourished at Brandeis University. However, he credits the skills he learned at Benchmark for helping him to pursue his passion. “I would be lying if I said that I’ve totally overcome my learning differences,“ he said. “I think I have always had a bit of a short attention span, and Benchmark helped me learn to cope with an ever-present desire to always be doing something different. It takes an active effort on my part to sit through a three-hour lecture or a day of conference presentations, and even to sit down to write a paper. But Benchmark taught me skills to help me stay focused that I still find helpful.”
In addition to improving his reading skills and building his self-confidence, Ted attributes his time at Benchmark for helping him discover his love for learning. “Before going to Benchmark [in 1994], I really didn’t like school,” he said. “I was embarrassed that I was falling behind my classmates… [but] Benchmark really changed my mind about school and helped me discover just how much I liked learning. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if I had not gone to Benchmark.”
With days filled with research, working with native speakers of languages, theorizing about the data that’s been collected, and attending lectures, Ted is thrilled to be working in a field that really motivates him. “The Linguistics Department at the University of Maryland is excellent... I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so many smart students and faculty members,” he commented. “They are all doing really interesting work and are willing to share their time and knowledge with me. I think that makes my own work much better.”
For someone so young (Ted is just 28), he already has an impressive number of professional presentations and papers to his name. His current research is focused on the syntax (the arrangement of words that make up sentences) of Austronesian languages. “The Austronesian languages make up a large language family spoken in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Madagascar, and throughout Oceania,” he noted. “They are very different from familiar languages like English and other European languages, and even well-known non-European languages like Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic.”
“The hope of researching languages is to understand how they are the same and how they are different,” he continued. “Understanding the range of possibilities has the potential to reveal deep insights about the nature of the brain.”
For the future, Ted is setting his sights on obtaining a tenure-track position in linguistics at a research university and making contributions to his field of study, including figuring out how to better understand how language is biologically encoded in the brain. Besides his work, Ted enjoys spending time with friends, and, because he is a bit of a “foodie,” finding new restaurants and trying out new recipes at home.
His advice to Benchmark students is to develop good learning habits as early as possible. “Benchmark will provide opportunities for you to acquire these skills, but you need to take them seriously. Developing good habits early is essential for success at higher levels of education and the work place.”
Having the Outstanding Alumnus give the commencement address at the graduation ceremony is a Benchmark tradition, as it provides both the graduates and younger middle school students in attendance an opportunity to see what someone in their shoes can achieve with continued hard work and dedication. Chase, the School’s 2015 recipient, entered Benchmark School in 2000. After six years at Benchmark, he went on to graduate from Devon Preparatory School in 2010 and Trinity College in 2014, where he majored in anthropology. He currently works for The Karma Agency, an independent strategic communications firm in Philadelphia, and has begun looking into graduate schools to study either business or anthropology. He has also been an active volunteer at Benchmark School, most recently helping to lead the efforts in expanding the School’s Alumni Association.
“I learned so much at my time at Benchmark, like how to communicate effectively, advocate for myself, and have confidence in myself, and I often accomplished things that I did not think were going to be possible,” Chase told the Class of 2015. He went on to tell the graduates about his sense of persistence—to get through high school, to get into his dream college, and to then graduate from his dream college in four years. “I wanted to continually push myself outside of my comfort zone, which is something all of you will do come September [when you go to high school]. It is going to be an opportunity for you to learn as much as you can, explore, try and fail, and fall flat on your face, but you’ll get yourself up, learn from those mistakes, and move on and be stronger,” he said. “Being at Benchmark taught me how to work hard and be kind and, in turn, things have fallen into place for me.”
For Benchmark graduates, transformations from who they were when they first arrived at Benchmark to who they are years after they leave can be quite dramatic. For Jackson Gordon ’08 (who prefers to be called Gordon), this certainly rings true. “My time at Benchmark really helped with reading, which is a huge life skill,” he said. “The school also really encouraged individuality and influenced who I am today.”
But evidenced by the functional Batsuit that Gordon created and recently revealed at the Katsucon anime convention, he also has the ability to make a transformation into Batman, making him something of a celebrity. In fact, Gordon, who is a Philadelphia University industrial design student, has been featured on a number of news sites and publications, including CNN, USA Today, Time, the UK’s DailyMail, BuzzFeed, Comicbook.com, Fox29, 6ABC, and CBS3, and The Discovery Channel’s TV shows, Daily Planet and Outrageous Acts of Science. “It was completely overwhelming at first,” Gordon said. “It all kind of spiraled in one day [after being featured in an article for USA Today’s College section] and continued for the next three weeks or so.”
