News Details

Dr. Rafael Arechabaleta

Entering his 22nd year of teaching at NSU University School, Upper School Physics and Calculus Teacher Dr. Rafael Arechabaleta is no stranger to the USchool community. Drawn by the uniqueness of our school, Dr. Arechabaleta joined the USchool team early in his teaching career shortly after moving to the United States from Cuba. He has made significant contributions to our school over the years and has had a lasting impact in the lives of his students through his instructional approach and sense of humor, helping create a comfortable learning environment.  

Throughout his career, Dr. Arechabaleta has been recognized as an exceptional educator, earning numerous awards honoring him for his commitment to students. He was selected as the recipient of Northwestern University’s Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award, the University of Chicago’s Outstanding Educator Award, and the MIT Inspirational Teacher Award. 

Q&A with Dr. Arechabaleta:

What led you to pursue a career in teaching?  

I believe education provides students the latitude to form their own opinions – to challenge themselves and society. Having been educated in Cuba under a communist regime where free thought was discouraged and educational resources were limited, I truly appreciate educational freedom and strive to provide my students the opportunity to design their own curriculum. My first teaching opportunity arose at Guantanamo Bay where I volunteered to teach fellow refugees real-world skills to prepare them for a more prosperous life in the United States. Since then, my passion for education has burgeoned. My unique heritage and life experiences have cultivated my educational pedagogy and skillset. I view the educational field as one of the noblest professions in the world, and I am fortunate to be teaching physics and calculus at different levels in the U.S. despite my strong Cuban-Russian accent.   

Describe your teaching style.  

Each student is a unique individual who needs a passionate teacher to develop a safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment in which the student can grow individually. My passion is to help students meet their highest potential in the areas of science and math while also ensuring they develop essential social skills. I believe that my experiences as a student helped mold me into the educator I am today.  

What do you enjoy most about your work?  

The students, faculty, administrators, and families here at USchool are what I enjoy most. Coming to a new country and finding a family in the workplace is a blessing.  

What moment at NSU University School stands out as the most memorable?  

My most memorable moments over the past 22 years include graduation ceremonies, the day I was hired to teach here, and the recognition I received by former headmaster Dr. Jerome Chermak and current Head of School Dr. William Kopas. I’ll also always remember one of Dr. Chermak’s commencement addresses where he spoke about my life experiences in the presence of my sister and wife who were in attendance.  

What are some words of wisdom you would share with future educators?  

Work hard. Everyone is smart in different ways. Enjoy and appreciate what you have, especially the opportunity to receive a good education.  

Butterfly Garden and Vivarium

Written by: NSU University School Sophomore Enoch Wong

Completing work in a classroom is a common and traditional mode of learning, but Lower School science teacher Michele Garren at NSU University School (USchool) utilizes the school’s Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium to help educate her students in a hands-on way about butterflies and the plants that attract them. The garden itself was designed and planted by senior Duncan Jurman and is now maintained by Upper School students. The purpose of the garden is to provide hands-on learning experiences for students. This mode of learning has enhanced students’ interest in environmental science. Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Ms. Garren and talk about how she uses the garden to enhance student learning.

Q&A with Ms. Michele Garren: 

What inspired you to utilize the garden as part of your curriculum?   

Well, I like how the garden is such a beautiful, natural space, and I think that it's important that kids be exposed to nature. Children are innate scientists. They want to find out about the world, they want to explore nature, and they want to touch things. The garden has a lot of beautiful, flowering plants that attract butterflies. This allows students to learn about the life cycle of a butterfly in an interactive way that is different from reading about the process from a textbook.  

Another thing is that students can see real examples of the different phases of the life cycle of different butterfly species. They can find all the parts of the life cycle - eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly - right in that small space. For them to be able to see and experience nature hands-on, with tools such as magnifying glasses, is highly interesting. The opportunity for adventure that the garden allows kids to have is hard to pass up.

How have you used the garden in your teaching curriculum?  

The third grade is currently learning about the life cycle of butterflies, so it fits right into their curriculum. For other grades, I just want students to encounter and better understand nature, like how plants grow from seeds, and experience the full life cycle of a plant. I also want them to understand the big picture, learning that the habitat has to have certain conditions for a butterfly to survive.

