Meet the students who rose above the obstacles to become stars in the class of 2017

No one said high school was easy. From the social challenges to the expectations, every student in the class of 2017 has struggled to find where they can thrive. But some students faced adversity well beyond their young years, hardships that would be tough for seasoned adults to navigate. These teens learned to fit into a world that didn’t always accept or understand them. Their grace in the dark times has made them into unlikely role models who demonstrate what it means to never give up.

 

(Photo by DannyFulgencio)

Melinda Tapia (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Projecting positivity

Melinda Tapia may be quiet, but being a wallflower has its perks.

The W.T. White student is all about the details. She spends her free time behind a camera capturing photos of her surroundings, and she pays more attention to the setting of a movie than the plot.

Because she’s so observant, she notices what others overlook. She makes sure to tell jokes at dinner when her family seems unhappy, and she’s the one her friends confide in when they don’t know where else to turn.

Tapia is one of the few people who asks, “How are you?” and means it, senior liaison Cathy Hodge says.

But it’s uncommon for Tapia to disclose the turmoil in her own life.

“I don’t want to bother people with my problems” she says. “I’m more selfless than selfish.”

Tapia, her mother and two sisters share a North Dallas duplex with her uncle and grandmother. Because her mother is a single parent, Tapia helps take care of her siblings.

She’s the one who bandages their scrapes when they fall and takes them to school. The 10- and 12-year-old girls look up to her, they say, although they don’t always listen.

Her father has lived in Mexico since  she was about 8. That was the last time she saw him. Her only form of communication with him are letters that she stores in two boxes in her bedroom. He wasn’t there to help her transition to high school, and he couldn’t dance with her during her quinceañera. Her freshman year, she used to imagine him coming to campus to surprise her, balloons in hand.

“I’m a senior now, and that day still hasn’t happened yet,” she says.

His absence lingers in her mind, but it hasn’t stopped Tapia from excelling in school. She has never missed a day of class, even in kindergarten. Her unfailing immune system played a role, she says, but she’s never had any interest in playing hooky.

“I’ve always been like, ‘OK, let’s go,’ ” she says. “I love school. Every day something new happens, even though it’s the same classes.”

Her perfect attendance caught the attention of W.T. White staff, and it was the first time she didn’t feel invisible, she says. Her mother, Alicia Romero, hopes others continue to notice her dedication.

“I want her to study, to major in what she wants, so she can have a good future — something to offer her children,” says Romero, with Tapia interpreting.

Tapia plans to start her college career at Brookhaven College. She is considering attending a university in Austin once she completes her associate’s degree. She hasn’t declared a major, but she’s leaning toward biochemistry.

Tapia is uncertain of her next steps, but she knows good things are waiting, as long as she’s patient.

“Everything will always, always happen at its own pace.”

 

(Photo by DannyFulgencio)

Mebruk Jemal (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Shattering expectations

Mebruk Jemal could have been raised in one of the world’s poorest countries. He could’ve walked several miles to the nearest school with his brothers and played soccer in the street with his cousins.

But Jemal’s childhood was spent in Dallas, not Ethiopia. His parents, Abdella Salah and Kemeria Mohammed, left the developing nation when he was a baby, so their children would have better opportunities in the US. They’re confident they made the right decision. The Hillcrest High School student is Ivy League bound, with plans to study business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Leaving Ethiopia, though, didn’t come without consequences.

Jemal’s parents had secure careers —Salah a government employee and Mohammed an accountant — but they sacrificed their own stability for their children’s future.

“The first five years were terrible,” Salah says. “We didn’t complain … When I left there, I knew the cost and the benefits.”

After they arrived in Dallas, his parents only could find jobs at 7-Eleven. Cash-strapped, they moved from apartment to apartment, even sharing a one-bedroom unit on Park Lane with another family to make ends meet. It was crowded, and the neighborhood didn’t feel safe to Jemal.

America is full of opportunity, Abdella says, but it’s exhausting to find the right key to unlock it. Their burdens weren’t eased until he and Mohammed found jobs in their profession. They now call a duplex in Richardson home, but they’ve worked such long hours the past year that Jemal stays with his aunt and uncle during the week.

“They’re definitely my biggest role models,” Jemal says. “I’ve been the sensible child thinking of what they did. They were comfortable there, living in Ethiopia.”

Jemal has returned to the country twice, in 2006 and 2016, since his family moved. The poor sanitation and limited resources were appalling, he says.

“It’s a humbling experience,” he says. “It’s a different reality. They have to put unnecessary amounts of effort into basic needs like laundry and water.”

With so many relatives living in Ethiopia, Jemal considered working in politics or advocacy to improve the nation’s living conditions. He’s already immersed himself researching social issues like racial inequality and income disparity.

Moving 1,500 miles northeast to Philadelphia is Jemal’s next step to achieving those goals. Known as determined and self-assured, Jemal took an unconventional route to the Ivy League. He withdrew from Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center — one of the country’s top-ranked public schools — to attend Hillcrest his junior year.

His family and Townview’s staff couldn’t fathom why someone would trade a prestigious institution for a neighborhood school. Jemal wanted to play basketball. The Oak Cliff school didn’t offer the sport, so he commuted 25 minutes to W.T. White to play ball.

