A Disney film was all it took to convince Reyhan Lalaoui that she should someday make history. After she saw “Big Hero 6,” a 2014 tale about a 14-year-old high school graduate and robotics genius, she said, “Okay, I want to do that. And then, I was like, 'I wonder if I could do it this fast.' ”
She did one even better, becoming the youngest valedictorian in Hudson County Community College history for the 2017 class this month — at just 16-years old.
“I'm really excited and happy to have given the valedictorian speech,” Lalaoui — a Guttenberg resident — said at a celebration her family held for her at Hoboken's Blue Eyes restaurant May 20. Her name etched in county history, the occasion drew dignitaries such as former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, former Jersey City Councilwoman Viola Richardson, and Freeholder Anthony Romano to honor her.
Her connections to Hudson run deep. Born in New York City, Lalaoui lived in Jersey City for the first seven years of her life, from 2001 to 2008, then Bayonne from 2008 to 2011, when her family moved to Guttenberg.
Continuing about the movie, she added, “I'd never seen a movie about a really smart kid who had to learn to use his artistic talents to overcome grief and the challenges of the world around him.”
A thirst for challenge has played a strong role in Lalaoui's continuous successes.
Last year, she wrote a book, “The Rules of Wicker Williams,” in which a child painfully details his mother's drug addiction as he gets older. It earned her a finalist spot in the National Young Arts Foundation in January (The book is still seeking a publishing agent; anyone interested in a brief snippet can see Lalaoui deliver one at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Yns4C7aPPY, and contact her mother at 201-724-1732 for more information.)
She's served as president of HCCC's Sigma Kappa Delta and as a member for Phi Theta Kappa honor societies and successfully launched a reading program for students at Jersey City's P.S. 22.
An aspiring writer and filmmaker, the English major wants to create works about “city kids and trying to tackle the issues that we have to face, issues like addiction, violence, mental health issues.”
Having a Moroccan immigrant as a father, she said she draws additional inspiration from the most recent incarnation of popular Marvel superhero Ms. Marvel—re-imagined as a Muslim teenager. The character is from Jersey City.
“She's non-stop in terms of her education.” Alex Lalaoui
Homeschooled from the fifth through 12th grade, Lalaoui said public school never tested her mettle.
“I wasn't being challenged,” Lalaoui said, as countless attendees interrupted to give her presents and congratulate her. “They wouldn't skip me a grade and when I asked to be challenged, they just gave me worksheets and stuff.”
That was nowhere near good enough for the girl who describes herself as eternally curious. Reyhan said she would always gather friends to analyze the world around them.
“I was really philosophical when I was little,” she said. “I was trying to figure out why we were here and stuff. I thought a lot about philosophy and trying to figure out what I'm doing here and what I'm meant for.”
She said that trait is what gives her drive.
A non-stop woman
“She's non-stop in terms of her education,” said Alex Lalaoui, Reyhan's father, on her work ethic. “We have to stop her to come to eat and to say, 'Hey, sweetheart, you can do this after. You can put this on the side.' And she would go back the minute she finished eating. Very determined. It's an interesting vision that she has.”
For Alex, who does not have any university degrees, “I feel like I just graduated college myself,” he said. “My brain is still trying to process this.”
“She is one of the hardest working young people that I know,” said Melinda Vickerman, Reyhan's mother—who was her homeschool teacher—and currently homeschools her 11-year-old brother as well.
“She has drive and determination, and she set her mind to do that, and she got it done,” Vickerman said.
She said the decision to home school Reyhan, which the family collectively agreed to, stemmed from her wanting to conquer new heights, as well as Vickerman's personal dissatisfaction with today's average public school structure.
“I think there's a problem in the public school system when you teach to a test,” Vickerman said. “And your school day is surrounded to teaching to a standardized test. I have a problem with that.” Vickerman—who had no prior homeschool teaching experience—said, “I also have a problem with the government overseeing local school districts.”
She said, “I think that local school districts should have the power to be able to look at their students and be able to know what they need, and be able to give it to them, give the teachers the autonomy to make decisions for the children they have in their classrooms. We've lost sight of that. That's how I went to school. I had an exceptional public school education.”
Unfortunately, another reason Reyhan undertook homeschooling was because of insensitive peers.
“I was getting bullied,” she said. “Just, people kind of singled me out for, I guess, being a little different. Middle school's an awkward time. I just wasn't really happy with how I was doing socially. I'm here to learn. I'm not here to appease everybody.”
Her father shared an incident where a teacher put down a fantastic essay she wrote. “The teacher said, 'I can't believe that a third grader would write something like this,'” he said. “'Are you sure that was you? Or someone else?' That was really painful to us. She worked very hard.”
But the incident only pushed Reyhan even more in the long run. And she doesn't really harbor ill will towards the naysayers.
Even though she began college at such a young age, older classmates were much more accepting than fellow teens. “Most of the time, there would be that one person that would sit around and be like, 'Hey, by the way, how old are you?'” she said. “So it would come out like that.” But she had backup.
“When that happened, the girls in my class would tend to be more maternal to me. The only doubt I've had of my credibility of who I am has come from kids my own age. Most adults have been very welcoming to me.”
The celebration was more than enough for Reyhan's paternal grandmother to fly in from Morocco. “This is my son's daughter, and she reached this level,” said Aicha Lalaoui. “I'm very proud of her and I've never had any happiness like this before. I'm thankful for then discipline provided by her mom and dad.”
So what's in the future for Reyhan after she returns from Scotland? She plans on helping at her father's soccer learning center in Jersey City for the rest of summer, then a big decision on the horizon: Work on her Bachelor's Degree at either New York University or St. Peter's University.
“I haven't gotten an acceptance letter from NYU yet, but I got the transfer credit for it,” she said. “So it'll probably come in next week.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org