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Garner’s Last Valedictorian breaks the mold, Ivy League bound

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July 11, 2018
By Alexis Giannattasio

Garner, N.C. – Trembling at her laptop, Garner Magnet High School’s 2018
 Valedictorian Fahima Begum braced herself as she opened her Ivy League account. After months of waiting, she finally had answers.

“I opened the email and it said, ‘Congratulations! Welcome to
 Harvard,’” Begum said. “I read it 15 times and started screaming.”

Although Begum received acceptance and full scholarship offers to multiple Ivy Leagues, her dream school has always been Harvard.

 “It’s hard to find the words. I just can’t put Harvard and my name together because I never believed in myself enough,” she said.

As a first generation, female Bengali American and Muslim, Begum’s journey to success did not come with ease. She hopes that her acceptance will open doors for other students in Garner, as she inspires them to chase after their dreams despite surrounding circumstances. With the loss of a family member, financial hardships and a myriad of cultural differences, Begum persevered through it all.

“I felt a lot like Dory growing up, conquering in the face of adversity,” she said.

After a tough move to Garner in 2001, Begum set off to pre-school at Creech Road Elementary. From her wardrobe to her daily lunches, she quickly noticed the differences between her and the rest of her classmates.

“The other kids would often say, ‘Why do you smell so different? Why do you wear pants with your dresses?’ So, I struggled with feelings of not belonging,” Begum said.

Despite the remarks from other students, Begum acknowledged that even in elementary school, her teachers made lasting impacts on her love for learning.

“Ms. Godley, now Mrs. Eliot, my pre-school teacher, was one of my greatest inspirations. She even came to my high school graduation,” she said.

Begum’s motivation for learning amplified throughout middle and high school. She recounted countless lunches in the library, not by force but by choice, because she found solace in her education. When she learned about a new topic in class, she was not satisfied with surface knowledge, leaving her with endless questions that required answers.

“People often labeled me as ‘the extra girl’ because I always had questions in class. One time, my teacher had to limit me to three questions per class, but I learned to never stop asking questions,” Begum said.

Begum’s diverse interests sparked her involvement in numerous clubs and organizations during her high school career. She was a member of the French Club and Junior Civitan, and she provided math tutoring for fellow students. Her dedication to service and academic excellence allowed her to join the Beta Club, where she served as treasurer and president. However, as an upperclassman, Begum felt a stirring to create volunteer opportunities for all students, regardless of GPA.

“I loved Beta Club because I was able to work in my community and make a difference, but I wanted all students to have this opportunity, so I started Key Club. We did yearly events like food drives and disaster relief projects,” she said.

Begum also taught at the Islamic Association of Raleigh for four years. As someone who struggled with self-confidence and self-image, she enjoyed pouring into others as she taught them how to fight their own personal battles.

“Although I was teaching Islamic Studies, I took the opportunity to teach them about generosity, kindness, charity and self-worth,” Begum said.

Begum continues to spread positive messages in every area of her life, as she holds an optimistic perspective on Wake County’s decision to end the title of valedictorian. From her experience, Begum noticed that students strayed away from their passions to take GPA-boosting classes. While she is thankful to hold the position, she looks forward to seeing the unhealthy competition dissolve from the classroom.

“It’s so surreal that I get to represent the last valedictorian, and the unique values and diversity that Garner offers. As proud as I was to stand there on behalf of my class, I am glad that a greater number of students will be recognized for their success,” Begum said.

Begum hopes that she paved the way for future students to follow their dreams. With her sight set on Harvard, she has many plans for the next four years. While she is undecided in her major, her life-long passions for leadership, community service, public health and entrepreneurship remain the same. She would like to provide medical care to those who are unable to receive it themselves, as well as education for young girls who may not have access.

“I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I know what im
pact I want to have,” Begum said.

No matter where life takes her, Begum will always be thankful for her hometown.

“I’m Garner grown, and Garner will always be home,” Begum said.