Taravat Tarahom didn’t get to bask in the glory of being Freedom High School’s Class of 2020 valedictorian, thanks to the outbreak of Covid-19 cutting short her senior year. Nor did she get to give her speech in front of a throng of her classmates in an arena, instead settling for a safe and socially distant recorded message.
What Taravat says she did get out of being Freedom’s valedictorian, however, was a life-altering accomplishment at the end of what, at times, was an extremely difficult journey.
“This has taught me to look at one goal, but not make (that goal) my entire life,” the 18-year-old says.
She was able to balance a huge school load, deal with the divorce of her parents and the death of her dog, as well as a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, all while unexpectedly rising to the top of her class.
Taravat walked away from Freedom with a greater appreciation of her relationships and health and with the piece of mind that comes from learning how to stay prioritized.
“The experience definitely changed me,” says Taravat, who finished with a 7.64 weighted grade-point-average.
Leyla Mohebbi, her mother, says she couldn’t be more proud. She says academics have always been a priority in her home, where bringing home a B meant you would be asked, “Why not an A?”
“I feel like Tara put the expectation onto herself that she did not want to be anything less than a valedictorian,” Leyla says. “I’m very happy. I knew that was her dream, and she made it happen.”
Taravat has followed in the footsteps of her sister Targol, who was Freedom’s valedictorian in 2015 and is now in medical school at Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Lauderdale. Taravat says she felt the bar was “set impossibly high” before she even started high school. She faced a steady climb up the academic ladder, ranking only around No. 25 in her class after her sophomore year.
She remembers moving up in the class rankings after the first semester of her junior year, somewhere into the teens, and her determination to become the second valedictorian in the family was growing.
She mentioned to some of her classmates and her teacher in AP Biology that she was going to go for it, and they laughed, because she still had more than a dozen students to pass.
“That set something off in me,” Taravat admits.
A former cheerleader, she started her senior year ranked No. 7 in the class, but once her summer grades were input into the system — “I had a crazy workload that summer” — she had quietly risen to No. 3. But, she stayed under the radar, and continued to take a heavy load.
Taravat, who was co-president of the school’s Sierra Club, says a typical day in the fall of her senior year would entail waking up at 7 a.m. for six hours of school at Freedom, then coming home around lunchtime to eat and pack herself a dinner, and working for three hours as an online tutor, driving to the Hillsborough Community College (HCC) Ybor City campus for a three-hour English class and then heading over to the HCC campus on N. Dale Mabry Hwy. for physics lab.
In February, she found out it was official — she had quietly risen to the top of her class. She called Leyla. They cried.
Even More Challenges
The hard work did not come without a cost, however.
In December, she had lost 15 pounds and spent two days in the hospital, where she was diagnosed with Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes. “I was so wrapped up in school I didn’t even pay attention to my health,” Taravat says. “I was kind of mad at myself for not noticing.”
Her diagnosis has triggered an interest in endocrinology, which she hopes to study at the University of Florida. She plans on majoring in microbiology and cell sciences.
And while her valedictorian speech wasn’t delivered to a crowd of her classmates, it did come from the heart. Without the trials and tribulations of her senior year, it might have been a completely different speech.
“Remember this,” she told the Class of 2020. “If you fall: get back up. It’s cliché, I know, but get back up. Don’t allow setbacks to steer you off your natural path. Don’t let a single failure ruin those deep-rooted hopes and dreams. Because ultimately, rock bottom could be the solid foundation that you build the rest of your life on.”