“I did my own calculations on what would be better for me,” he says. “Despite what everyone told me not to do, I made my decision to come to Hillcrest.”

He thrived at the high school. After a year as a guard on the basketball team, he quit to devote all of his efforts to mock trial.

“It’s like intellectual sports,” he says. “It’s fun battling against others.”

Jemal has shattered every stereotype that his peers have thrown at him since he transferred in 2015. He expects people to assume he’s a delinquent, and he’s even less surprised when they think he’s dumb. His teammates used to see his test scores and tell him they didn’t think he’d be that smart. Others were shocked he took AP classes and didn’t get into trouble.

“Black kid. Tall. People think in general that you’re not smart,” he says. “You’re going to get low grades, disturb the class, disrupt the class. That’s just not true.”

He may face the same stereotypes at the University of Pennsylvania, a campus whose student body only is 7 percent black. He’s looking forward to the challenge, though, because it’s another chance to prove them wrong.

“Just the fact there’s a problem there means you can fix it. It gives me purpose there.”

 

(Photo by DannyFulgencio)

Kevin Chavez (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Read ragged

Kevin Chavez’s mother couldn’t understand why he spent several hours in school every day but could barely read.

Neither of his parents spoke English, so they relied on Chavez to translate for them. He struggled to decipher the words on a McDonald’s menu when they grabbed a meal. Homework assignments took him twice as long as his peers. The Thomas Jefferson High School student never finished a standardized test. Chavez repeated third grade, yet he still fell further behind the rest of his classmates.

His parents were frustrated and thought he simply wasn’t trying. Chavez didn’t know why letters appeared in reverse or why the words seemed scrambled until he conducted his own research.

One of his middle-school teachers also noticed he wasn’t reading at his grade level, and she requested he be tested for dyslexia. Because he wasn’t diagnosed with the learning disability until he was 14, he has yet to catch up to his peers.

“You can get frustrated, not get it done, or you can just work through it,” he says.

Academics are challenging for Chavez, but he excels in leadership roles. He’s the captain of the soccer team and a member of the religious program Young Life. He’s actively involved in Thomas Jefferson’s Patriot Ambassadors Program, a class where students tackle community projects, mentor others and serve as translators.

His girlfriend, Stephanie, encouraged him to apply for the course his junior year, and it’s what motivated him to pursue more than a high school diploma.

“Before he came into this class, I don’t think he knew what to do with his life,” teacher John Oberly says. “Furthermore, I’m not sure he’s been told he’s valuable … Because he’s relatively quiet, he flies under the radar. I wouldn’t let him do that.”

He’s more likely to raise his hand and volunteer now, and that’s paid off. Mark Hubbard, president of Paragon Furniture Inc., visited Oberly’s classroom to discuss desks they supplied. When he asked for feedback, Chavez was the only one who criticized its design. His thoughtfulness and attention to detail landed him an internship with the company this summer.

“What I want to do is marketing and management, but I also really like designing things—normal day things like tables,” Chavez says.

There weren’t many people who encouraged him at school before he met his girlfriend and joined the Patriot Ambassadors program, he says. He’s more focused now, so he lost most of his childhood friends — people who do drugs or have ended up in jail.

“I used to be like them and have fun all the time,” he says. “At a point, I realized it’s not going to lead me anywhere.”

He’ll take classes at Tyler Junior College next year, but he hasn’t stopped to reflect on how much he’s accomplished this year. He has more ahead of him, and a lot of missed time to make up, he says.

“He’s only now just realizing his capacity when people turn and look at him,” Oberly says.


Catching up with …

LaDavia Abron Empy

Since LaDavia Abron Empy was 8 years old, she worked odd jobs to help pay the bills.

When the Advocate first met the then-W.T. White student in 2011, she was a part-time cashier at Tom Thumb. Her mother struggled with bipolar disorder. She couldn’t keep a steady job, and bills were left unpaid. Her father has 17 other children, so he wasn’t a constant figure in her life either.

Empy still participated in a lengthy list of extracurricular activities, such as Varsity Choir  and National Honor Society, and graduated with honors. She was one of 1,000 students across the country to receive the highly competitive Gates Millenium Scholarship.

“I think there’s always someone there to help you if you’re willing to believe that there are,” she says. “Your results aren’t determined by your situation.”

With her financial burdens lifted, she could attend Hampton University in Virginia to study mathematics.

“I just didn’t have the same worries,” she says. “I was able to be seen as not this person with all these issues and to walk around without a care in world besides my future.”

Once Empy received her bachelor’s degree, she obtained a provisional license to teach. She’s now a high school math teacher at An Achievable Dream High School in Newport News, Va.

Abron Empy mother’s life took a turn for the better, too, once her daughter moved across the country. She’s stable now and even paying her bills on time.

“I’ve heard someone say me going off and seeing how great things are for me made her want to do better,” Empy says.

Her relationship with both parents isn’t where she hopes it will be, but it’s on the mend. For the first time in years, they even say, “I love you.”

Her childhood only has helped her relate to her students. Many of them are estranged  from their families or live in a single-parent household, similar to what Abron Empy experienced.

“I think a teacher has more of an impact than we think that they do, because you don’t know the other side of a child’s story until you really get to know them.”


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