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Memphis student goes from not knowing English to class valedictorian

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Central High School's valedictorian has been accepted into some of the country's most prestigious colleges.

Amal Altareb grew up in Yemen. When she was 11, her dad took a new job in the U.S.

"What was happening in Yemen in 2011 and 2012, with the Arab spring, was one more reason to unite the family in one place. It would be a more stable and safe place," Altareb said.

But once she got to the U.S. she had another problem; Arabic would not help her in Memphis.

"I didn't speak any English expect for one phrase: 'I don't speak English,'" Altareb said.

She said learning a new language wasn't easy. She took English as a Second Language, and her classmates became her only friends.

"They were Hispanic and Vietnamese. We couldn't communicate, but we shared the same experience. We would use sign language, drawings and a couple of English words," Altareb said.

But she soon realized she would have to mostly teach herself to learn how to speak English.

She used what she already had: her textbooks.

"I stayed up many nights translating my books so I could understand the lesson and it paid off. By the ninth grade I didn't have to take ESL classes," Altareb said.

By senior year at Central High School, she was taking five Adavanced Placement classes and earned the title of valedictorian.

She also started a group called "Speak 901" where she and other students get together to talk about the world.

"What I've learned coming from a different country is to be open," Altareb said.

She said she's also traveled as far as Colorado and Russia for academic trips and knows she represents Yemen, Muslims and women when she's there.

"You're not yourself. You're a whole country, a whole religion and a whole culture," she said.

The 17 year old has now gotten into colleges like Yale and Georgetown.

She will decide in the next two weeks where to attend.

She said she wanted to be a surgeon or a political scientist who solves problems around the world and in the Middle East.

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