But how does one even come up with such an ambitious and unusual project? For the 21-year-old student who has always been a “tinkerer,” it began with a need to fill some free time and perfect some of the skills he was learning in his design classes. “It was simply an exercise intended to further my education in design by providing access to materials, processes, and technologies I cannot otherwise afford [on my own],” Gordon said. A few years ago when he was first experimenting with cosplay—a performance art in which participants wear costumes and accessories to represent specific characters or ideas—he had made a version of the Batsuit costume from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy that looked cool aesthetically but had limited functionality. This new project, however, was Gordon’s attempt at designing a Batsuit that not only resembled the one worn by Batman, but was an “actual fully-functioning replication of what a person would want in a modern-type combat suit.”
In September 2014, he came up a possible design that “wouldn’t inhibit my mobility and would actually provide protection and function more like Batman’s actual suit.” The only problem was that the materials required to build the suit were out of his college student budget. To try and raise funds for the suit design, he went to Kickstarter, the online funding platform for creative projects, and, to his surprise, was able to raise $1,255 in just six days.
After five months of prototyping and two months of construction, Gordon, who is a black belt in Shaolin Kung-Fu, was excited to reveal the final suit, which “won’t take a bullet, but can withstand punches, machetes and baseball bats.” Made of materials such as Kevlar, silicone molds, armor plating, and polyurethane, the final suit comes in at 25 pounds, while the helmet is about three pounds.
While the daily press inquiries have slowed down, this is just the beginning for the go-getter. Gordon has plans for setting up a business creating props for sale and getting into the world of research and development or prop-making, perhaps in Hollywood. With his talent, confidence, and positive attitude, it seems as though the possibilities are endless for Gordon. “I’m a believer in the saying, ‘do what you love and the money will follow’,” he said.
For Joshua A. Bell ’85, a typical day may include writing, being in collections engaging with objects, teaching, and/or being out with community members. As a cultural anthropologist—someone who studies humans, social relationships, and how people interact with their environment—he is constantly going through the process of asking questions to find out why people do what they do, what actions and motivations are behind human behaviors, and how culture impacts the activities humans engage in.
Josh’s interest in anthropology actually stems from his time at Benchmark. “I was always interested in archaeology and history, which started during my time at Benchmark where I always wrote book reports on historical subjects,” he said. Although he loved that archeology was all about solving puzzles of the past, he also enjoyed talking to people, which is how his interest in anthropology was born. “Anthropology is all about putting yourself in awkward situations,” Josh said. “And having dyslexia and being perceived as different, I became very observant of human behavior and social situations.”
Although his dyslexia is what first brought Josh to Benchmark School in 1981, he said he was happy to finally be in a place where he did not feel like an outsider. “Going to a school where everyone was similar to me was really helpful,” he said. “Being in that supportive community made me feel like finally I’m not just that one kid who isn’t getting it.” Through the individualized teacher attention and support he received at Benchmark, Josh said that the school helped to unlock his love of reading and increase his self-confidence. “I found that if I put my mind to something, I could do anything,” he said.
After four years at Benchmark, Josh moved on to Germantown Academy in 1985. Following high school, he attended Brown University and then the University of Oxford, where he earned a Master of Philosophy in Ethnology and Museum Anthropology and a Doctor of Philosophy in Social and Cultural Anthropology.
Today, he is the Curator of Globalization at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., working in the Department of Anthropology. By combining ethnographic fieldwork with research in museums and archives, his work “broadly examines the shifting local and global network of relationships between persons, artifacts, and the environment.” He has conducted fieldwork in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea documenting aspects of the local communities’ heritages and traditions, has created a number of collections-based projects, and has helped initiate and run a project called Recovering Voices, which is concerned with documenting and helping to sustain the 7,000+ languages around the world. He is also excited about a current project surrounding cell phone use and how it is and is not changing our world via technology. “Working at the Smithsonian is great because it’s such an incredible public platform to reach a wider audience and share research with people from all over the world,” Josh said.
