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Ellie Hylton graduates Harvard University with highest grade point average in Class of 2013, becomes first African American to rank No. 1

Howard Manly
Ellie Hylton graduates Harvard University with highest grade point average in Class of 2013, becomes first African American to rank No. 1
Hylton was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most respected academic honor society, joining notables such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Condoleeza Rice.

Ellie Hylton, seated farthest on right, recently graduated Harvard University as No. 1 in her class, the first black to earn such a distinction. She also had all As in every class.

In a school filled with high achievers, Ellie Hylton stands out.

She isn’t flashy. Nor is she nerdy. From what family members and faculty advisers say, Ellie is very modest, very understated, very hard-working.

“She’s quiet at first,” says Mary Waters, a sociology professor at Harvard. “But when she does talk, she is impressive. She’s just so smart, so engaging — just really, really intelligent.”

Waters would know. In her nearly 30 years at the prestigious Ivy League school, she has never known any undergraduate student to finish with As in every class taken at Harvard.

That is until Ellie.

Straight As.

“Not A minuses,” Waters points out. “Straight As.”

Even in courses she didn’t really like. As a freshman, Ellie recalled, she thought, maybe, she would like to become a doctor. But she quickly discovered she didn’t like bio-chemistry. She still aced the class, averaging 99 out of 100 points. In fact, her father noted, she was asked by the professor to become a teaching fellow.

Given her record of academic achievement, it was only fitting for Ellie Hylton to finish with the highest grade point average in the Class of 2013 and rank as its Number One student. As far as anyone knows, she is the first African American to achieve such a ranking in the school’s 377 year history.

And she joins an extremely short list of Harvard alum to finish their career with a straight A average. Ten years ago, the school had only recorded five other students with a 4.0 GPA.

She also joins an elite list of graduates elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most respected academic honors society in the United States. Phi Beta Kappa are the Greek initials of the motto meaning “Love of learning is the guide of life.”

It’s awarded to the most outstanding arts and sciences students. Monroe Trotter was the first black from Harvard to receive such distinction in 1895. In 1905, scholar and novelist Jessie Fauset became the first black woman elected as a member. Other notables among black Phi Beta Kappa honorees are W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, Johnetta B. Cole, Condoleeza Rice and J. Max Bond.

For her part, Ellie says she is “surprised” at the accolades and remains “really grateful for all the support’ she has received over the years.

Part of that support comes from her immediate family. Both of her parents graduated from Harvard as well and both are professors at Boston University School of Law. Quite naturally, Ellie’s mother, Maria, says she is proud of all of her seven children, including Ellie. Ellie’s father, Keith, is equally proud but readily admits Ellie, the second oldest, has a rare gift that allows her to quickly master difficult subjects.

Take the popular introduction to economics course at Harvard. Her father said he had taken the course when he was a student and taught the class while he attended Harvard Law School. “The final exam is filled with tricky multiple choice questions,” Hylton explained. “And Ellie scored a 100 on it. I was shocked. I took the class, and I taught the class, and I can tell you that doesn’t happen much.”

Ellie Hylton with her parents at her graduation from Harvard as part of Class of 2013.

All he said he could do was simply “shake his head” in amazement.

Part of the amazement can be found in the DNA. Ellie’s maternal grandmother immigrated to America from Cuba and met a young Australian man of Irish descent while living in Baltimore. They attended the only Catholic Church that allowed integrated worship. They were married in the late 1950’s and eventually moved to long Island where they had six children.

Ellie’s mom, Maria O’Brien, is one those children. All six received Harvard degrees: four undergraduate, one from the law school and another from the medical school. Soledad O’ Brien, the renown CNN journalist, is Ellie’s aunt.

David L. Evans, director of the Undergraduate Admissions Council, has known Ellie’s parents since 1978 when both were freshman at Harvard. They both graduated magna cum laude.

“It’s a powerful story,” Evans said about the Hylton family. “Ellie is such a nice young woman. She is very, very down-to-earth. She is not the typical Harvard nerd that is wrapped too tight.”

What struck Evans about Ellie was her ability to empathize with others. Evans told the story of when Ellie attended the alumni reunion of Harvard’s Class of 1941 and saw one of the black graduates. “She told me that she wondered what his experience must have been like at Harvard back in the late 1930s,” Evans said. “That struck me that she had so much concern and actually thought about someone else’s experience. In too many cases, that empathy has been washed out of young students.”

As it is now, Ellie is working for a public policy think-tank and is considering returning to graduate school for either a law degree or a master’s in public policy. She majored in sociology and her senior thesis was titled “Bridging the Gap: Social Integration and Academic Achievement in the Desegregated Public High School.”

After reading Ellie’s thesis, Professor Waters recommended the highest grade possible – summa cum laude. “There had been a lot of literature on social alienation and a lot on academic performance,” Water said. “But never the two. Ellie’s was original because it focused on the relationship between both alienation and performance. And what she concluded was that students were still able to perform and flourish despite the feeling of social isolation.”

One thing is clear – Ellie was able to perform and flourish at Harvard.

Her oldest sister Cecilia received a master’s degree in education also from Harvard and said, “It was a nice surprise to see Ellie recognized … But her entire body of work has just been impressive. She has been consistent and dedicated. This is truly a story of hard work.”