Qingmei Wu was in fourth grade when her family immigrated to the United States from China. Moving to Sunset Park, she was known by her fellow students as the “ABC girl” — she only knew her ABCs. Surrounded by native speakers, Wu recalls being overwhelmed as teachers fired questions in English.
“I felt like everyone else knew what was going on,” she said.
Those days are long past. On Monday, Wu will graduate from Brooklyn Technical High School’s class of 2016 and she’ll head to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall.
Wu’s graduation ceremony will be held at the Barclays Center, where she’ll give the valedictorian’s speech. She’s a little nervous about speaking on stage, but she got some practice this week when she returned to her former middle school, M.S. 88 in Park Slope, to give the keynote address at its graduation.
Jessica Forman, Wu’s former guidance counselor, thinks a lot of her current students can relate to Wu’s story.
“Just to see that someone who’s new to the country, who came not knowing much English, can go from being ELL to honors to valedictorian,” she said. “And then to go on to be the valedictorian of their high school and get into a prestigious college. It makes current students see, ‘That’s an M.S. 88 kid like me.’”
Twelve percent of M.S. 88’s approximately 1,200 students are English language learners. Eighty-two percent of the school’s students are considered low-income.
Wu was still in ESL classes in sixth grade, but quickly moved up to honors classes in seventh and eighth grade. Four years ago, she graduated as the middle school’s valedictorian with hopes of becoming a doctor.
Wu credits her progress in middle school and beyond to the teachers at M.S. 88. During her speech, she thanked the teachers who pushed her in class and in special enrichment programs. She told the roughly 400 eighth-graders in their graduation robes that these were the people to thank as they started high school, where they would soon see just how well-prepared they were for science projects and research papers thanks to M.S. 88.
“I look and see the future scientists, doctors, engineers, problem-solvers,” she said. “If you each took one problem today, no matter how big or small, there’ll be many more problems addressed.”