In addition to his role at the Smithsonian, Josh is an adjunct professorial lecturer in anthropology at George Washington University and has published two co-edited books, Recreating First Contact: Expeditions, Anthropology and Popular Culture (2013) and The Anthropology of Expeditions Travel, Visualities, Afterlives (2015), along with numerous professional articles. Although he believes his greatest accomplishment is raising his family along with his wife, which includes two sons and infant daughter, he is also quite proud of earning his D.Phil., despite having dyslexia. “Benchmark has played a profound role in my life,” Josh said. “I have to credit my parents for finding it. Now I’m a proud Benchmark alum and okay with talking about being dyslexic; I’m not ashamed of it anymore.”
His advice to Benchmark students is: “Be fearless, inquisitive, and realize that anything is possible. Be proud of who you are and don’t let your learning style be how people define you.”
When Amber West Buller ’84 first came to Benchmark in 1979, she was a struggling reader. “I remember being eight or nine years old when I finally read my first book, " Hop on Pop," which was a K-2 level book,” she said. Although her reading skills have increased significantly since that time, Amber never forgot where her journey began and has since made a career out of helping students work through and conquer their own struggles. As a clinical psychologist, Amber assists in diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, and learning differences.
While her interest in psychology initially began in high school, Amber did not consider it for a career until she took her first psychology class in college. “I actually went to college to be a math teacher,” she said. “But as soon as I took my first psychology class, I was hooked.” She began her career working as a psychologist in the public sector, but her interest in education never went away. Today, as associate psychologist at Germantown Friends School (GFS), Amber’s position allows her to take her love of psychology and apply it to the education sector.
Although Amber has accomplished so much since her five years at Benchmark, her time at the School has never been forgotten. “Besides my mother continuing to push me and believe in me, Benchmark is the sole reason I am where I am today,” Amber said. “Benchmark laid the foundation for my success by offering different perspectives and tangible solutions to problems. Being at Benchmark also helped to instill my work ethic and taught me organizational skills that I think all kids—learning differences or not—could benefit from.”
After Benchmark, Amber attended The Episcopal Academy, the University of Arizona where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and then the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology (now called Palo Alto University) where she earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
“I remember leaving [Benchmark] feeling like a capable student,” she said. “When I was faced with challenges, I could push beyond them—even after being told that I didn’t have potential. Benchmark made me feel confident and competent and helped to show me not only what my strengths and weaknesses are, but how to circumvent those weaknesses.”
With a background in pediatric neuropsychology, Amber’s role today focuses on assisting school-aged children. Specifically she supports Craig Stevens, the head psychologist at GFS and a former Benchmark School psychologist, meets with students individually, teaches life skills classes, goes into classrooms, and reads and summarizes psycho-educational reports. She enjoys her position because it is “fulfilling work with a blend of interesting kids who have interesting backgrounds.”
While she is still amazed that she has earned a Ph.D. in spite of having been a struggling reader, she said one of her other greatest accomplishments is having found a way to strike a balance between her professional and personal life. Having just moved from Center City Philadelphia to a farmland setting in Unionville with her husband and two children (ages 6 and 8), she has embraced the outdoors and is enjoying riding horses, taking hikes and walks, and traveling.
Though it has been years since she was at Benchmark, Amber said the skills she learned at the school have remained relevant to her even as an adult. “It’s been about continuing to understand who I am as a learner,” she said. “I know that I have a strong work ethic, can recognize when I need to ask for help, and must keep things organized.”
Her appreciation of Benchmark even led her to be a part of the school’s recent Strategic Planning Committee. “It was a very fun process because I got to see where Benchmark was, is now, and is going,” she said. “I love Benchmark and I want to see it last in perpetuity because it puts kids on the right trajectory.”
For Emily Kimelman ’93, an average day might include writing for a few hours, doing yoga, reading, and then writing a bit more—in locales from her home base in Hudson Valley, NY, to exotic places such as Costa Rica, Hawaii, and India. As an author of a popular series of mystery novels and apocalyptic urban fantasies, Emily has experienced growing success in the eBook world since her first self-published book was released online in 2011. “I’m supporting my family with my creativity,” she said. “It’s my dream coming true.”
Her journey to success was not an easy path, however. At around the age of 6, she remembers that she couldn’t say her R’s or L’s, and the alphabet remained a mystery. “It didn’t take long for my parents and teachers to realize I was severely dyslexic,” she said. Shortly thereafter, Emily began at Benchmark. Emily said between the reading she was doing at Benchmark and her father reading to her every night at home, it didn’t take much for her to begin falling in love with books. “My young heart yearned for those jumbles of squiggles to make sense,” she stated.
