Grads achieve a major milestone for their families
5/25/12 Highland Park (From left) Ferni Cruz, Jessica Marban, Jennifer Gonzales, Yolanda Pareja, Judy Roman, Yesica Rodriguez, Bibi Donis, Melissa Jimenez and Enrique Aguilar in the hallways of Highland Park High School on Friday, May 25th. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Yesica Rodriguez: Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
Yolanda Pareja: Southern Illinois University
Melissa Jimenez: Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.
Jennifer Gonzalez: Undecided
Judy Roman: Northeastern University
Bibi Donis: Augustana College
Enrique Aguilar: Occidental College in Los Angeles
Ferni Cruz: Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
Updated: July 3, 2012 10:10AM
The Highland Park High School class of 2012 will receive its diplomas Wednesday night (May 30), but for many students their four years at HPHS called for more than homework, midterms, dances and Friday night football games.
When a group of eight Latino students cross the Ravinia Festival stage this week, they will also be celebrating the fact they held down after school jobs, worked as Future Giants mentors and served as the glue in their Spanish-speaking families.
They were their families’ translators, appointment-makers, phone receptionists and check-writers. On Wednesday, they will be high school graduates, carrying with them the pride of becoming the first generations in their families to attend college.
“There is a huge sense of pride,” Bibi Donis said. “We aren’t a statistic, we’re actually graduating. It’s a dream come true because it’s basically my parents dream, and my dream, too.”
“I’m really proud of myself and I know my parents are too,” added Ferni Cruz, who will be the first in her family to attend college.
For Yolanda Pareja, the transition toward college has been bittersweet because she will be the first in her family to leave the area.
“It’s kind of like a culture shock to your family,” Pareja explained. “It’s technically something that’s not accepted because you are leaving your family. It’s hurting them in a way.
“I don’t know how they are going to do when I’m gone.”
That family unknown — coupled with the nerves of final exams and college-acceptance letters — resonated among the eight HPHS graduates.
“My parents are really happy I’m leaving and they visited the campus with me and felt very safe with me being there but I know they will struggle a lot with me not being near home,” Yesica Rodriguez said. “I’m leaving the bird’s nest, and they will be growing up with me in some sort of way.”
They also expressed a lot of sweet mixed with the bitterness of leaving their Highland Park roots.
When asked what their favorite HPHS memories were, all eight students answered in excited unison: the friendships. More accurately, the new family they formed together en route to graduation day.
“Everyday there we’ve had something new to laugh at,” Rodriguez said.
Enrique Aguilar said the Adelante Club’s International Food Festival event during Charity Drive is a memory he will remember forever.
“I think this is a really special group,” he said. “I’m really, really proud of the positive peer pressure within our group. Everyone says ‘watch out for peer pressure,’ but this is a situation where peer pressure was necessary.”
The group spent countless hours together in HPHS’ College Resource Center with Allegra Giulietti-Schmitt, the school’s college counseling assistant.
The support and constant laughing were essential to get over the nerves of the college-application process.
“It was scary because this is kind of the moment when you have to sit there and actually think about your future, and what will happen in your life,” said Melissa Jimenez. “It made me really nervous but its something that once you’re done with feels really good.”
The sense of pride and family between the classmates was obvious as they gathered for one of the last times Friday in the school’s College Resource Center.
“We are so close but we’re all going to different places,” Pareja said. “It’s like we’re all scattered across the country.”
All that’s left now is Wednesday night’s commencement ceremony.
“That diploma is going to mean so much to us because it’s going to say we finally made it though our ups and downs and that we achieved what we wanted,” said Pareja, a class marshal. “I know it’s just a high school degree, but a high school degree can push us that much further toward our dreams.”
“We’ve been crying all week,” Judy Roman added.
All eight of the students benefitted from District 113’s College Bound Opportunities program or Highland Park High School’s Schuler support system. The programs helped each student earn scholarships — which were a necessity in most cases — and some have college nearly all covered.