The road to achieving valedictorian status isn’t an easy one— and it doesn’t even start in high school, according to West Orange High School’s 2018 co-valedictorians.
Erica Marsel, 17, and Faiyaz Hafeez, 18, tied for the No. 1 spot in the Warriors’ Class of 2018. But they also began setting their eyes on the prize well before they even stepped foot on West Orange’s campus.
The stories of the co-valedictorians’ climb to the top of their class begin when they were seventh-graders taking high-school courses such as Algebra 1.
“This journey started in middle school,” Marsel said. “This is not something you can do in one year, or three or four. This has to start before you come to high school. You have to gain the characteristics, like work ethic, that will make you valedictorian before you come to high school.”
EYES ON THE PRIZE
For both Marsel and Hafeez, following in the footsteps of their older siblings was a big motivator for rising in the ranks.
“I have two siblings who were salutatorians, so you kind of have this type of pressure on you,” Hafeez said. “My cousins joked around like, ‘You’re gonna have to be valedictorian, Faiyaz!’ I would say it was my goal to at least make it to valedictorian. You never expect that it would actually happen. You work hard for it but don’t expect it to happen until it actually does happen.”
Marsel’s two older brothers also achieved academic greatness, with the oldest having been No. 14 in his class and the other at No. 9.
“I was aiming for the top five, because I wanted to be on the stage (at graduation),” Marsel said. “(Becoming valedictorian) wasn’t my goal until the beginning of junior year, because that’s when we got our rankings.”
She decided to do dual-enrollment classes to help increase her chances of ranking toward the top of her class — and they paid off. She soon learned she was ranked at No. 1, and the pressure increased to maintain her spot.
“Before senior year, I didn’t know any of my rankings, and at the start of senior year, I found out I was fifth,” Hafeez said. “That’s why (becoming valedictorian) was so unexpected for me. Then when I submitted everything, worked hard, tried as best as I could to move up there and found out (I got it), it was a great feeling.”
Both students finished with a weighted GPA of 5.2, but each had a slightly different high-school career path.
Marsel was involved with JROTC for all four years, earning accolades such as top commander for the freshman drill team and group commander by senior year. She also was co-captain of Quiz Bowl by her senior year and a member of National Honor Society and participated in FFA her freshman and sophomore years, all while working at Mathnasium in Winter Garden.
Hafeez spent his freshman year focusing on maintaining his straight-A average, but by his sophomore year, he became a member of the Beta Club, with which he volunteered for the next three years. He also was a member of National Honor Society and ran for a school leadership position.
Both students earned the Gold Shield Award for maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA throughout their high-school careers. They also received recognition for being in the Class of 2018’s Top 10 and plaques to commemorate their valedictorian status.
HARD WORK REWARDED
Marsel and Hafeez said finding out they achieved valedictorian status was both shocking and a relief. Hafeez was in a calculus class when he got the email from his guidance counselor telling him she needed to talk to him immediately.
“There was a crowd of people around me, the AP and guidance counselors came in and they said, ‘Do you know what it means to be valedictorian?’” Hafeez said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s first in the class.’ … I made like 12 different faces and (experienced) like six different emotions. I was shocked. The first thing I asked was, ‘Am I going to stay in this position no matter what?’ But you still do your best and want to keep up the grade streak; you want to go out with a bang.”
Marsel said: “I think it was the opposite of his experience (for me) because I’d known the last semester that I’d been in spot No. 1 and the final ranking was going to come out in a few months. I’d never been so scared to get A’s in my whole life; it was another kind of pressure. I was just waiting to hear confirmation I was still No. 1. .… It was a group effort of panic and stuff. It was a relief to finally get called in and they officially said it.”
After graduation, the co-valedictorians will go their separate ways. Hafeez is taking classes this summer at Valencia College before heading to the UCF in the fall, where he’ll major in business. Marsel is taking the summer off before she starts a major in environmental engineering and a minor in business at Georgia Tech.
However, one thing is for sure: Both are relieved they no longer have to keep a hawk’s eye on their rankings and GPAs.