How has the garden been helpful to you and your students?   

It has been helpful on a lot of different levels. First of all, it's just good for kids to get out of the classroom and spend time outside. It's incredibly valuable for them to ask all sorts of questions and explore in a natural, safe space. They bring up things that I wouldn't even think to talk with them about. When visiting the butterfly area, they say things like, “Oh my! I have never seen this flower before,” or “What's this?” or “Look! There are three butterflies!” Interacting with natural environments allows children to learn by doing and investigate their ideas.

It also gives them something to look forward to that's a little different by providing them with a mini field trip, and the plant and butterfly development is something that they can follow. For instance, one group mentioned how they were impressed by the large flowers as they followed the flowering process of the garden’s pipevine plants.

Do you think your students enjoy learning in the garden?   

They definitely do enjoy learning through trips to the garden. When I tell my students that we are going to the garden, they get really excited. Some students also take the initiative to ask me for related environmental activities that they can do at home, such as planting vegetables and flowers that will attract butterflies. Students are very enthusiastic to learn more about nature, and the garden is successful in feeding their thirst for such knowledge.

Filled with dozens of butterfly and plant species, the Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium has not only been useful in educating Ms. Garren’s students about the life cycle of butterflies and plants but most importantly, fostering their interest in and passion for learning about living creatures. The author Anthony J. D’ Angelo once said, “Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” Indeed, passion in learning is what drives us to seek more knowledge, just as Ms. Garren’s students are now being motivated to ask for more gardening activities upon visiting the garden and vivarium. I am sure that this curiosity that the garden has awakened in these students will motivate them to continue to discover more about nature.

About Ms. Michele Garren

Michele Garren is a Lower School teacher who is in her fifth year working at NSU University School. She runs the Innovation Lab, which integrates STEM into the Lower School curriculum, such as robotics, coding, electronics, and engineering. Garren attended college at Chatham University where she majored in mathematics, minored in chemistry, and pursued a pre-med path.

About the Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium

The Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium was designed and planted back in 2018 by senior Duncan Jurman alongside Upper School science teacher Ms. Chana Goodman. Since its inception, more than 1,500 butterflies have been raised and released from the vivarium, which is now maintained by Upper School students. The garden and vivarium serve as a hands-on educational resource and nature-based classroom for students of all ages.

For more information about NSU University School, please email

Rebecca Wolf

Rebecca Wolf, a salutatorian for the Class of 2021, has spent her 14-year educational journey at NSU University School (USchool) where she dedicated herself to academic excellence and community service, building lifelong friendships and close relationships with her teachers along the way. Rebecca was always encouraged by role models in our school community. As a first grader, Rebecca remembers admiring the fourth grade students who led the annual Make-a-Wish fundraiser, marveling at what they had accomplished. Since then, she has become a student leader, serving as both vice president of the senior class and vice president of fundraising for the National Honor Society.    

Rebecca’s love for math and all things STEM started early on and only grew as she got older. Invited to participate in our challenging Math Fellows program allowed her to enrich her learning and inspire others along the way. Upon realizing the gender gap in STEM disciplines, she successfully rebooted our Math Circles program, serving as co-president, to encourage young girls to be confident and passionate about math. Rebecca serves as president of Achieve Miami, helping improve the literacy skills of elementary school students in underserved communities to continue working toward educational equality while exercising her leadership skills both in the classroom and in the South Florida community. 

Attending USchool has been a family affair for Rebecca. She is the final Wolf child to graduate following her three older brothers. Her experience at USchool has been one filled with memories she will cherish for years to come. Rebecca is most proud of her acceptance to Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, her first-choice college. She plans to study electrical and computer engineering and will continue to maximize her educational experience as a Duke Blue Devil.   

Q&A with Rebecca: 

Describe your leadership style.  

My leadership style is heavily centered around collaboration. I grew up in a large, loud family, and I personally feel that the best ideas come out when there are diverse viewpoints on the table.  

NSU’s Core Values are Academic Excellence, Student Centered, Integrity, Innovation, Opportunity, Scholarship/Research, Diversity, and Community. Which value resonates most with you and how have you embodied it?  

The values of community and opportunity resonate most with me. With both Math Circles and Achieve Miami, I have performed community service throughout my USchool experience that has been geared toward opening up doors and encouraging students to walk through them. 

