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Somerville Scene: The most low-key, modest valedictorian you could ever meet

Posted by Joe Allen-Black  June 3, 2011 11:26 AM

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Here's a phrase: high-school valedictorian. What did you see? A grind, a geek with huge glasses; perhaps the scrawny, white-knuckled offspring of a "tiger mother" of any ethnicity or gender. Certainly a young person who always had the Ivy League in their sights, who buckled down to work their tail off with that dream.

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Photo by Danielle Dreilinger for Boston.com

Jessica Menjivar, Somerville High School's 2011 valedictorian

Then there's Jessica Menjivar, possibly the most low-key, modest valedictorian you could ever meet — even though she not only graduated at the top of Somerville High School's class of 2011 but came to the district barely knowing English at the age of 8. Somerville seniors will graduate June 6 at the Dilboy Stadium.

Menjivar, 18, has spent her high school years playing as a forward on the soccer team, participating in the marketing club DECA, volunteering at the Museum of Science — and doing lots and lots of homework.

Without pushy parents. "I guess they saw that I pushed myself," Menjivar says.

"Anything she has done, she has done strictly for intrinsic motivation … just her own curiosity," says Lisa Brewster-Cook, Menjivar's AP English teacher. "I don't know what drives her."

Menjivar never aimed for Harvard. She never even hung out in Harvard Square. In fact, until just last year "I don't think I ever thought of going to college," she says. That's about the same time she learned the word "valedictorian."

"I just tried my best. I never wanted to be No. 1," she says.

Menjivar came to the U.S. in 2000 from El Salvador with her mom Sara and brother Salvador Alexander to an East Somerville studio apartment and a father she barely remembered. Salvador senior had spent the last seven years in the Boston area, paving the way for his family.

They moved to Winter Hill, and two months ago to Everett. (Still, "we do everything in Somerville," she says.)

She applied to Harvard because people said she should, though it seemed completely unrealistic. "If you guys were the admissions officers I would get in," she told her friends. In fact, she didn't get into the other Ivy League colleges she applied to.

"We were so rooting for something good to happen for her," Brewster-Cook says.

Sara and Salvador Menjivar didn't finish college due to financial limitations. "They do try to support me. It's just that they don't know [the system]," Menjivar says. So she did her own college research and wrote her own applications with help from the SHS college advisor, friends and teachers like Brewster-Cook. Her parents did the family's taxes early so Menjivar could apply for financial aid.

With the work of getting into college done, Menjivar sounds a little uneasy. "I haven't had a summer for the last four years!" she says. "I don't know what I'm going to do with so much free time!" Her four senior-year AP courses meant last summer looked like preparing for the Bar.

She suspects she's missed the boat on jobs; even one at Best Buy is hard to get. She plans to work out every day with her brother, 22, who graduated from the SHS vocational program in sheet metal fabrication and now makes health-related metal things involving lots of math. There will be some college placement tests—she brightened up at that.

By Aug. 20, she'll be at Harvard for Dorm Crew, a pre-orientation program that's half cleanup and half bonding.

Independence will be new: In her family, "we do everything together, basically," she says, including kicking around the soccer ball every Saturday. Fortunately her closest friend is also going from SHS to Harvard.

In college, she's interested in law and science. "I like the idea of electrical engineering," Menjivar says, following on her volunteer job interpreting the robotics exhibits at the Museum of Science. "But math is not really my thing."

The valedictorian isn't so great at math? Menjivar looks sheepish. "Well, if I tell that to my Calculus teacher he'd say 'What? What are you talking about?' But I put a lot of effort into math."

In fact, Menjivar might be humble to a fault. She admits to some uneasiness about starting college. "I'm afraid of failing," she says. "I've always been at the top here but there I'm going to be at the bottom."

Brewster-Cook is trying to bolster her confidence, telling Menjivar she deserves the spot at Harvard.

When she emailed in her graduation speech, Menjivar wrote "in capital letters: make any and all changes that you see fit," Brewster-Cook says. Her teacher didn't change a thing.

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