Borderland high school seniors have made friendships through a screen, learned from home, and navigated the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As they faced unique challenges, the students are ready to graduate and begin the next stage of their lives. Some of these graduates have agreed to share their stories ahead of the commencement ceremonies this weekend.
For a few months of her freshman year, Alyssa Ramirez felt like just a little box on the computer screens of her peers and teachers. Nobody knew her name and she didn’t know the school either. But those challenges drove Ramirez to find his calling at Hanks High School.
When she transferred from Young Women Leadership Academy to Hanks High School at the start of the pandemic, she had no one to lean on. Alyssa started attending school only online and found things as simple as asking peers for help with an assignment were difficult.
“A lot of teachers always said, ‘I know you’re probably asking your friends for help.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know anybody here,'” Ramirez said.
Ramirez interacted with her teachers online as best she could to stand out and make a good impression. She always kept her camera on and always interacted with teachers during class. Things started to look up for her and she started making friends when she joined the track team and the volleyball team.
“It really helped me because even though I couldn’t come to school and come to class to meet people, I still had a group of people that I saw every day and gradually we became friends. I got to know them,” Ramirez said. . “And it really improved my online experience.”
Ramirez will attend Duke University, where she will study biomedical engineering, the pre-medical stream. Ramirez plans to attend medical school after graduating from Duke.
“It’s nerve-wracking because I’m going to be a full adult. But it’s exciting because I can make those choices,” Ramirez said. “I decide what I’m going to do today, what experiences I’m going to have, and what memories I’m going to create.”
Citlaly Rodriguez is the fifth of six siblings, the youngest of three daughters. But she will be the first in her family to play varsity sports when she joins the Northern New Mexico women’s basketball team this fall.
She play fiercely. She plays like her father taught her. She plays to make her family proud.
“I got into sports because of my dad,” Rodriguez said. “Ever since I saw him play, I just wanted to be like him.”
Bowie High School graduated in May after outstanding careers in basketball and Bears track and field. His star is still rising: his goal is the WNBA.
“She’s a young player full of promise,” said JR Giddens, head coach of northern New Mexico women’s basketball. “She’s a very tough kid. You can tell when she plays, she plays with a little bit of force. She has courage. The energy she plays with is contagious.”
Her mother, Marisa Barraza, said: “She always told me she was going to make it. She always tells me that.”
Rodriguez was born in Denver. Her mother and siblings moved to Borderland after her father, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, was deported to Mexico. She was 11 or 12 at the time.
He found a place in Juárez and Barraza found an apartment in El Paso. Rodriguez went to school in El Paso and spent weekends in Juárez, making the pilgrimage that thousands of families make in the Borderland.
Her father never saw her play a high school game.
“Coming and going was a struggle,” Rodriguez said. “I’m close to him. He said he was very proud of me and wanted to be there to watch me in every game and every training.”
“It’s going to be sad to leave,” she said, “but it’s the next thing in life.”
Felix Chavez contributed to this entry.
When Ashley Leyva was filling out college applications and preparing for her SAT, her father was in the hospital battling a life-threatening brain infection.
Leyva’s family is no stranger to adversity. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who moved to El Paso in search of better medical care for her older brother who was born with spina bifida, a spinal abnormality that reduced his ability to walk. Her father’s meningitis diagnosis in the spring of Leyva’s high school year nearly shattered her dreams of college.
“I’ve always tried to fight every obstacle in my life because I know going to college is one of the best ways to get ahead in life,” she said.
Her fight paid off when her excellent academic record earned her a full scholarship to Norte Dame University. She learned the news five months after her father recovered and came home.
This year, Leyva will be the salute to the first class to graduate from Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a school for girls in grades 6-12 in the Ysleta Independent School District.
The STEM-focused curriculum at YWLA nurtured Leyva’s love for math. She wants to become an astrophysicist and study black holes and dark matter at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland.
Leyva is a QuestBridge Scholar, a program that helps low-income students attend top American universities.
“I always dreamed of going to college, but the financial aspect always terrified me,” she said. “Growing up, there were a few times I wondered where my next meal would come from.”
When she leaves for Norte Dame later this year, it will be the first time Leyva has lived outside of El Paso and away from her family. She is both nervous and excited about this new chapter in her life.
“Aspiring to be like my parents motivates me,” she said. “I’ve seen them fight adversity and they always find the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Coronado High School graduate Luke Miller never thought a nonprofit started by him and two friends would grow into a program with about 100 members in 10 schools.
The El Paso Youth for Change program is a non-profit organization designed to help those in need.
“At first it was just kind of like a substitute (for the programs that were on hold) and now it’s become much more because people really wanted to help at that time. They kept wanting to do it. “said Miller.
El Paso Youth for Change recently assisted the El Paso Center for Children by providing gift baskets with gift cards, candies, magazines and headphones.
“I hope it fosters a culture of service,” he said.
The group had not planned to get the organization off the ground. It all started with simple donation campaigns that grew the program and expanded to those who wanted to help their community.
Now Miller is heading to Princeton University, where he plans to study economics. He is still choosing a career path in business, finance, government or law.
Miller feels his family, friends and school are a team of people rooted in his success.
Marc Escareno, principal of Coronado High School, said Miller was one of the best students he had ever known.
“What I think separates Luke from others are his deep values of community service and his willingness to help those around him,” Escareno said. “Luke will undoubtedly leave his mark on the world. He is a true role model.”
Falling behind in school to care for his great-grandmother in the hospital, Anthony Nunez took an academic setback and turned it into the inspiration to become a nurse after graduation.
The Options High School graduate transferred his senior year from Pebble Hills High School to Options High School after being unable to attend classes.
“Unfortunately nobody wanted to step in, so I had to take that spot,” Nunez said.
Options High School, a self-paced online campus, allowed her to continue working and complete high school.
He said he wanted to continue his education to prove to his younger siblings that if he can do it, so can they.
After graduation, Nunez plans to attend Southwest University where he will study to become a nurse or radiologist.
Tim McDonald, head English teacher at Options High School, said Nunez is a resilient student.
“He stuck it out and he came back and he did a really impressive amount of work and graduated. Not just on time, but a little bit earlier,” Mcdonald said. “For him to dig deep and come to Options and go, ‘I want to finish, I’m going to do my best’, I think that says a lot about his character.”