Across the United States, members of this young generation have been working hard in their formal education, and each year, many Ismaili high school students graduate from their schools as valedictorians and salutatorians.
After a challenging and unique year of completing high school amidst a pandemic, six Ismaili salutatorians and valedictorians share memories of their educational journeys, insight from their graduation speeches, and their plans for the future.
For the past two years, the salutatorians and valedictorians of Nederland High School (NHS) in Southeast Texas have been Ismaili students.
Adeel Sumar, salutatorian of NHS this year, has lived in the small, rural town of Nederland his whole life. “I loved my high school, but I didn’t have immediate access to some opportunities or information because of where I lived,” he says. “Online resources helped me a ton with knowing what to do in terms of college, and I wish I found those resources earlier.”
In school, the subject Adeel connects most with is math, as he enjoys how it simultaneously incorporates both logic and creativity. Beyond the classroom, he has nurtured his passion for math by participating in competitive math events, watching math and science-based YouTube videos, reading math-related books, and teaching and tutoring family members and friends in math.
Adeel will be attending Rice University in the Fall and hopes to further explore different math-related fields, including Engineering, Applied Math, or Computer Science.
In his salutatorian speech, Adeel focused on two main messages. The first was that each student deserves to have their hard work acknowledged and appreciated, regardless of whether they are sitting on the stage or delivering a speech.
“My point was specifically about rank, and I questioned why being a thousandth of a point ahead qualifies me to say a speech with a fancy title,” Adeel says. “Rank was especially one of the things I didn't put much importance on because to me, what I accomplished during school was infinitely more important than a number.”
Adeel’s second message was about cherishing memories. When people used to tell him to “take it all in,” during special or memorable moments, Adeel often did not know what to do. With time, he developed his own way of doing this.
“Whenever a special event happens, I take that exact moment, exact feeling, exact time, exact situation, and I make a mental note of it. I actively acknowledge the moment,” he says. “Then I take that note, put it in my mind, and move forward. The moment's over now, but that memory is fresh until I recall it again.”
Thinking back on his high school years, Adeel describes that one of the things he wishes he did differently was not focus on rank so much. “The whole system of rank is almost like a game with some people taking some classes and some people not taking those classes. I stressed way too much over something that was disingenuous,” he says.
Adeel adds, “Of course, it's okay to care about doing well in school, but rank isn't worth losing the time to do what means most to you. If you find yourself caring about this stuff a lot too, just know that a number doesn't define what you've accomplished. You shouldn't want validation from a number.”
Graduating alongside Adeel, Fayza Dholasania was this year’s NHS valedictorian. A summa cum laude graduate of the school, Fayza focused her speech on hope.
“After the unprecedented year with the COVID-19 pandemic, two category four hurricanes, ice storm, and struggles with virtual schooling, I wanted to remind my peers and community how far we have come and how hope can motivate us to preserve,” she says.
Fayza was inspired by Hazar Imam’s speech at the commencement ceremony of Brown University, where he said, “The right to hope is the most powerful human motivation I know.” In her speech, Fayza described her parents’ immigration story and the role that hope played in enabling them to build a new life together in the United States.
In the Fall, Fayza will be attending McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and hopes to pursue a major in Management Information Systems and/or Finance. Her interest in business sparked as she watched her parents manage two businesses, one in real estate and another a gas station.
Fayza attributes much of her success in high school to initiatives within the religious community, including College Expedition, which enabled her to learn about the admission process and visit Texas and Southern California campuses. She also adds that AKEB’s Personal Statement Workshop helped her in writing her college essays.
According to Fayza, the biggest lesson she has learned in high school is to enjoy all moments given to you. “Homework and tests will always be there, but enjoying what high school offers is something different that one cannot get back. I hope to do the same in college,” she says. “Be present and enjoy the moment.”
A graduate and valedictorian of El Capitan High School in San Diego, Hafeez Merali advises new high school students to enjoy their high school years to the best of their ability and take advantage of exciting opportunities or experiences that come their way.
Hafeez’s valedictorian speech focused on a similar topic - the importance of including more fun, adventure, and spontaneity in life. “My speech was inspired by an assignment I did for class earlier in the year,” he says. “I wanted to have a speech that was a little more upbeat after a year that was so difficult for so many people.”
Hafeez will follow his own words of advice in terms of pursuing adventure and exciting opportunities, as he will be going abroad in the fall to study at the University of Oxford’s Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program.