What are the top three reasons you love being a student at USchool and being a part of the Shark family?  

USchool’s faculty is unrivaled! You can have meaningful conversations with the same people who teach you history. Being on a college campus is also special and a unique experience that provides access to infinite resources and makes learning much more in-depth and interactive. Lastly, USchool provides a feeling of family. Everyone knows everyone in the community, which makes school far less daunting and way more enjoyable. 

Share a fun fact about yourself that most people do not know.  

Although academically I am more focused on the logical facets of life, I am actually quite creative. I love indulging in my creativity. I create crochet pillows, bake and decorate cakes, paint watercolor portraits, and tuft homemade rugs.  

Who has served as a source of inspiration and guidance for you over the years and how?  

Having taken all five of his courses, Dr. A has always been the biggest source of inspiration and guidance. There have been countless times where I have doubted my abilities in physics and math, handing him my test and warning him that I may have gotten zero questions correct. He always responded calmly, assuring me that he knew I was far more capable than what I could see. His constant encouragement pushed me to apply to engineering school. I will truly miss Dr. A and his 21st century teaching when I graduate. 

For more information about NSU University School, please email

Risa Pollak

Starting NSU University School (USchool) in the third grade not only gave Class of 2021 salutatorian Risa Pollak time to acclimate to the environment and experience all it has to offer, but also an opportunity to discover her passion for math, science, and dance. After participating in math fellows and taking chemistry, biology, and physics at multiple levels, Pollak quickly realized her love of learning, especially in these topics. As co-president of Math Circles for three years, she empowered young girls in grades 3-5 to pursue STEM education. Embracing the USchool experience, Pollak also participated in the NSU Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine Fellowship, Debbie’s Dream Club, and Writing Fellows. She has been recognized as a National Merit Commended Scholar and received the Johns Hopkins Book Award and National AP Scholar Award.  

Since the age of four, dance has been a fundamental part of Pollak’s life. Beyond the classroom, Pollak has been actively involved in our dance program since her freshman year, which allowed her to experience dance from different perspectives and develop her skills as both a dancer and choreographer. She has had several opportunities to grow as a student choreographer while leading her peers, exploring her creativity, and developing pieces to be performed on stage. As president of her National Honor Society for Dance Arts (NHSDA) chapter for the last three years, Pollak has been using her talents and interests to help others in the community through a variety of dance-based service projects. Since the seventh grade and eventually, in conjunction with NHSDA, she has collected more than 500 dance items for under-resourced students at the ProDanza Dance School in Havana, Cuba. She also led her peers in performing for hospitalized pediatric patients at Joe Dimaggio Children’s Hospital and helped raise proceeds for the nonprofit organization Dancers Against Cancers. Recognized for her work with NHSDA, Pollak was selected as a nominee for the Miami Herald Silver Knight Awards in the Music and Dance category. 

Throughout her time in the Upper School, Pollak learned to balance a challenging course load, 16 plus hours a week in the dance studio, and various clubs and leadership roles while setting aside time for her family and friends. Her hard work and dedication paid off when she received acceptance to her dream school, the University of Pennsylvania, where she plans on studying bioengineering in pursuit of a career in the medical device industry working to develop personalized, precise, and affordable technologies to improve patient care.   

Q&A with Pollak:

What factors outside of school have shaped you into the person you are today?  

My family, specifically my parents, shaped me into the person I am. They instilled in me a strong work ethic from which I have learned to pave my own path, set and work toward ambitious goals, and ask for help when needed. Through dance, I also learned invaluable lessons about time management, attention to detail, discipline, commitment, and sacrifice.   

What is the most important life lesson you have learned in Upper School?  

Discovering what you do not like is as important as discovering what you do. Participating in the medical fellowship helped me realize that my interests lie within the application of technology to medicine, allowing me to transition from an educational and career path in medicine to one in engineering.   

NSU’s Core Values are Academic Excellence, Student Centered, Integrity, Innovation, Opportunity, Scholarship/Research, Diversity, and Community. Which value resonates with you most and how have you embodied it?  

