Valedictorian Puts Pals Before Academic Accolades
Fair Lawn High School valedictorian Irada Yunusova is headed to Rutgers in the fall to pursue a career in psychological research.
For Irada Yunusova, finishing at the top of her class was less the realization of a coveted four-year goal than a cherry on top of a high school career well-spent.
The 18-year-old native of Azerbaijan, who starts at Rutgers in the fall, said finishing as the valedictorian of her class wasn't something she ever put much stock into.
"I feel like my friends were a lot more excited than I was," said Yunusova, who learned about two months ago that she had finished first in her class of 367 students. "For me, it’s not so much grades that matter, but the fact that I’ve grown and I’ve learned a lot and there’s a lot of amazing people that I've met."
Yunusova's keen appreciation of the tight relationships she's forged with both friends and faculty are indicative of her selfless personality.
While she's not set on a specific career path yet, Yunusova, who tutors an elementary school student and works at a children's aftercare program, knows she wants to pursue something that will positively impact people's lives.
"I think I want to do something that can be applied in health and can help out other people," she said, launching into a story about a friend's research internship that focused on the attenuation of pain levels for children undergoing chemotherapy. "For me that was really interesting. It was something that would really help other people out, so I found that really cool."
Yunusova's passion for helping others is matched only by her love of language and literature.
An avid poet, Hispanophile and frequent contributor to the high school's Scarlet Letters literary magazine, Yunusova recalled the memorable experiences and faculty mentors that shaped her high school career in a rhyming ballad of a graduation speech at last week's ceremony.
In it, she stressed the importance of taking time out of the hectic daily grind to stop and cultivate what really matters, personal relationships -- a practice she confesses to having not heeded often enough.
"One of my mistakes in high school was not giving time to myself to do things that I wanted to do, and instead just trying to help others every way I could -- whether it was in clubs, or where I worked or with tutoring," she said. "I feel like I lost time with my family and with my friends."
While Yunusova remains passionate about helping others, in college, she said she'd like to reestablish a closer relationship with her parents, make new friends and find time for the things she feels she's neglected in recent years, like playing the piano.
"I feel like my piano playing hasn’t grown as much as it could have because I've been focusing on school work," she said. "But you can’t regret it. You just go forward in life."
Perhaps most notable about Yunusova's deft command of the English language is that she couldn't speak a word of it when she moved to the United States as a five-year-old.
"The story behind her is one worth talking about," said superintendent Bruce Watson, who's gotten to know Yunusova and her parents over the years. "She came to us in kindergarten not speaking one word of English and graduates as the valedictorian. I think that’s a remarkable achievement on anybody’s plate."
Yunusova said she still remembers the terror that consumed her on her first day of school in America.
"Teachers were handing out papers to give to our parents to read and I started crying because I thought I had to read it," she said. "I was so worried that I didn’t understand anything they were saying. After that my mom was really, really worried and for the next couple days she would stand outside the kindergarten door in case I got upset."
Yunusova, who still speaks Russian with her parents but has no sign of an accent, said that while coming to a new country as a young child was extremely difficult, Fair Lawn's burgeoning Russian community was welcoming and made her feel at home.
"In Fair Lawn there are a lot of people that speak Russian, so in school it was helpful," she said. "There were a lot of girls that I became friends with who spoke Russian and they helped me out a lot."
Before taking off for Rutgers in the fall, Yunusova plans to spend her final summer before college working, tutoring, and, at long last, taking a little time to rest and catch up with friends and family.
"It's nice every once in a while to just have that time to sit down and relax," she said, echoing her message to fellow Class of 2012 Fair Lawn High School graduates.