Clifton High's Top Students Speak of Aiming High, Overcoming Obstacles
By Hannah Adely
Newly arrived from Bulgaria, Marchela Stancheva struggled to find her way around the crowded halls of Clifton High School four years ago and to understand just what her fast-talking peers were saying.
Marchela Stancheva, co-valedictorian at Clifton High School, arrived from Bulgaria four years ago and overcame culture shock to graduate at the top of her class with Ahmed Khalil, below, a math, science and theater talent.
"I was really scared. I'm not going to lie about that. It was a lot of new faces and a lot of new people," she said.
A student liked Stancheva — a teen self-conscious about her accent and trying to find her way in a new city thousands of miles from home — could have easily been swallowed up at the 3,400-student school.
But the opposite happened as Stancheva started asking students for directions, meeting with teachers for after-school help, and doing her work over and over until she got the English just right.
In the end, Stancheva didn't just succeed. Four years after arriving in the U.S., the teen rose to the top of her class, earning the honor of co-valedictorian at her graduation Monday.
"I was just taking my classes and doing my best. Just coming here my freshman year from another country, I never expected it," she said, talking about her role as valedictorian.
Stancheva shares the top spot with Ahmed Khalil, a thoughtful and driven student with a knack for math, science and theater who had virtually the same GPA. Both students, with weighted grade point averages of 104.6, graduated from the high school on Monday in a ceremony at Clifton Stadium.
For Stancheva, a focused effort to overcome a language barrier and to succeed no matter what propelled her to the top.
She grew up in Kubrat, a small town in Bulgaria, where she studied English in school. Her English was strong enough that she did not have to take English as a Second Language at Clifton High School. Still, she wasn't used to people talking so quickly.
So she absorbed conversations by listening for their greater context and took extensive notes when teachers spoke. She did her assigned reading twice to make sure she understood, all the while looking up words she didn't know and taking more notes. Meanwhile, she sought remedial help from teachers a few times a week after school.
Stancheva quickly improved her ear for English, and her grades were high enough to land her in honors classes by sophomore year. She also got over insecurities about her accent, with help from encouraging teachers.
"In time, I found out the school was so diverse that it didn't matter if you had an accent or not. I just started little by little. I got over my fear and starting raising my hand," she said.
The diversity at the school is reflected in the fact that more than half of the student population speaks a first language other than English at home. The second- and third-most spoken languages after English were Spanish (35.3 percent of homes) and Arabic (6.4 percent), according the 2010-11 state report card.
By senior year Stancheva was taking honors calculus and Advanced Placement English and French; she played tennis and held leadership roles in the French and botany clubs, all while working part time at a veterinary clinic.
English is one of the areas where she excels. English teacher Elissa Greenwald described her work as eloquent and outstanding.
"She is such a tribute to the power of hard work and talent and she will just do things until they are very well done no matter how much work it takes," she said.
Stancheva also enjoys travel and learning about her classmates' different cultures. She plans to study global business and management at Rutgers University, and hopes for a career that will allow her to travel the world.
On Monday she planned to tell graduates how she once felt lost to the point of tears, and decided to turn things around through optimism and hard work.
"I'm encouraging everyone to do their best," she said.
Classmate Ahmed Khalil, a child of Egyptian immigrants and an Arabic speaker, also gave a valedictorian speech Monday. Khalil said he is drawn to math and science and strives to study and understand concepts, rather than memorize.
His senior-year course load included Advanced Placement chemistry, physics, calculus and English. He also was yearbook editor, a member of the track and field team, and president of the Knights of Pythagoras, a math club. He's a brilliant actor with a keen sense of observation, according to Greenwald, who also taught him English.
He plans to study mechanical engineering and computer science at Rutgers University, and envisions starting a technology company or attending medical school in the future.
Although he strived to stay on top with his grades, Khalil said he believes that the ability to connect with and understand others to be the most meaningful expression of intelligence.
He planned to talk about humanity during his graduation speech. "The world could be a better place if everyone was just nicer to each other," he said.
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