“I’m really interested in social sciences like political science and economics, especially when looked at from an international perspective,” he says. “I always found those areas interesting whenever I heard things on the news, and last year when I took an AP Macroeconomics/Honors Government class, it really cemented for me how passionate I am about those areas.”
Hafeez attributes faith as a pillar that gave him strength throughout his often stressful educational journey.
“Our faith has given me so much strength throughout the hardest parts of school and has really been a huge support,” he said. “There were so many times when I was stressed out from my workload that I turned to my faith for comfort.” He also adds, “The ethics of our faith have [also] been really important in my educational journey, whether that’s love, kindness or humility.”
Graduating from Monsignor Kelly Catholic High School in Beaumont, Texas, Eliza delivered a salutatorian speech that was unique from others because she gave it alongside the valedictorian, who happened to be her best friend.
“Usually, we see valedictorians and salutatorians vying with one another for the top spot, but my friend and I wanted to work together to emphasize the importance of friendship and collaboration over academic competition,” she says.
The speech focuses on the meanings of the words “valedictorian” (someone who delivers a farewell address) and “salutatorian” (someone who delivers an opening address). Eliza and her friend, Cecily Shield, begin the speech by recalling memories of their class from the past four years and saying “goodbye” to them, and then sharing lessons they learned that they will carry into their college years, thus saying “hello” to the bright future ahead.
In the fall, Eliza will be attending Rice University and hopes to major in Religion.
“Having attended Catholic schools for much of my life, I’ve always been fascinated by how different faith traditions - in my case, Catholicism and Ismailism - compare. I’ve found that different religions are often more alike than we are made to think - the issue being that media sensationalism causes most of our news sources to focus mostly on differences,” she says.
Through this line of study, Eliza hopes to make resources for religious literacy more accessible to people from different backgrounds. “The key to moving from tolerance to pluralism is learning about and interacting with one another,” she says.
Eliza describes that faith has greatly shaped her educational journey. Throughout high school, she has served as Project Manager for I-CERV in Beaumont Jamatkhana and had the opportunity to meet and learn from other local faith-based leaders in the community, thus shaping her views on pluralism and religious literacy. She has also served as a teacher in REC and ECDC and attended Global Encounters in Kenya in 2019.
Eliza’s advice to students beginning their high school careers is to enjoy the small moments and not focus on high rankings or pursuing extracurricular activities just because they look good on a resume.
“While it’s important to set high goals for yourself, it is [also] important to realize that success will eventually come naturally if you’re doing things that you are passionate about and making sure you have a good balance between working and spending quality time with your friends and family,” she says. “At the end of the day, no assignment, honor society, internship, or college application is more important than enjoying life and making memories with the people you love.”
Uzma Issa, a resident of Hoover, Alabama, and a graduate of Spain Park High School, also focused her valedictorian speech on the idea of balance and the importance of studying hard while finding moments to enjoy oneself.
Similar to others, Uzma describes that faith has been a motivating factor throughout her educational journey. She referenced Hazar Imam’s emphasis on investing in the highest quality education, as well as his encouragement to aim for more than mediocrity, which pushed her to work hard in all aspects of her life.
One piece of advice Uzma has for students entering high school is to spend more time with family. “These are the last full years you’ll get with them - if you’re planning to move out of state for college,” she says. She adds, “Confidence is the key to success. If you believe you can, you’re already halfway there.”
In the fall, Uzma will be attending Harvard University and hopes to follow the pre-medical track.
“I’m currently pursuing a career as a pediatrician or medical researcher,” she says. “I was exposed to biology from taking biology classes in school and found I love this subject when participating in a summer research program on molecular biology.”
Vaneeza Rupani, a graduate of Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport, Alabama found out that she was valedictorian on the day of her graduation. “They don't tell us who it is until it's announced at graduation - it's a surprise for everyone!” she says.
Vaneeza describes how the Ismaili faith and community has helped her place a strong focus on education from the start, making learning something that she greatly values.
In the fall, she will be studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where she hopes to pursue aerospace engineering.
“I have loved learning about outer space since I was little and have also always loved making things and doing hands-on activities; aerospace engineering seemed like the perfect intersection of these interests,” she says. Vaneeza’s suggestion for the name of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars currently, was selected by NASA.
Thinking back on her high school journey, Vaneeza describes that there is nothing she would change about her experiences.
“I am proud of my academic and extracurricular achievements, I am proud of the friends and connections I made, and I am proud of myself for making my friends and family proud,” she says.