Mrs. Pellegrino: “A Legalized Computer Hacker”

By Alexandra Brocato

A trained computer hacker with years of experience in computer engineering at Pricewaterhouse, a celebrity for having been on Nickelodeon in sixth grade, and a stand-up comedian; Mrs. Pellegrino isn’t your average Mathematics Department Chair.

Junior Alex Cvern describes her as a “funny, clever, and inspirational” teacher. Mrs. Pellegrino grew up in Jericho, Long Island and remained there until just before the start of high school. Her family then moved to Locust Valley (about 12 miles from Jericho) on the north shore of Long Island. She attended high school there. Funnily enough, when asked if she always had an inclination towards the math and sciences, Mrs. Pellegrino responded, “if you ask any of my high school teachers up until 8th grade, they would have thought I would become a writer.” She continued, “I did a lot of writing as a kid. I wrote short stories and poems.” “Now I have taken the opposite route” she laughed.

Mrs. Pellegrino’s father was a mechanic and her mother was a private school teacher “that held kind of a high standard” for her and her sister. In high school, she began to have an inclination towards the maths and sciences. “Throughout high school, I really thought I was going to study medicine, and I was pretty certain about that,” explained Mrs. Pellegrino. Her commitment and passion for the sciences and medicine were evident when she saved up her money “and paid for [herself] to go to DNA Camp because [she] lived about 20 minutes from Cold Spring Harbor, which are the laboratories in Long Island where Watson and Crick did their work.”

However, once in college at Cornell University, Mrs. Pellegrino pursued an education in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (AG) in light of its affordability. “My parents did not have a lot of money, and the AG School was cheaper for us. I really liked Cornell, but that was not the main reason I went there. It was the best school that we could afford,” explained Mrs. Pellegrino. At the AG school, Mrs. Pellegrino was pre-med, but “elected to take courses like calculus, physics, and chemistry in the engineering school.” By immersing herself in an engineering culture, Mrs. Pellegrino ultimately “decided [she] didn’t want to do pre-med and wanted to switch to engineering.” This switch, however, wasn’t that easy. Her family applied for financial aid for the engineering school at Cornell, which unfortunately was not state funded. Ultimately, Cornell could not extend enough financial aid, so “my mother gave me the option to stay at Cornell and graduate in three years altogether. So I sat down with someone, and it required about six courses per semester of math and science,” laughed Mrs. Pellegrino, implying this would not be an optimal situation or college experience.

As a result, she transferred to Notre Dame to pursue engineering at a more affordable cost. When she sat down with the Dean of Engineering, her original plan was to study applied engineering physics, but because Notre Dame did not have the course, she switched to aerospace engineering. “[the dean] explained that I was missing some of the freshman year courses for it, requiring me to graduate in five years,” added Mrs. Pellegrino. Because this wasn’t feasible, “The dean proceeded to ask me, “Well what do you like?’” to which Mrs. Pellegrino responded, “I like math and problem-solving.” The dean looked at Mrs. Pellegrino like she wasn’t understanding his question as everyone in engineering likes math and problem-solving! He consequently told her that she would be placed in Advanced Programming. Mrs. Pellegrino “had never programmed anything in [her life] and understood that the word ‘advanced’ presupposes that there is some other course before it.” Thus, she went into the major “having absolutely no idea about computer engineering.” Inevitably, it was a steep learning curve for her, but she realized that she “liked it and stuck with it.” Mrs. Pellegrino is truly a devoted, motivated, and optimistic individual who made the best of every situation. Her experience engineering gave her a new perspective as “engineering teaches you a certain way of thinking” and opens a world of opportunities.

After college, she had many employers interested in hiring her due to the high demand for engineers, specifically computer programmers. She first interned for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in their security department and later took a full-time job for about four and a half years mainly due to the fact that PWC was located in New York. Mrs. Pellegrino explained that “for her internship, she would write a lot of scripts that would either set security setting on computers or exploit security settings.” Later as an employee, Mrs. Pellegrino was “essentially a legalized computer hacker, so companies would hire me, and I would hack into their systems. I would then tell them what I exploited so that they could fix it.”

