Humans of Harker: Balancing acts

Nellie Tonev (12) strives to make connections in everything she does


Anna Vazhaeparambil

“I like exploring connections between very unrelated aspects of life or the universe. In this way, I feel like my love of art, as strange as this sounds, is very connected to my love of chemistry. I just enjoy putting two things together that don’t go together, understanding how things work from both the hard, analytical, scientific side and also the creative side. I find it so fascinating,” Nellie Tonev (12) said.

At 7:57 a.m. every day, without fail, a blue Mazda cruises into the upper school campus, music softly resonating from its speakers as the driver expertly maneuvers through the parking lot and into spot number 156. Compared to the chaos outside of students frantically rushing to class and seemingly endless traffic queues, this car is a haven of good vibes and throwback pop songs, laughter and spontaneous ideas. And for Nellie Tonev (12), it feels almost like the calm before the storm — the instant she shifts the gear to ‘P’, she is thrust back into the real world and her busy day officially begins.

Student, artist and athlete, her life is a whirlwind of activities and responsibilities. Yet this summary of her 10-hour school day, from the second she enters campus until the moment she leaves, reveals far more than a list of her interests and hobbies; rather, through this peek into her world, we see how all of these passions link together, painting a complete picture of what makes Nellie tick.

After arriving at school just before 8 a.m., water bottle in one hand and lacrosse bag dangling from her opposite shoulder, she makes the trek to Dobbins, hurrying alongside her classmates to reach the building before the bell rings. Her morning classes are a blur of statistics problems and nanoscience labs, the three hours flashing by before her eyes as all her attention is concentrated on the lessons.

Close friend Ashna Reddy (12) appreciates Nellie’s love of learning and her willingness to constantly explore new things and stretch her mind.

“She is curious about everything, it’s kind of insane,” Ashna said. “She has so many interests all across the spectrum, and it’s so fun learning about them as she gets involved in it. I admire this dedication she has to things that she loves.”

For Nellie, chemistry has always been a particular favorite area of interest, especially as she delves into more advanced topics, learns how to make deeper level connections and uses unconventional approaches to solving problems.

“At my core is this insatiable curiosity for everything that I’m exposed to,” Nellie said. “And whether that be understanding how I can express a super abstract concept onto paper or figuring out how an organic molecule is made up, just being able to examine things from both creative, imaginative [ways] and also scientific, experiment-based methods is [important to me].”

In fact, this curiosity for finding new ways to think both analytically and creatively is a unique habit of hers, just another thing that sets her apart both in the classroom and out. 

After the bell rings at 11 a.m., signaling the end of second period, Nellie eats a quick lunch before heading towards the art room to continue working on her latest project. Perched on one of the stools, music blasting from her headphones and feet tapping to the beat, she works on creating pieces that combine the ideas inspired from her chemistry class with her own wild imagination.

“I like exploring connections between very unrelated aspects of life or the universe. In this way, I feel like my love of art, as strange as this sounds, is very connected to my love of chemistry,” she said. “I just enjoy putting two things together that don’t go together, understanding how things work. I find it so fascinating.”

So Nellie draws hands made of wires and smoke-filled lungs. Cracked glass screens and bleeding colors. It’s powerful and meaningful and completely her own style. And just as her work is full of dichotomies — light and shadow, organic and non-organic, realistic and fantastical — she also views herself as someone who embraces and lives with these contradictions, given her love for the logic of chemistry but also for the freedom and expression of art.

Her dedication and passion for her interests don’t stop at just schoolwork or art though. Moving on with her day, let’s fast forward a couple hours, past her third period and her free, to 3:45 p.m., when she is out on Davis Field, gearing up for lacrosse practice. Despite having years of playing goalie and improving at the sport under her belt, she will be the first to acknowledge the many challenges and trials she faced when she stepped out on this field as a freshman.

“I used to beat myself up because I was surrounded by other very experienced players who had already dedicated so much time and were very fit and knew how to handle the ball,” Nellie said. “I felt that I was dragging them down, and I was forced to push myself to what I thought my limit was initially just from day one.”

And as goalie, she still faces many obstacles to this day, as she fights to succeed at such a mentally and physically tasking position. Assistant coach Andrew Irvine, who has watched Nellie grow throughout high school, describes the sacrifices she has made for her team, ranging from the many injuries to the extreme pressure and everything else in between.

“[Nellie] has reinforced my belief that lacrosse goalies are the toughest students and athletes at Harker,” Irvine said. “[She is] dedicated to the point of giving everything she’s got and taking the abuse for the team. I think that the lessons she’s learned in lacrosse and that she’s taught the community of lacrosse will hopefully be important parts of her success in college and beyond.”

And Nellie’s impact on the program is evident throughout practice. From her shouts of encouragement to the younger players and her thoughtful advice from the goalie box, she proves her commitment to her teammates and her love for the sport. For similar to how she enjoys finding connections between art, chemistry and the world around her, lacrosse has been a way to make direct connections to the people in her life, something she values just as much.

The close-knit bond she has formed with her teammates is present both on and off the field. Even after practice is over, Nellie often chooses to stay behind, removing her heavy gear and helping to pack up all the equipment before heading to the athletic trainer at 6 p.m. with everyone else. As she cools down in the ice bath, making jokes and catching up with the others, her friendliness and good nature fill the room and make an impression.

“[Nellie] is very real and down-to-earth — that’s something I really admire about her,” Simren Gupta (12), a close friend and teammate, said. “She’s encouraging and always there to support me. I’d like to think that I’ve learned how to be an amazing, wholesome and understanding friend [because] she has been one for me.”

And at the end of the day, this is what Nellie does. She makes both intellectual and physical connections in class, in the art room and on the field, impacting the people around her through her work and her dedication. And in 14 hours, she is ready to do it all again.