Despite running neck and neck with a fellow student for the past two years, Salma Perez still was surprised that she was named valedictorian for 2023 at Hempstead High School.
“We would go back and forth,” Perez said of her friend and 2023 salutatorian Camila Rojas. “I knew I was number one in our junior year, but I am pretty sure we went back and forth on being number one at one point last semester. So, yes, it was a wonderful surprise.”
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise for the lifelong reader.
“My mom is really supportive and thinks education is really important,” said Perez of her mom Maria Perez, who moved with her daughter from El Salvador to offer her a better life with more educational opportunities. The gamble paid off as Perez now has a full-ride scholarship to Cornell University. She also is visiting New York University at her mom’s urging, but says she is leaning toward Cornell.
She plans to major in cognitive science with a concentration in neuroscience and a minor in classical studies.
“I plan to be a neurosurgeon,” says Perez, whose GPA is a weighted 103.8. The only child of a single mom, Perez’s hobbies include reading, drawing, and learning Latin.
Her passion for science was sparked by the History Channel and Animal Planet as she was deeply interested in their documentaries as a child.
“We moved here when I was in middle school and I didn’t have a lot of friends, so books really became my solace; they opened a new world of possibilities,” says Perez of her penchant for science, experiments, and literature.
“My mom really wanted something better for me educationally,” Perez says of Maria Perez, who worked many manual jobs to make ends meet for the two of them. “I have a lot of respect for her and she did a lot of hard jobs to give me this opportunity. She works physically harsh jobs, and I love her for that. In our country, she was studying for her bachelor’s degree. She has always stressed the importance of education.”
In addition to the support of her mom, she has been able to count on counselors, teachers, and fellow students.
In addition to a full tuition scholarship to Cornell, she recently learned that she earned the prestigious Gates Scholarship that covers the other aspects of college such as housing, incidentals, and other necessities. She also will attend a summer program and receive a paid internship.
What advice would she offer those who want to follow in her footsteps?
“Don’t just take classes because they’ll look good on your resume or college application,” Perez says. “Take classes you’re really interested in. You’ll do better. Being genuine will set you apart. Try your best and give it your all. Even if you’re not ranked number one or two, you’ll still get into an amazing college.”