The value of opportunity resonates most. I believe I have taken advantage of the many opportunities provided from a multitude of courses and the medical fellowship to the dance program, clubs, and community service initiatives. I feel extremely fortunate to go to a school that continuously improves the academic and extracurricular opportunities it provides.  

What are the top three reasons you love being a student at USchool?  

The first reason is the freedom we are given in our education. I have been able to take a variety of classes of my choosing and solidify my interests. The second reason is that teachers want students to succeed and care about their well-being. I especially thank Dr. A and Ms. St. John for their support throughout high school. The third reason is the resources that USchool makes available on campus that enable students to discover their passions within and beyond the classroom. It is these resources that have allowed our school to safely reopen during the pandemic while maintaining the high quality academics and community that are the cornerstones of the USchool experience.   

Any words of wisdom you would like to share with the younger generation?  

Discover and pursue your passions. Time is too precious to spend it on things that do not make you happy. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is to take nothing for granted. 

For more information about NSU University School, please email

Ari Arias

When senior Ari Arias first walked through our doors, he embarked on a journey toward excellence. Arias, a salutatorian for the Class of 2021, strived to lead by example throughout his academic career at NSU University School (USchool) with the hope of inspiring others through his work ethic, commitment to community, and academic integrity. Arias was selected as a nominee for the Miami Herald Silver Knight Awards, one of the nation’s most highly regarded student awards programs, in the World Language category. He also earned the Brown University Book Award, USchool’s Director’s Award for his high GPA, Head of School’s Honor Roll for three consecutive years, and was recognized as Risley’s Outstanding Science Scholar.  

It did not take long for Arias to discover his passion for politics, current events, and STEM in his time at USchool. He involved himself in various extracurricular activities including speech and debate, Writing Fellows, and the NSU College of Osteopathic Medicine Fellowship. He also participated in a six-week Research and Science Engineering internship at Boston University where he worked with artificial intelligence and machine learning for the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which solidified his biology interests. Arias is a member of the Mu Alpha Theta, Science, Rho Kappa Social Studies, English, and National Honor Societies. Arias serves as the co-captain of the speech and debate public forum team and is part of the leadership committee. Among his many accomplishments, Arias qualified to the National Speech and Debate Association Nationals in Public Forum Debate, the gold division of the Tournament of Champions, and the Florida State Championship. He was also honored as Student of the Year in his debate district and will be competing for the national title of Student of the Year.  

Arias will be attending Stanford University in pursuit of a degree in bioengineering or human biology.  

Q&A with Ari:

What is your secret to educational success?  

Patience. Many times, in high school academics and extracurricular, time and practice are essential for success. Although I consider my discipline instrumental in my success, it was my patience and genuine desire to improve that I believe propelled me along the way. 

What first prompted your interest in Speech and Debate?  

Whenever I would have dinner with family, issues in politics and current events were always brought up. While I always had baseline knowledge of the discussions occurring at the dinner table, I wanted to learn how to better express my ideas and find my voice. Debate has done more than just expose me to new topics; it has also given me lifelong public speaking and expression skills. 

NSU’s core values are Academic Excellence, Student-Centered, Integrity, Innovation, Opportunity, Scholarship/Research, Diversity, and Community. Which value resonates most with you and how have you embodied it?   

The values of Scholarship/Research resonate with me the most because during my time here I tried to really structure my experience around research and a genuine love of learning. Whether it has been through taking the independent research study class or the Medical Fellowship, I strive to take advantage of all the opportunities for research and scholarship available to me. 

What makes the USchool experience special? Share the top three reasons you love USchool and being a part of the Shark family.  

The first, and most important reason, is the teachers. I have formed great relationships with the teachers here at USchool, which has allowed me to enhance my learning experience. They are incredibly supportive and amazing at sharing their passions with students. The second reason is access to a college campus. Being on NSU’s campus allows us to have great fellowship opportunities and access to research. The third reason is flexibility. I have had the ability to explore so many different interests. While I hope to one day become a doctor, I have been able to explore opportunities in several other fields. The flexibility USchool offers is so rare nowadays. 

What is the most important life lesson you learned in Upper School?  

The value of perseverance. There were many points where high school was challenging, not just from an academic standpoint but also from a personal one. Regardless of the obstacles, I always found ways to learn from mistakes, use obstacles to grow, and continue forward. 

For more information about NSU University School, please email