“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

So said Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave and died an orator, author and educator. If his words are true, then these high school seniors already have achieved more success than many of us will ever realize. Despite the obstacles in their way, they have pressed forward.

Walking across the stage at graduation will not be the finish line. For these neighborhood students, it will only be the beginning.

Luis Gomez

On average, it takes someone four to seven years to become academically proficient in English, according to Stanford University’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Hillcrest senior Luis Gomez not only was able to accomplish this feat in just one year, but he has also managed to shine academically.

“I just worked very, very hard,” he says with a bashful smile, eyes cast downward. “I know I’ll need a good education for my future, so I’ve done my best at school. But I still don’t think my English is very good.”

He’s being modest. Hearing his polished and fluid English, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t speak a word of it a year ago. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, he passed all portions of the TAKS test with flying colors and tackled every Advanced Placement class in which he enrolled.

That’s no small feat, says Aaron Baldridge, his former science teacher.

“He’s the definition of a student. You can show up and do the bare minimum to pass, and that’s OK. Or you can really push yourself and absorb the knowledge you’re being exposed to,” Baldridge says. “That’s when you become a student; otherwise you’re just showing up to class.

“[Luis] is a true student. His work ethic is outstanding, and he’s brilliant. Yet there’s this aura of humility about him. He just does what he’s supposed to, does it very well and doesn’t think that’s much of anything special, but it is.”

Gomez moved here when he was 17 to join his father and older brother. His mother still lives in Mexico, and he eases the pain of being away from her with frequent phone calls. He still misses his hometown, a quaint village with a beautiful plaza — a far cry from the hustle and bustle of NorthPark and rush hour traffic on Central Expressway.

“It’s very, very different here, but I like it.”

To learn English so quickly, Gomez began taking night classes at Richland Community College — all in addition to working as a restaurant host.

“My job helped me learn a lot because I have to talk to the customers, and I practiced a lot with my older brother because his English is very good.”

That work in the restaurant industry may come in handy. Gomez intends to start college this fall and major in culinary arts. His dream is to one day own his own restaurant.

So how does it feel to have shattered the mold and reached levels of success that defy statistics? Gomez’s answer is, of course, a humble one.

“My parents are very hard workers, and they always taught me how much hard work and education mattered. So I do feel proud of myself. But I know my parents are proud of me, too, and that means even more.”

Lester McGowan

Five minutes with Lester McGowan, and you’re going to like the guy. He has a bouncy energy, a charming Louisiana accent and a genuine warmth about him.

Sitting across from someone so chirpy, it would be easy to assume he’s never seen a dark day — but McGowan has had his share.

He witnessed the devastation when Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans five years ago. McGowan and his family decided to ride out the storm at a nearby hotel, thinking it would be safer.

“We woke up to the sound of half the hotel being ripped off,” he recalls, eyes wide as if it still surprises him. “There was screaming, gushing wind and rain everywhere. It was like a movie.”

He pauses, and an uncharacteristic somberness falls over him.

“The next day, there was chaos, violence, so many dead bodies, alligators — it was crazy. I remember seeing an abandoned baby in a car seat and realizing I couldn’t help. You want to help everyone, but you can’t. You have no food to share, no water to give — you are helpless, totally helpless. It’s a bad, bad feeling.”

McGowan’s family made it back to their home, where they waited five days to be rescued. They were evacuated to Dallas, and soon McGowan was enrolled at Marsh Middle School.

“All I had was a jersey and a pair of pants. I literally just had the clothes on my back; I had lost everything.”

School employees gave him more clothes, but things were about to get tougher.

“We got a phone call that my grandmother had died on an evacuation bus while trying to leave New Orleans. She was the center of our family, so that was a big loss.”

The trauma of Katrina and the death of his grandmother proved to be too much, and McGowan lost his way, hanging out with kids selling drugs. Soon, the money they were making became alluring. But before he went down that path, a few teachers intervened, calling a parent conference.

“[The teachers] told my mom how I was messing up, and she broke down crying. Those tears woke me up.

“I went from wanting to stand on the corner selling drugs to wanting to get into college. Education is the key to everything. I see that now.”

McGowan is preparing to start college at Southwestern Assemblies of God on a football scholarship, and he plans to major in engineering.

“It sounds strange, but I think it was a blessing for me to come to Texas because I ended up at W.T. White. The teachers here, yeah, they may fuss at me. But I know they want the best for me.”

One such teacher is Mary Rivers, who had McGowan in her freshman science class.

“What stood out to me about him instantly was his politeness and kindness; he’s not a hard person to like,” she says.

“He’s been able to surround himself with positive people and focus on the here and now. That’s going to take him far. I have no doubt we’re going to hear about him doing great things in the years to come.”

McGowan has one goal that stands above the rest.

“I want to get my mom a house,” he says, beaming. “When I was going in the wrong direction, my mom was that extra push in the right direction, and I love her for that.”

Click here to watch Lester.

Vivana Muñoz

Vivana Muñoz answers with a polite “yes ma’am”. She’s mature for her age because she has had to be.

“My Saturdays and Sundays are just for working,” says Muñoz, who has kept a job since she was 16 to help support her family.

“And my parents don’t speak English well, so income tax paperwork, medical forms — I had to learn to fill out all that stuff as a kid. I’ve just had to grow up a lot faster than some kids.”

But put her in the spotlight — or even just talking about it — and she lights up like a child.

“When I’m out there performing, it just makes me feel like I’m on top of the world,” she gushes. “It makes me feel alive; I just love it.”

Muñoz is a dancer for Hillcrest High School’s Panadeer drill team, a hobby she describes as “the one thing I do for me.”

“I work to pay for all my costumes, but it’s worth it because it really brings me so much joy. And I know my littlest sister also wants to be a dancer, so I’ll probably be working through college to pay for her costumes and lessons next, which I’m happy to do.”

Dancing is her love, indeed, but Muñoz says her parents, who were raised in another culture, sometimes struggle to understand that passion.

“It boils down to a cultural clash. My parents come from a small village in Mexico, so they’re very traditional. The way my parents were raised, kids didn’t do extracurricular stuff like this. It’s a foreign concept, and difficult for them to understand or support.

“I was considering not going to college because my parents want me to live at home during college, like my older sister did.”

But college advisor Cynthia Kanagui intervened and has proven to be a guiding light for Muñoz as she charts her route for higher education.

“[Muñoz] explained that it was difficult for her to dream against her parents’ will. She expressed a desire to move away for college, and yet, the knowledge that without her parents’ consent, this would be beyond difficult.

“At this moment, I understood the magnitude of her obstacles, and the strength of her character.”

Thanks to help from Kanagui, Muñoz has now applied for scholarships from UT Dallas and SMU, and she wants to become a pediatrician.

Kanagui says she knows Muñoz will succeed on the college campus and beyond.

“[Muñoz] deserves recognition for being an intelligent, resilient and compassionate young woman. Her most notable characteristics, however, are her integrity and selflessness.

“She thinks of the well-being of others before herself. I am certain that because of her kind heart and driven nature, she is going to have great successes in life.”


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