Photo: David McGregor North Gwinnett Salutatorian Matheus Mauricio and Valedictorian Ho Lim Lee pose at the school on Friday morning.
SUWANEE -- When Ho Lim Lee and Matheus Mauricio step to the podium to give their speeches at their graduation ceremony on Friday, they will have a host of things in common.
North Gwinnett High's valedictorian and salutatorian have been in the top 10 of their class academically for their entire high school careers. Their grade point averages are each at least 100. They're active in the school's band and various leadership groups.
Yet what they could be most proud of is they both immigrated to this country with their parents and started elementary school here.
"Being an immigrant, and seeing my parents give up everything to be here has provided that drive all throughout high school," said Mauricio, the salutatorian, who came to the U.S. in fifth grade from Brazil. "(It) made me achieve so much more than they could. I think that's what it means to me. It kind of makes sense why we're here, this concludes it all."
Lee moved with her mother from South Korea after second grade for a new opportunity.
"You see the sacrifices that your parents or your entire family has made for you," said Lee, who scored a 2270 on the SAT and 35 on the ACT. "There's just more motivation and inspiration in my life."
Lee, who has been involved with the school's math team, Latin club and Georgia Junior Classical League, will attend Emory University and study the Classics.
Mauricio, who earned a 2180 on the SAT, has been a member of the Gwinnett Student Leadership Team, Science National Honors Society, Spanish Honors Society and the Beta Club. He will attend the University of Chicago, but hasn't decided if he will study economics, physics or math.
"They're students who could probably come in and do well academically, but they've branched out and did other things," said Kim Geer, a counselor at the school. "Good, solid, well-rounded students but also willing to help others in any way."
Lee and Mauricio lead a class that has earned about $8 million in academic, athletic and military scholarship monies. About 90 percent of the class plans to pursue post-secondary education on a technical, two-year or four-year track.
The class, which counts 619 members, has collected 49,705 community service hours during their high school careers.
Their graduation will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Coolray Field.
"The culture is going to be something I remember," Mauricio said. "But also with the chill atmosphere that we created, it's been a good environment to be a part of."
For Lee, being valedictorian developed as a goal after she was ranked No. 1 in the class following the first semester of her freshman year. It was secondary to simply doing well in class, but after she was at the top, Lee didn't want to let it go.
"I didn't want to lose it," she said. "That's something that motivated me a lot, I'm kind of a competitive person in general, (but) that added to my future goals. There's a lot of things to accomplish."
Yet the ranking wasn't an obsession.
"We weren't constantly thinking about our rank, I was just trying to do my best in every class," Lee said. "The rank was something that happened. Having friends near where you are keeps you grounded. If I didn't have my friends, I wouldn't be as humble."
In the beginning, each time a report card was released, Lee and her mother, Jong Min Kim, celebrated with dinner out for Vietnamese noodles. While mother and daughter still have a quiet celebration, the noodle celebration went away after three semesters, Lee said.
Lee's competitive nature is something Mauricio often teases her about, knowing that deep down, she's not as cut-throat as it may seem.
"Something that's really apparent is she's absolutely hilarious," Mauricio said. "Whenever she's around, I have a really good time. She kind of makes me forget about everything else that's going on. The competitive thing doesn't come out too often. I think it's part of her motivation to be the best she can be."
While Lee took the teasing about being competitive in stride, she needled Mauricio about his description of their class as "chill." They agreed the atmosphere at the school is more laid back than it was four years ago, and Lee added that the class left a positive imprint.
Along that line was Mauricio and his "chill" personality.
"He's very charismatic, but also very genuine," Lee said. "He's open to everyone, it's really easy to be friends with him. He's really chill, that's why he uses that word a lot."
As the final days of their high school careers arrived, Lee and Mauricio agreed they are excited and nervous to give their graduation speeches, and they hope their messages are entertaining and positive.
"Especially since we'll be outside and hot," Mauricio said. "We don't want to make it too long and too serious."
Because of the competitive environment at North, Geer said graduation is a reward for the time and effort Lee and Mauricio put in over four years.
"Our students strive to be at the top of the class, students set that goal, and that's what they aim for," she said.