While it took some time and a lot of hard work, Emily remembers that at around the age of 10 or 11, something just clicked and she could finally read. “Some of the first books I read were Agatha Christie novels, and mystery novels quickly became my genre,” she stated.
From there, Emily began her path to become the author she is today. After spending her high school years at The Baldwin School, Emily went on to dedicate her collegiate studies at New York University (NYU) to the history of forensic science, homicide, and detective novels. “I always thought I couldn’t be a writer, but I’ve always been a storyteller,” she commented. “I remember that while I was at NYU, I read a terrible mystery novel and thought ‘well, I could do better than that!’” And that she did.
Beginning in 2011, she began e-publishing the first of six mystery novels in her best-selling Sydney Rye series—an adult mystery series based on a strong female protagonist and her dog, Blue. Most recently, Emily has e-published an adult series called KISS, an apocalyptic urban fantasy serial, under the pen name E.J. Kimelman.
For the future, she looks forward to traveling to more exotic locales with her husband and dog to get ideas for her next books, and of course, to do more writing. “I have so many books I want to write,” Emily said. “There are people who want to read all kinds of material, and I hope to just keep building my readership. I love my readers and wouldn’t be able to do what I do without them.”
From the fact that Benchmark helped her embrace technology at an early age, to the confidence Benchmark developed in her, Emily sincerely credits her time at Benchmark for helping her get to where she is today. “I don’t know who I would be without Benchmark,” Emily said. “Benchmark really instilled in me that I could do absolutely anything and gave me confidence to do things in my life that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.”
Emily’s advice to Benchmark students is to “really put in the work, because you will see it pay off. Take the confidence that Benchmark has in you and use it to be great. Benchmark wouldn’t have accepted you if they didn’t think you could do this. It’s okay to get discouraged; you just can’t let it stop you.”
By any definition, Andrew Repasky McElhinney ’93 is creative. Not only is he a film director and producer, professor, author, theater director, and video editor, but he is able to be successful in all of these roles, in part, because he is a self-proclaimed iconoclast who sees the world uniquely.
Andrew is a film director-producer who primarily makes a living as a writer, but in between directorial assignments, he feeds his creativity in many other ways. “I teach writing, cinema studies, or American Studies at Rutgers University,” he said. “I’ve also done uncredited rewrites and dialogue polishes on screenplays, written ad copy for a company that released public domain movies on DVDs, directed some theater, and constructed some video installations.”
Andrew credits his time at Benchmark for helping him first learn how to engage his creativity. “What I think was going on [in school] was that I wasn’t listening or engaging, and therefore, not successfully communicating,” he said. “However, Benchmark was instrumental for me in its rigorous writing program. Learning to write well, and revise, I learned to communicate and socialize on a higher level.”
Andrew’s love of visual media began at a young age, but he did not tie his polished writing skills into his love of film until high school. “I did a ton of creative writing at Benchmark, but by early high school, I realized I was not—at that time—a novelist,” he said. “Cinema, however, offered a potential for a synthesis of forms (and mediums) that I could focus using my—then precocious—verbal communications skills.”
In 1994, while at Abington Friends School, he formed ARMcinema25.com, a company devoted to producing movies. That year was also when Andrew made his first movie. “The fact that Benchmark stressed the process of organization, writing, revision, and re-writing really gave me a leg up on mastering the creative process,” Andrew said. “After all, good writing happens in the organization and re-writing, not unlike directing something.”
Knowing that he was following his passion, Andrew continued to work hard and released his first feature film, Magdalen, in 1998. Since then, he has been the proud director-producer of four other feature films, a number of short subjects, and video installations.
“During my time at Benchmark, the demands on the students really illustrated by example that you personally had to commit to achieving in order to be successful,” he said. “From there, Benchmark suggested that we be ‘life-long learners’ and make increasing demands on ourselves (without regard to external factors). Chances are that anyone who demands a lot of themselves and is lucky enough to be gifted will be successful. And, of course, experience is what really builds confidence.”
Some of Andrew’s other accomplishments include earning an undergraduate degree from The New School for Social Research (NYC) and a Ph.D. from The European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland, as well as publishing a scholarly book on 20th century cinema titled Second Takes: Remaking Film, Remaking America (McFarland, 2013).
His advice to Benchmark students is: “Be self-focused and self-disciplined. Read and research as much as possible. Excel at school as quickly as possible, go to grad school, get a Ph.D. and, while you do that, explore personal, creative ambitions. The best time to break into anything is when you are under 20 years of age. Work backwards from what you want your obituary to read.”
