Ethan East has a few things in common with his distant relative – a man you may have heard of, named Barack Obama.
East, 18, of East Washington, is biracial, has Kenyan heritage and also achieved a unique distinction. He is believed to be the first black valedictorian at Washington High School.
While the district has no records earlier than 1988, school officials and members of the community believe East is the first African-American – or, at least, the first to be properly recognized as such – to climb to the top of his class. The high school has a 29 percent black student population and a 9 percent multiracial student population, according to 2013-14 data.
East, son of Robert and Angeline East, will give his valedictorian speech in front of 84 of his peers tonight in the high school gymnasium. He will attend Brown University in the fall to study pre-medicine.
“In the event that it could be true, it’s definitely an honor,” East said of his distinction as the first black valedictorian.
Robert East, a professor at Washington & Jefferson College, added, “Whether it’s absolutely, undeniably, provably true, we’re still proud of him. Who wouldn’t be?”
East does not boast about his relation to the U.S. president through his mother’s side of the family. Instead, he has worked diligently to establish himself in science, history and the arts.
He played in four high school bands – concert, jazz, steel and, as drum major, the marching band. Trumpet is his instrument of choice, but he also plays piano and dabbles on guitar.
As president of the National Honor Society, he carried out several community service projects. He also had the chance to watch an open-heart surgery during a field trip with the school’s gifted program.
East has a love for traveling and recently spent time in France and Spain. He also took a family trip to Kenya, where his mother is originally from.
He said his trip to Africa inspired him to pursue medicine because he witnessed extreme conditions and wanted to help in some way.
“It just sort of took off from there,” he said. “I’ve been pursuing that ever since.”
East received a host of leadership, music and academic awards during a recent award banquet. East passed an Advanced Placement test in history class his junior year and went on to take an advanced European History course his senior year.
High school history teacher Jeff Bunner said East completed that course with a 97 percent – the highest in the class.
“At the beginning, for a lot of kids, the college level courses in high school are a struggle. (East) struggled briefly, but what I was impressed with was his ability to take on a challenge,” Bunner said. “He took the challenge on and became one of the top students in the class very soon into the year.”
Bunner said he believes East’s critical thinking skills, coupled with his personable nature, will lead him to success as a future doctor.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that he’ll achieve those objectives,” Bunner said.
Angeline East said her son has always been enthusiastic when it comes to education.
“He’s always loved school dearly, ever since he was a little baby, loved to read and learn,” she said. “He cares for people. He loves his friends. He’s thoughtful, and he’s a hard-working kid. We are really proud of him.”