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Haidar, Elness take top slots at CHS
Stephanie Haidar is Ceres High School s valedictorian, Sydney Elness is salutatorian
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Ceres High School class valedictorian Stephanie Haidar, 18, and class salutatorian Sydney Elness will miss life on the Ceres High School campus but believe better experiences await them at college. Both will speak at graduation on Thursday. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The death of her younger sister profoundly changed the life of Stephanie Haidar, the valedictorian for the Ceres High School class of 2016. Watching Grace go through a life-ending Prolidase deficiency autoimmune disease gave Stephanie reason to make the most of her life. Remembering the medical struggle that ended Grace's life at age seven has also inspired her to strive to become a geneticist.

"That really inspired me to go into the medical field," said Stephanie, who is also considering rheumatology, the study of rheumatism, arthritis and other disorders of the joints, muscles and ligaments. "I want to lean more towards researching rather than practicing."

Teaching is another interest for Stephanie since she enjoyed tutoring some students in math through high school. "Just that interaction I find really special."

A small margin of difference in grade point averages separates Haidar's 4.31 and the 4.286 earned by salutatorian Sydney Elness. The 18-year-old women came down to the final weeks of their senior year at Ceres High School before they knew who would occupy which title of top students of the class of 371.

"We knew (we were the top students) but we just weren't sure who would get what because of GPAs were pretty close," said Stephanie who had her eye on being the class valedictorian since she was a freshman.

According to Principal Linda Stubbs, the top four competitors in the class were all within tenths of points of one another. Other seniors who earned a GPA of 4.0 or above were Arianne Amparo-Partida, Alexis Arias, Jalani Blankenship, Maria Ferrera, Kailee Fox, Stephanie Garcia, Saray Gonzalez, Chelsea Heras, Makayla Lawrence, Charles Lo, Jacqueline Lujan, Harjot Mangat, David Montufar, Jagjit Pabla and Amritpal Singh.

Stephanie remembers struggling in the fourth grade at Virginia Parks Elementary School because of her sister's illness and the focus on family issues. "The next year I tried to focus on myself and it was one reason to make my family proud because it was so much that we had been going through," said Stephanie. "So just to make them proud I started to work hard and that drove me all the way through junior high and high school."

She also had role models in her parents, David and Lena Haidar, who came to the United States from Iraq with their respective families to pursue a better life.

"He's always been that person that, no matter what it takes, he'll always get it," said Haidar. "That's actually how my mom is too. They're both really serious and I think that also comes from their family and where they're from. I mean, Iraq is fun but at the same time it's always been dangerous so you kind of have to stay on top of your toes there. It's also a different society, like their women can't do certain things compared to here where you almost have the same equality as men. That really drove my mom over here."

Elness said she wasn't as driven to become a valedictorian but she did chose to strive for all A's "for myself."

Sydney's parents, (former Ceres police officer) Bryon and Melissa Elness, started her education out at Summit Charter prep school and then she attended Vanguard College Preparatory Academy in Empire where she was "constantly challenged." She considers herself a self-driven person but remembers slacking off after she transferred to Mae Hensley Junior High and then graduating into Ceres High.

"It was just so easy for me, especially like freshman and sophomore year, just because they had pushed us so hard," said Elness. "It didn't happen until my junior year that I had to actually start studying, like I had to teach myself how to start study in AP classes. But I think it was that strong foundation that Summit and Vanguard that helped me."

Stephanie opted for Ceres schools because she didn't like wearing a school uniform at Vanguard, and because Ceres offered sports unlike the college prep school and AP classes.

"I wanted a real authentic high experience and that's why I transferred to Mae Hensley so I could go to Ceres High School."

Stephanie enjoyed math and science classes while at CHS and recently started enjoying English, mostly because Mr. Middleton made it challenging. He was her favorite teacher with math teacher Susan Vanni coming in a close second. "I think she really prepared me for college," said Haidar. Middleton, she said, can be very serious and focused and very funny at times.

"He had a bunch of jokes and he'd always read to us in different voices like we were third-graders but we enjoyed it," chimed in Sydney of Middleton. "He'd just tell us weird things."

His off-the-wall comments, clarified Principal Stubbs, are designed to challenge students in their thinking and test their logic.

Elness also enjoyed math and science classes with AB Biology as her favorite. "I like history, too. It's pretty easy." Another of her favorite teachers was Anthony Gerads, who was also her track coach. She always felt, however, that no matter the teacher "I like to push myself more than have people push me."

Stephanie was part of the track and field team as a freshman and sophomore, competing in shot put and discus throwing. "I wasn't the best but it was a fun experience because I had never done a sport before," she said.

Both girls took a heavy load of Advanced Placement classes at CHS. Haidar had nine in her high school career and Elness had eight. When asked if the classes are hard, Sydney replied: "The struggle is real." The amount of essay writing increased from three as a sophomore to 35 as a junior. "It was like a punch in the face. I had to tie myself to my desk and type all night." Stephanie answered: "You just have to get used to it, kind of like college, like the first year you have to adjust to everything. It's just like that once you start taking AP classes."

Headed for UCLA in the fall, Stephanie is looking forward to a different pace of life than what Ceres has offered. For one thing, classes will be huge compared to the small intimate setting she's enjoyed at CHS and will miss.

"I wanted to go somewhere far and experience a different city. I just want to have a new experience. They also have some really good majors so those two were definitely the decision factors."

The University of California, Davis, is where you'll find Elness this fall.

"I already want to change my major from bio chemistry to something called NPB, which is Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior," said Elness. "Ultimately I want to go to medical school and become a surgeon."

Both anticipate competition for the fields they want to pursue.

"Everyone wants a spot now in the medical field in general," said Haidar. "I've heard that some people after they get their bachelor's, they actually take some time off to find a job because it's just really hard being simply accepted into the medical schools. It's a popular thing to do so it's going to difficult trying to get in."

Because she volunteers as a crew leader at Doctors Medical Center on Sundays, Sydney learned of one's technician's plight to apply to 17 schools at a cost of $10,000 in travel, only to be accepted to five of them.

Like Stephanie, Sydney will miss the close-knit feel of the student-teacher relationships. At CHS she was able to just drop in and converse with teachers. She doesn't expect to have that same interaction in Davis.

Both Haidar and Elness are in the throes of finishing their final high school assignment: the writing of their commencement addresses.

"I definitely want to get out of the safe zone because people remember it more when it's different," said Stephanie. "I want it to be something special and I hope people enjoy it and don't fall asleep."

Sydney said she may "take some risks" in her speech, an inspiration from Grey's Anatomy "because that's what I'm watching while doing my homework." She claims to enjoy multi-tasking.

Principal Stubbs said she's inspired by the fact that her two top graduating students are aspiring to the STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) field. "Typically boys do better in those fields and girls do better in the English and humanities field," said Stubbs. "One of the things we've tried to do at the school is get more females interested in those types of classes and to really have teachers maybe that are females in some of those classes and being able to recruit some of the girls in there. I think it's neat that they're breaking the mold a little bit."

Stubbs added that she doesn't recall any of her students ever expressing a desire to become a geneticist like Haidar.

Sydney is closing out her high school career after having set an exemplary example for her siblings, Clayton and Camryn, both who attend Ceres High. She plans to get a job this summer.

Stephanie, on the other hand, will be learning how to drive a car to enable her to make the 300-mile trek home when she can.

"I haven't started driving yet but I will this summer. I'm going to work on it, I promised myself."