Imagine coming to the United States from Egypt, barely speaking English, and five years later, being named a valedictorian at St. Paul’s School in Covington.
That’s 18-year-old, Egypt-born Yehia Elkersh’s story in a nutshell. His latest laurel was presented April 5 when he was named Louisiana’s high school “Student of the Year” for 2017. On his way to state honors, he achieved recognition as his school’s and the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ student of the year.
Elkersh was among seven finalists who had submitted a portfolio, written regional and finalist essays and were interviewed by a panel of judges from the Louisiana Department of Education.
Elkersh said as a finalist, he was asked questions that included what he enjoyed doing, what were his extra-curriculars, his biggest accomplishment or failure and what he learned from it.
“All the kids were great,” Elkersh said. “(The Department of Education) couldn’t have made a bad choice. It was funny, because all the kids had similar things (like a perfect 36 score on the ACT, AP college credit hours, high grade point – his is a 4.58), so when they were describing the winner, I didn’t actually know it was me until they said I was from Egypt. That was my cue.”
Elkersh said his school counselor had prepared him not to get too excited about winning since the honor is rarely bestowed on private school kids.
“It was mostly surprise than anything else,” he said. “Then, happiness bringing it back to the school because my school had never won it before, and we beat the odds,” he said.
When the panel asked about role models, Elkersh mentioned his father.
“He is an incredible human being when it came to charity and being altruistic,” Elkersh said. “We grew up not particularly poor or wealthy. The story I told – every year, he would give away some of his clothes for charity, including his favorite shirt or a new shirt. My mom would be furious. But to him, giving away old shoes wasn’t as meaningful as something better. This taught me to sacrifice – having enough faith, altruism and generosity to sacrifice what you love so others could experience that same sense of enjoyment you have.”
Horatio Alger tale
Elkersh’s story is typical of many youths coming to America seeking a better life through education and career opportunities.
“Egypt makes it hard to climb the social ladder without connections, so I am your typical immigrant looking for a better opportunity,” he said.
He came to Louisiana and lived, intermittently, with his uncle, anesthesiologist Mohamed Elkersh in Mandeville, and his grandparents Sohair Ahmed and Abdellatif Elkersh in Covington, while attending school.
He immersed himself in school and extra-curriculars such as student council and the Mock Trial Team, power lifting, student ambassador and Literary Rally all four years at St. Paul’s, Key Club International, the robotics club, Mu Alpha Theta, Lasallian Youth Leaders, Habitat for Humanity, Spanish Club and doing well at science fairs. His school awards are numerous, including being an AP and U.S. Presidential and National Merit Commended Scholar, Order of St. LaSalle recipient and earning Golden Torch and Rensselaer Medal for math and science.
He said living in Louisiana wasn’t easy at first.
“It’s was pretty hard. I came not speaking English,” Elkersh said. “I only knew a little bit from a few classes I took on my own. The adjustment was difficult. There were many sacrifices. My parents and siblings are still in Egypt.”
He said living in America is completely different than in Egypt.
“There are two different cultures and ways of thinking,” he said. “Each has its benefits and downfalls. It definitely has become the same as home in Egypt for me. It’s something I’ve come to realize the past two years. When I first got here, I thought I was here to study and might go back. But, I love the U.S. I’ve had opportunities to grow in so many ways. In the future, I will be judged based on my merit, not advancing just because somebody knows someone.”
He said since being named student of the year, he has worked to fulfill the reason they chose him.
“People have higher expectations of you if you have a higher achievement,” he said. “I’m also representing the state – the state chose to pick me as the best student in the whole state, so I have to live up to it.”
Elkersh graduated from St. Paul’s on May 13. He will attend Dartmouth University on a full scholarship in the fall. He will be in the pre-medicine track, majoring in either in neuroscience, biology or art.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.