It's not every day that a Weehawken High School graduate heads off to Harvard. In fact, when the Class of 1999's valedictorian, Jennifer Altarriba, was first thinking about college, she never dreamed that going to such a prestigious and lofty university as Harvard could be possible.
"I never thought I could go to Harvard," Altarriba said. "I figured I would go to Rutgers or NYU, get a job, get a car and that's it."
However, Altarriba was accepted into Harvard two years ago and she is now a junior at the school, majoring in the combined literature major of "Spanish and American literature," and loving every minute of it.
"College is great, but Harvard is awesome," Altarriba told a host of Weehawken students from grades seven through 12 during a presentation at Weehawken High School Thursday afternoon.
Altarriba was asked by Cathy Campen, the supervisor of student personnel services for the district, to come back and share some of the experiences she has enjoyed since heading off to Cambridge, Mass. three years ago.
Altarriba was trying to motivate the students of Weehawken and relay one simple message: If she could do it, so could they, provided they have the determination and the desire to get there.
"You have to reflect on the person you are," Altarriba told a bunch of seventh graders from the academically talented class. "You have to be dedicated and motivated. You have to start developing outside interests while in high school. If you have a hobby, look into it. You can start focusing on things like that now, while you're having fun at the same time."
Altarriba discussed the importance of getting involved in extracurricular activities while in high school.
"Harvard doesn't want people who are strictly straight A students and aren't active in school," Altarriba said. "You don't have to be a valedictorian to get in. Maybe two out of every five are. They don't just take people who look like geniuses. They want the well-rounded student, one who is active in the community, in activities. Try to join a group. Try different things. Just give it a try. If you don't like it, then try another. It really helps."
Altarriba was a very active student during her tenure at Weehawken, participating in sports, drama, and social groups, as well as playing the saxophone in the school marching band.
Altarriba also emphasized the importance of having good writing skills, not just to go to a school such as Harvard, but any college in general.
"You have to express yourself clearly," Altarriba said.
Altarriba then cleared up common misconceptions about Harvard.
"Not everyone who goes to Harvard becomes a doctor or a lawyer," Altarriba said. "Some go on to go to Harvard Law School or the Harvard Medical School when they graduate, but Harvard is a liberal arts school that doesn't have a pre-med or a pre-law program. Harvard focuses more on the humanities and philosophy."
Altarriba also said that the school is comprised of only 70 percent American students.
"About 30 percent of the students are international," she said. "I have classes with people from Sweden, Switzerland, Bangladesh, India, England, practically from everywhere, and I find that to be awesome."
Altarriba's message hit home with some of the students attending the seminar, including the two top members of the Weehawken High Class of 2002.
"We were freshmen when Jennifer was a senior," said Julissa Rodriguez, currently ranked second in the senior class. "I remember when they announced in school that she was going to Harvard. It was like, 'Wow, if she can do it, then why can't I? I started working toward the same thing and knew that I wanted to go to an Ivy League school."
Although Rodriguez is not interested in Harvard, she has applied to the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth.
"I think this proves that Weehawken is a good school to prepare you to go to the best colleges," Rodriguez said. "I know I've been able to pursue what I want because of getting the best education here."
Omar Elangbawy is also thinking Ivy League, having applied to Penn and Columbia, as well as Stevens Tech. He said that Altarriba's presentation made him think more about Harvard, although it's going to be difficult to apply now, with applications due Jan. 1.
"I'm thinking about applying," Elangbawy said. "I think what she said was very informative. Everyone says that colleges won't look at you if you're from a small high school like Weehawken. Well, here's one from our own school who went to Harvard and is doing well. I think she opened our eyes to what we're going to see when we go to college in September. I know it was very helpful to me."
In fact, Altarriba's presence went one step further. She spent several hours working on the applications of three Weehawken students, including Rodriguez and Elangbawy, and returned Friday to make sure that the applications were properly filled out.
"I told the people at Harvard that I was the first from my hometown to attend in over 30 years, but that there are a lot of bright kids at the school that could possibly get in," Altarriba said. "I hope I was able to give them what they needed. They can do it. They have the ability. They just needed the confidence. I think these kids have a very good chance of getting in."
Altarriba said that she really enjoyed her visit.
"I had a ball," said Altarriba, whose family has since moved to Bayville down the Jersey Shore. "I had so much fun relating with the kids. I can definitely see myself going into education. It feels so good to help them."
Added Altarriba, "They should never think that they're not good enough. Everyone has the ability to do it."
She also said that she loves going to Harvard, where she's learning so much. She also has famous students in some of her classes, including actress Natalie Portman.
Campen was very impressed with Altarriba's presentation.
"I think the reason why she came was to tell students that they can set high goals that can be attainable," Campen said. "She wanted to come and talk to the kids. I think it gave a sense of reality to the seniors who remember her. She made sure to stress that there's so much more than book knowledge. She was so down to earth and natural with the kids. I think she helped the kids realize that they should never worry about money when it comes to college, that they should keep after what they want."
Altarriba also had one other message.
"You should have fun and enjoy high school," she told the students. "You should work toward having fun and getting the most out of high school. That will also help you in the future."
Added Altarriba, "There's something great about being from Weehawken, because we're all taught to be so good at handling things, at handling adversity. We're able to go above and beyond expectations and that sets us apart from everyone else."