Estela Cruz’s journey to graduating from Corvallis High School began when men attacked her house in the mountains of Todos Santos, Guatemala.
Cruz recalled running into the woods, leaving her sister behind, and screaming for help.
“Since we lived in the mountains, there was no one there to hear it,” she said.
Although everyone in her family survived the attack, they didn’t feel like they could remain at the house any longer.
“It wasn’t safe,” she said. “I’m Mayan. We are discriminated against and I’m a woman.”
Cruz said her father, who was living and working in Corvallis, decided that she, her mother and two younger sisters should join him in the United States. So they traveled by train and bus for around a month to cross into the country, seeking asylum.
Cruz said when she arrived in Corvallis in 2014 at age 14, she hadn’t been to school since elementary school. Despite wanting to learn, Cruz couldn’t go to school because her dad couldn’t afford to send home enough money to pay for it, and because traveling to school from their remote home was dangerous. Although she wanted to go to work like her mother, the judge in her asylum case told the family the girls needed to be in school.
So she enrolled at Corvallis High School, where she was not only years behind her peers, but had barely any English. Since her native language is Mam, her Spanish was also limited.
“My first day I cried. When I got home, I said ‘school is not for me. I want to work,’” she said.
Joshua Miller, Cruz’ counselor, said the school had to hire a tutor to work with Cruz and her sister when they first came to the school.
Cruz said the level of support she got at Corvallis High School helped her get through the difficult time.
“I felt like I was home. Not everyone comes to a country and feels welcome,” she said.
Although Cruz said she faced a lot of pressure from her family to stop school and go to work, she kept going to school. She said her teachers, particularly English language development teachers Bonnie Arning, Karin Krueger and Mary Skillings, kept her in school.
“Without them, I never would have made it,” she said. “I always say they are like my mom.”
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Skillings said Cruz needed time to adjust to Corvallis High School, but after her teachers and classmates built up trust with her through things like sharing meals with them, there was no stopping her.
“She arrived here scared, nervous, and different than everyone else. She’d sit in the desks at school, her feet swinging below her because she’s so short, unsure of everything. But, she came with a desire inside her that is stronger than any of the many fears she’s had to face both in her native country of Guatemala and here in her home country of the U.S., fears many of us can’t even imagine. She came with a desire to learn,” Skillings said. “She believes in herself and in the opportunities our country provides. She’s here to learn. That desire is what has kept her going.”
As Cruz got more comfortable in school she began to do better, but the pressure to go to work remained.
She said she began to work weekends and also had to deal with missing school to help her mom at monthly immigration court hearings. Cruz said those hearings were scary because she didn’t know if the courts would allow her family to stay in the United States. And in the fall of 2018, her dad was detained for about a month by immigration authorities. Cruz said although she and her mother and sisters were in the process of seeking asylum, since her dad entered the U.S. before they did, he was considered a separate case.
In November 2018, she and her mother and sisters were officially granted asylum. Her dad was released from detention about a week later and is now in the asylum process himself.
Cruz said getting asylum was exciting not just because it meant she gets to stay in the country: It also means she is able to attend college. She plans to attend Linn-Benton Community College and eventually become a dental hygienist.
“It’s so amazing. I’m here and I’m going to college,” she said.
She said she is the first in her family to graduate high school and she is proud of her parents and how hard they worked to give her the opportunity to have an education and a better life. She said she especially wants to repay her mom, who has to work outside, even in the rain, for the sacrifice.
“I told my mom I don’t want you to work,” she said. “I won’t have the life you had because you worked so hard.”
Miller said getting to graduation took grit for Cruz and she took advantage of every opportunity given to her.
“This is what blows our mind. She came to us as a kid who barely spoke any English and now she is going to college. She worked as hard as any kid I’ve ever had,” he said.
Cruz said one of her younger sisters dropped out of school and had a baby, but her youngest sister is now in sixth grade at Linus Pauling Middle School and doing well. Cruz added that she keeps tabs on her youngest sister’s grades, since her parents can’t.
Cruz said her experience shows that even coming into school far behind doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, as long as you keep trying.
“Never give up,” she said. “Everything is possible.”