Sylmar High School valedictorian Bezuayhu Arega had one unmistakable advantage over her classmates: the collective hindsight of eight older brothers and sisters.
“They gave me tips,” said the 17-year-old, who moved to the United States from Ethiopia when she was 11. “Whatever they did, I would do more.”
Her three brothers and five sisters advised her on which teachers’ classes to take. Her oldest sister edited her English essays before she typed the final draft, and one of her brothers helped her with math. When the family first moved to Sylmar from Addis Ababa, it was her sisters and brothers who tested the waters at high school and told her what to expect.
“It wasn’t that hard for me to adjust,” Bezuayhu said as she sat cross-legged in her family’s living room, the family’s poster-sized portrait hanging beside her.
Although her older sisters and brothers all excelled in school and went to college, Bezuayhu is the only one in the family who became a valedictorian.
“She’s a real hard-working, conscientious student,” said Larry Domoto, her honors biology teacher. “She also interacts really well with other people.”
In Ethiopia, Bezuayhu lived comfortably in a private home in the country’s capital. Her father worked as an engineer and her mother taught high school. Bezuayhu and her siblings attended a small private school where she always placed near the top of her class. There, she explained, students took school more seriously and were more competitive than their American counterparts.
“When I was in my country, a person who was smart was looked up to,” she said. “When I came here, I still had that mentality.”
The family moved to the United States because Bezuayhu’s father took a job in California.
When she arrived, Bezuayhu spoke only Amharic and began the eighth grade in the English as a Second Language program. By the 10th grade, she was taking honors English. She also competed on the track team and swim team at Sylmar, but never let her extracurricular activities get in the way of her studies.
“Here, football and track are more important to some people than school. In Ethiopia, it was always academics.”
The advantage of having so many older siblings is still at work for Arega. She asked their advice when deciding between UCLA and USC. The vote: UCLA.