Cristina Meraz, 17, underwent many teenagers’ worst nightmare: changing schools halfway through high school.
Besides being uprooted from her home, friends and family, Meraz had another difficulty to overcome to settle into her new school and life.
She had to learn the language.
Meraz was born in California, but her family moved to Morelos, Mexico, when she was 2 years old. She attended Valentin Gomez Farias school from first to ninth grade, and had just started high school, which starts in 10th grade in Mexico, when her parents decided to move to Lakewood.
She started at Jefferson High School in the second semester of her sophomore year, and although she had studied basic English at her previous school, she didn’t have much to go on.
“Basically we just learned how to say ‘hi’ and the colors,” Meraz said.
She enrolled in Jefferson’s English as a Second Language class, but had a regular sophomore course load with all classes taught in English. One of the school’s ESL teachers, Lorrie Joseph, Dempsey Andrews or Andrew Koch, was always with her in class to translate as needed.
“I couldn’t have done anything without them,” Meraz said.
Always a good student, Meraz had received straight A’s at her schools in Mexico. Jefferson High School brought many firsts for her, but her first B — in American history — is still something that haunts Meraz.
Still, she managed to get a 3.5 grade-point average for her first semester at Jefferson.
During her next two years, Meraz earned A’s, with one exception. She received a B in physics. She is graduating this month, and with the highest GPA in the 2012 class, she will be this year’s valedictorian.
She is still working on her speech for the May 22 graduation ceremony, but she said she has no doubts about her theme.
“All of my experience here is based on not giving up,” she said.
She said she could have gone back to Mexico to live with extended family when things got hard, but she decided to stay, learn English and graduate from an American high school.
Her perseverance has paid off, and she will attend the University of Colorado at Boulder in the fall, on a full-ride scholarship from CU and the Ronald McDonald House. She plans to study medicine and math, which she said has always been her favorite subject.
“In math, everything is just so perfect,” she said. ”You don’t have to guess what the answer is. It just is what it is.”
Meraz’s brother, David, 20, graduated from Jefferson in 2010, and her sister, Dulce, 24, just graduated from college in Mexico with a degree in economics.
Meraz’s mother, Maria Godoy, said she will miss her daughter, her youngest child, very much when she leaves for school.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without her,” Godoy said in Spanish, with Meraz translating.
Godoy started taking ESL classes last year. She has class twice a week as part of Jefferson’s night-school program. Every day after school, Meraz helps her mother with her English homework. They sit in the living room, going over the workbooks and reading aloud in English. If Godoy has trouble, she asks her daughter to help her understand.