Mrs. Pellegrino shared a common and funny work experience where “a company would tell me how secure they were and how they spent hundreds of thousand of dollars securing their network. They would leave in the morning and come back to see if I needed coffee. I would explain that I didn’t need coffee, but I own your entire domain now.” Take a minute to process that. In fact, Mrs. Pellegrino had a financial institution approach her for an external attack and penetration, which is when you are not at the client’s site when hacking into their database, and within three hours she wrote a script that exploited a vulnerability in the system. Within three hours, Mrs. Pellegrino had “every single username, password, account information, and social security number.” When I heard all of this, I was very impressed. Our very own math teacher has programming capabilities beyond belief! Even more impressive was the humble and nonchalant nature of Mrs. Pellegrino while explaining her serious job and accomplishments.

After spending years as a programmer, Mrs. Pellegrino was looking for a change. “Throughout high school, I tutored a lot. Throughout college, since my mom worked at a private school, I worked there during the summer time and sometimes when I was at home during break teaching math,” she explained. At PWC, she did a lot of work with the learning and education department, “so I did a lot of trainings on how to be a hacker, but I won’t do these trainings here [at Byram]!” Living in the city, Mrs. Pellegrino saw a lot of the ads for the New York city teaching fellows “and one day I woke up and said ‘that’s what I want to do’.” She also got a master’s degree while teaching in New York City for about three years as the director of technology and the dean of the building. From there, she transitioned to Blind Brook in an administrative program. She ultimately decided to be the math chair at Byram Hills as opposed to the assistant principal at Blind Brook “because [she] liked the idea of staying with the maths.”

When I proceeded to ask her if she loves teaching as much as engineering, she responded with a memorable quote saying, “I had a principal in the city who said ‘A teacher is a teacher of the student first and the content second.’ I would say I think that’s true. I love working with high school kids.” Hearing this as a high school student, made me appreciate Mrs. Pellegrino and her teaching philosophy even more. Her advice for students is “to try to make mistakes when the stakes are low. Have successive little hills to battle as opposed to a flat landscape throughout high school and then a giant mountain.” Sometimes it is hard for a typical Byram Hills student to make mistakes without feeling overwhelmed. Mrs. Pellegrino’s advice is simple but displays why making mistakes and overcoming smaller obstacles is advantageous over gliding through life.

Now as the Mathematics Department Chair and a teacher, Mrs. Pellegrino is also the mom to two kids: Matthew (1-year-old) and Christopher (4 years old). “My older one, Christopher, definitely has an inclination towards math. Like my husband and I, he is not the most athletic child!” joked Mrs. Pellegrino. Her husband was the same major (Advanced Programming) at Cornell, coincidentally, and the two met at PWC.

In terms, of her hidden talents, Mrs. Pellegrino is fairly theatrical as she did “a lot of theater in high school, college and even after.” She also has done a lot of art- drawing, and painting. Essentially, Mrs. Pellegrino has devoted her time and interest to every aspect of life (science, maths, arts) with the exception of sports! Well, she does golf, and she explains, “it’s the thing I have to try hardest with. Golf for me is challenging, but I still try to do it.” Equally interesting, Mrs. Pellegrino enrolled in a stand-up comedy class where she could appreciate how difficult stand up really is, preparing for months to perform a five-minute piece. Looking back, she would probably do the course again because it was super fun and a new experience.

Finally, Mrs. Pellegrino was on Nickelodeon’s “Total Panic” show in sixth grade where she competed to win a prize on TV for making the craziest sandwich. Her sandwich, a “tuna, lettuce, tomato, macaroni salad, and Doritos” ended up winning the competition on live TV! She won “two telephones and an answering machine,” every child’s dream! It was a crazy experience, and she added “I remember being backstage and asking for a drink of water. And then five people were yelling ‘WATER! WATER! She needs water!” Mrs. Pellegrino is basically famous.

Mrs. Pellegrino is undoubtedly a renaissance teacher with many unique experiences. Her witty humor, relaxed aura, and inspiring advice make her a great teacher and an approachable person. I would highly recommend having a conversation with her because you could literally talk about anything. If you do see her in person, however, make sure you aren’t wasting her time, because inefficiency is her biggest pet peeve!