N.Y. School's First Black Valedictorian Is Heading to Harvard: 'There's No Dream Too Big'

Onovu Otitigbe will study biomedical engineering and neuroscience on a pre-med track

Onovughakpor "Onovu" Otitigbe is living out her wildest dreams — and leaving her mark along the way.

At 18 years old, Onovu will graduate at the top of her class from Albany High School, becoming the school's first Black valedictorian in its 152-year history.

Her near-perfect GPA, combined with her impressive list of extracurriculars, helped pave Onovu's path to Harvard University, where this fall she'll study biomedical engineering and neuroscience on a pre-med track.

"I had a very strong foundation [growing up] of watching Black men and women who were academically excellent succeed in whatever field they were passionate about," Onovu tells PEOPLE. "So I never had a question in my mind that it was possible for me."

Onovu Otitigbe
Onovu Otitigbe. Courtesy Onovu Otitigbe

"An image really does speak realities into existence," she adds. "Going to Harvard after 12 years of school sometimes feels like an out-of-body experience. But I think it's really important to develop a mindset early on that whatever you want to achieve, it's possible."

Onovu knows dreams can be intimidating and don't pan out exactly as people envision, "but with the right support systems and the right positivity, it's definitely possible," she says. "There's no dream too big."

Onovu's mom, Jessica Otitigbe — who graduated from Albany High in 1992 — noticed her daughter's "passion" for learning early on.

"She was always curious," says the proud parent, 47. "As a young child, she was always asking questions, wanting to figure out how things are working."

Onovu Otitigbe
Onovu Otitigbe. Courtesy Onovu Otitigbe

As Onovu matured, her love for learning flourished as she earned good grades, but the teen says it wasn't always an easy journey.

"I wasn't naturally able to get 100s in classes," she explains. "It was a lot of staying after school with a teacher to figure out what I'm not getting... and tapping into a network outside of school, like my uncle and aunts who are engineers."

Then there was the self-doubt she had to tackle.

"I struggled with insecurity, especially stuff like imposter syndrome," says Onovu, who credits the "people who believed in me" for helping her overcome those feelings.

"What came naturally was learning how to advocate for myself and also being able to develop relationships with people who would advocate for me," she says. "I'm fortunate I grew up where a lot of people saw my potential and never let me give up."

Onovu Otitigbe
Onovu Otitigbe. Courtesy Onovu Otitigbe

That potential was evident to everyone in the eighth grade, when Onovu became the valedictorian of her class at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School. She wanted to repeat the accomplishment in high school.

"I knew that I wanted to continue being dedicated in that same way, but I also knew it was going to be a different pool of kids," Onovu recalls. "It would be more competition, so it was a little intimidating."

That didn't stop the teen from getting involved and doing her very best. In addition to earning A grades in her classes, Onovu pursued a variety of extracurriculars, including glee club, chorus, orchestra, jazz band, lacrosse, soccer, the Tri-M Music Honor Society, the robotics team and a tech-support club called Student Help Desk.

Onovu also served as the president of the Key Club, a community service group, and the editor in chief of her school newspaper.

Onovu Otitigbe
Onovu Otitigbe and her mom Jessica Otitigbe. Courtesy Onovu Otitigbe

"I had a really good time being as involved as possible," Onvu says. "I lived my entire high school experience to the fullest."

"Now I get to embark on this new stage of life," she adds, "knowing what it's like to be fully immersed in something, and really get everything out of it that you can."

Her years-long effort finally paid off on Oct. 10, 2020, when Onovu learned that she had been named Albany High's valedictorian, officially cementing her role as a trailblazer for Black students.

"It means so much to me," says Onovu. "The other day, one of my classmates said, 'Onovu, you really broke the cycle in this school' ... I even get letters from people outside of the state who saw my story and said it was really inspirational."

Onovu Otitigbe
Onovu Otitigbe. Courtesy Onovu Otitigbe

"You don't understand the impact of something like that until you get those responses," she continues. "It's crazy to have that kind of impact so young, but it also makes me rethink the way that I go about my actions and understand how they can impact others. It's not just a win for me — it's a win for my community, and to be able to represent in that way, it's an honor."

It's all made her family "beyond proud."

"I'm just honored that I've been able to have a front-row seat, watching her grow into this beautiful, Black, intelligent, loving person," her mom Jessica tells PEOPLE. "I just hope that she continues to hold on to all those qualities that make her authentically who she is."

With graduation just a few weeks away, Onovu is enjoying every moment she has at home until she heads to Harvard in the fall. Down the line, Onovu says she'd like to pursue pediatric robotic-assisted neurosurgery.

"Starting a new journey is the definition of bittersweet," Onovu says. "I'm scared to leave home. It's definitely going to be something new. But it's the perfect balance of fun and introspection. I just want to become a better person out of college."

As for whether she'll be at the top of her next class?

"That'll definitely be the biggest struggle because the incoming class [at Harvard] is no joke," she says. "Maybe... I'm going to try but the competition is steep!"

Adds her mom: "What she decides to do for the future, I can't wait to see it. But I know it'll be nothing short of amazing."

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