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Luis Mendez is seen in a photo taken by a friend while they were working harvesting Christmas trees in 2017. Mendez will graduate Friday night from Corvallis High School.

Editor's note: This is the fifth installment in a series of stories about Benton County high school seniors who overcame obstacles to be part of the class of 2018. The final story in the series will appear in Friday's Gazette-Times.

Luis Mendez’s path to Corvallis High School began when he witnessed the aftermath of his father beating his mother so badly she couldn’t move while the family was visiting Mexico.

“It was shocking for me. My mom tells me he’s been doing this forever, but it was the first time I ever saw it,” said Mendez, who had lived in Corvallis from the time he was a few months old until preschool, when he moved to California.

Mendez’s older sister, Ana, persuaded her mother and him to move back up to Corvallis, where she was living, when he was in the sixth grade. However, Mendez didn’t like the perpetual gloom of Oregon weather and threatened to run away, so he and his mother returned to the Los Angeles area, where they had been living before their second stint in Corvallis.

But after the incident in Mexico, which took place in the summer before what would have been Mendez’s senior year, he said he realized moving to Corvallis to get away from his dad was the right decision. His sister Ana bought them airplane tickets to Corvallis from Mexico and let them stay with her.

When Mendez arrived in Corvallis, he realized he was behind on credits, and found himself feeling like he didn’t fit in.

“I didn’t think I would graduate,” he said.

Mendez did start to make friends at Corvallis High School and found the teachers very encouraging, but he still nearly dropped out when he realized he would need a fifth year to have enough credits to graduate.

“Coming back was a hard decision,” he said. “A second senior year is no one’s cup of tea, but I felt I had to come back to make things right.”

Mendez said he was motivated to stay in school to create a better life for himself and his mother. Charts in the school’s counseling office showing how not having a diploma would affect his lifetime earnings helped drive the point home, he said.

This year, as Mendez was finishing up his credits to graduate, he’s also been working 60 hours a week at two part-time jobs so he could get an apartment for him and his mom.

Mendez said his teachers have been crucial in helping him stay in school. He said English Language Learners teacher Mary Skillings in particular encouraged him to stay in school even though he never had her class. And her husband, Kevin Skillings, Mendez’s auto shop teacher, connected Mendez to a job with Schaefers' Recreation Equipment, which is intending to make him full-time and train him as a technician now that he’s graduated.

The help made a difference for Mendez.

“I don’t think I would have graduated in California. In my old high school there were 50 kids per class. … The teachers don’t help you at all,” he said.

Mendez said when he bought a car with a manual transmission, Kevin Skillings taught him to drive stick shift on his own time, in his own truck.

“I doubt the teachers (at his California school) would even trust you to let you in their car,” he said.

Kevin Skillings said he noticed Mendez’s work ethic in November, when he learned Mendez was working two jobs, including one harvesting Christmas trees. When Schaefers called looking for candidates, Mendez was the first person he thought of.

“Luis is a unique student," Skillings said. "He is soft-spoken and polite, but he has a drive to succeed and knows the only way that he will get ahead is through hard work and perseverance."

Mendez said now that he is graduating he has a lot more pride in himself. He’s the first male in his family to graduate.

“It feels almost unreal (to be graduating),” he said. “Last year at this time I was considering dropping out.”

Anthony Rimel covers education and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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