2014 Benchmark Outstanding Alumnus Jamie Carr '93 addressed the Middle School students and their families at their Celebration of Accomplishments.
He encouraged the students to, "Hang in there. Failure is okay, as long as you collect yourself and keep fighting." Jamie recalled that "Mr. Reichart would have us do drills on the soccer field and we would practice falling and getting up. He told us that the team that had the players that got up quickly were more likely to win. I believe he is absolutely right, not just about soccer but about life. In life, you've just got to find a way to get back up again when you fail. The faster the better." Jamie ended his remarks by showing the audience a framed copy of the Emerson poem, What is Success, explaining, "This poem, in this frame, was given to me by an 8th grade teacher at Benchmark and has hung beside my bed ever since." [Read the poem]
Jamie attended Benchmark from 1986 to 1993. After Benchmark, he attended The Shipley School, Haverford College where he achieved Magna Cum Laude with High Department Honors and was awarded the Levin Prize in Comparative Literature. Following undergrad school, Jamie pursued a MS in Counseling and Clinical Health Psychology and chose to complete his practicum at Benchmark. He then went on to earn a law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. Realizing that neither counseling nor practicing law were his passions, Jamie found his niche as the legal and financial Operations Manager for a firm that builds low energy, sustainable, healthy homes in the Chicago area.
John Alex Brinson ’00 is busy growing his many businesses, but this passionate entrepreneur takes the time to attribute his success to his years at Benchmark School. "I was at Benchmark for a long time, from second grade through middle school. By the time I graduated from Benchmark, I understood my learning style and my process. What makes me successful today is my process, and I have to give Benchmark the credit for that. I am creative, meticulous, and organized. High school was doing the work; Benchmark was learning how to do the work. That’s a big part of my life today. How are we doing the work? Are we working smart, using critical thinking and analyzing the execution? I still keep a notebook to keep up with my ‘assignments' and stay organized with contacts, reminders, scheduling and lists of tasks," he adds.
It was a performance of the play Huck Finn in the third or fourth grade at Benchmark that began John Alex’s artistic journey. “I felt like I wasn’t good at anything, but I began to find value about who I was and what I was doing. In Middle School, Dr. MacDonald gave me opportunities (as a player in the annual Middle School musicals) and I realized I was actually good at something."
After Benchmark, John Alex attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and then the prestigious Julliard School. Today he lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife, Sarah Brinson, a dancer who is also a partner in some of his business ventures, which include Acting for Dancers, a workshop for young dancers ages 10 to 18, and a filmmaking company, Coal Harbor Media.
Acting for Dancers, recently launched a tour entitled "24 for 24." The intimate two-to-three day in-studio workshops will travel to 24 cities in 24 months. The workshops are designed to help dancers engage their imaginations while learning basic acting elements to enhance their dancing. John Alex explains that while many of the dancers will not become professionals, the confidence and the resilience they learn through these exercises will translate to positive real-world experience later in life. "Arts education develops resilience. For example, if a child is in a math class and the teacher keeps telling him that he's consistently wrong, that boy won't want to go back and try again. He feels defeated. Arts education is about doing it over and over again to develop precision. We can say 'you're doing it wrong,' but after practice, when the child gets it right, they gain confidence. It's about developing your skill set. If they can take feedback in acting class or dance class, they can respond with confidence to other situations in life."
Their film company, Coal Harbor Media, is developing a feature-length documentary called “The Cultural Architect" that follows John Alex and Sarah on the Acting for Dancers tour and looks at the importance of arts education. "The film focuses on encouraging people to define what they are good at and what motivates them," John Alex explains.
In addition to all of these projects, John Alex was recently awarded the $40,000 Captive Scholarship from the Vancouver Film School and is spending 12 months there learning to be a film director. "It's just enough time to get the skill set I need, but not so much that I have to drop the ball on my other projects."
John Alex refers back to his years at Benchmark to note that he is still dyslexic, is a terrible speller, and still processes information slowly. But at Benchmark, he learned to embrace his learning differences and encourages Benchmark students to do the same. "I use the strategies I learned there. I read slowly, but I think I comprehend more. I read, take notes, and underline key information. I have Sarah read what I write. I have learned to work my way around my differences."
“I came to Benchmark because it catered to my unique learning style; other places couldn’t do that for me which stifled my ability to grow. Benchmark took the time to understand how I was different then gave me the tools to be successful.”
Lauren Pyle '04, Social Media Manager, Whole Foods