June 6, 2008
By John Philip Wyllie
As the daughter of Mexican-Jewish immigrants Yael Levine has often looked to her faith and heritage whenever she found herself in need of a motivational edge. It helped her when she competed in the butterfly and for Bonita Vista’s swim team and it helped her in the classroom where she compiled an extraordinary 4.64 G.P.A. When her class of 2008 graduates on Thursday morning she will be joining fellow salutatorian Jaeuk Shin and valedictorian Gerad Hanono on the podium where each will provide a commencement address.
Coming from a family where academics were stressed much more than athletics Levine struggled initially in the pool.
“I’ll never forget my first day. I had to stop swimming so many times. I couldn’t make the times that the coach was asking for,” Levine recalled.
Although frustrated she stayed with it.
“By the end (of her high school swimming career) I could do however many laps he asked for. To be honest, I wasn’t the best of the best in swimming. I did it for fun. It was more just being a part of something, being a part of a club and staying healthy by getting some exercise. My favorite stroke was the butterfly.”
In the Levine home a much greater emphasis was placed upon learning and academics.
“My parents have always emphasized my values, my religion and my culture. They expected me to do the best that I could and to strive for getting into a good college and looking toward a good career.”
Levine has certainly done that. In the fall she will be headed to UCLA where she hopes to focus on something related to science or math. She has as clear an idea of where she is headed as she does about where she is from.
“My parents grew up in Mexico City and came here after they were married. I have a lot of family including my grandparents that are still living there. I go there about once a year to visit them. My Mexican heritage and speaking Spanish are very important to me. I am so grateful that I am fluent in two languages. My parents still have accents when I speak to them in English so we usually just speak in Spanish.”
She immerses herself in her culture through her Mexican-Jewish youth group called Maccabi.
“I have been part of it my entire life and right now I am a counselor. I work with a group of second graders and every Saturday I provide them with activities that teach them values, but we have a lot of fun as well. It is a place to socialize and to make life-long friendships. That is where most of my friends are from,” she added.
If Levine turns out to be as good a counselor as she is a student perhaps ten years from now one of her second graders will be up on the commencement podium addressing their class.