Park City High School students become the first in their families to graduate
The co-presidents of Latinos in Action discussed the challenges, and pride, of being first generation students
The halls of Park City High School were filled with exciting conversations from crowds of giggling students anxiously awaiting the end of the academic year on Thursday, but two seniors remained steadfast in their focus until the following night, when their hard work would finally be complete.
Walking across the commencement stage on Friday night was bound to be particularly emotional for Arantza Pedraza and Jose Hernandez-Bello, who this week became the first people in their families to graduate from high school. The pair gave a powerful speech at the ceremony as co-presidents of Latinos in Action, which was an ode to their culture and parents – as well as to the siblings in the audience who may have been translating. It honored the challenges, and pride, that come with being a first-generation student.
While preparing for the ceremony, Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello said it was hard to believe graduation day was finally here after a long, emotional few years. They feel proud to walk the stage, but the journey there wasn’t always easy.
Pedraza emigrated to the United States from Mexico around 10 years ago with her mom, dad and older brother. Her parents tried to be supportive, she said, but they didn’t always know how.
Hernandez-Bello was born in Salt Lake City shortly after his mom and grandmother also moved from Mexico. Now, he has a 9-year-old sister. He recalled difficulties growing up surrounded by many “toxic adults” and fears of being separated from family.
Both of their parents often worked long hours, which forced each of them to grow up quickly and take on more responsibilities than some of their classmates. English was their second language. The pair were also battling underlying feelings of guilt and pressure associated with the sacrifices their families had made and being unsure of what they wanted with their own lives.
“One of my parent figures was pushing me to get a job instead of an education,” Hernandez-Bello said. “They didn’t really understand it and wanted me to get a job to give back to my mom and start taking care of her.”
He continued, “I think that’s how they see survival. They found survival that way. They had to get a job. An education wasn’t really an option or attainable. Getting a job was something they had to do so they could eat at least once a day.”
But both of the students became interested in furthering their education – even if they didn’t always realize they are worthy of one.
Things started to shift for Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello when they joined Latinos in Action. The nationwide program engages Latino youth through personal relationships, academics, service and leadership. It acts as a class and extracurricular activity in the School District with around 10 students per grade enrolled throughout middle school, junior high and high school.
Latinos in Action allowed Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello to move beyond their comfort zone and helped them develop a sense of identity related to their individuality and culture. The program, which has a grade point average requirement, ensured the students were doing their best. It was crucial for Hernandez-Bello, who said he “wasn’t on the best path” before joining.
It also provided a safe place in the School District for the students by giving them a trusted community of classmates and teachers that also felt like a “familia.” This was vital for Pedraza as she struggled to find her own voice.
“We’re highly disenfranchised here, especially living in such an overwhelmingly white community,” she said. “I feel like sometimes we feel not only disenfranchised in the education system and in the workforce, but also emotionally. For many of us, it’s difficult for us to really embrace our culture fully because we are expected to conform with what the people around us are doing and what they believe in.”
She continued, “I feel like it’s important for us to feel that connection to our culture because it’s power. Classes like Latinos in Action help empower yourself and others into being the best version you can be.”
Other programs such as Dream Big and Bright Futures, which Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello participate in, also helped the students prepare for college by helping them enroll in Advanced Placement courses and with their admissions applications, or through financial assistance.
“Dream Big gets us to college, Bright Futures gets us through college. They’re each a community that comes together to form an even bigger community,” Hernandez-Bello said.
Pedraza agreed. She added, “It’s really important for us to have those empowering, safe spaces where we’re encouraged to step outside of our comfort zone and learn not to accept what other people think we can or should do. It’s important for us to have a place where we can receive the help that we need. I feel like many of us are stubborn as Latinos. We’re a very proud people so we have a hard time admitting when we need help or support.”
Both students said they suffered from imposter syndrome – feelings of being a fraud despite various achievements – while attending AP classes or receiving awards, such as recognition from the Utah Sterling Scholar competition, or earning other scholarships. Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello spoke about a competitive atmosphere in the School District and pressure from peers to perform well or be accepted into an Ivy League university. They also experienced other challenges such as microaggressions from students, teachers and administrators that made them question whether they belonged.
The graduates emphasized most Latino students have to be self-motivating compared to their classmates because their parents won’t push them in academics or to further their education. Some Latino parents are encouraging, Pedraza said, but they don’t always know how to be supportive because they don’t understand. There are also additional barriers such as cost and location for minority students to attend college.
“You have to want to achieve these things because you don’t have your parents behind you telling you what you should do or instilling that discipline,” she explained.
As a result, Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello had to outsource support from teachers. Educators such as Anna Williams, who teaches English as a second language at the high school, and Josh Goldberg, a Jewish teacher who has been outspoken against racist graffiti and hate speech within the School District, and others have been essential to the students’ growth and confidence, they said.
The teachers inspired the students to take action within their own lives and to improve their community. Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello recently helped craft a proposed diversity, equity and inclusion policy that will be voted on by the Park City School District. They said it will help support marginalized communities and ensure they succeed.
Equity Policy 1006 defines equity as “fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups.”
“It’s not about politics. It’s about humanity. We are not a bill. We are not a law,” Hernandez-Bello said. “We are people. We are sons. We are daughters. We are students. And we demand what we deserve.”
After making it across the commencement stage, Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello are excited about their future. They are headed to the University of Utah this fall where they’ll study psychology and biomedical engineering, respectively. They look forward to studying in a diverse environment and breaking down barriers in their community upon graduation. And they know they have the support of Bright Futures and other Park City mentors along the way.
The high school graduates each earned several scholarships for their hard work, which made their dreams of going to college possible. Hernandez-Bello received the Chartwell Housing Scholarship that will allow him to live in a new campus dorm for free as well as a HOSA award for future health professionals entering a science field. Pedraza received the Eccles Scholarship, a University of Utah merit scholarship and others.
And to incoming freshmen, Pedraza and Hernandez-Bello offered a bit of parting wisdom. They encouraged new students to challenge themselves in an area they are passionate about, and to explore and grow even if they feel out of place at first.
“Take the time to learn who you are. Surround yourself with encouraging people. Learn to have discipline and stay focused on success. And have fun!” Pedraza said.
Park City High School senior George Beal claims he doesn’t shine in the spotlight, but he sure looks darn good on paper. A few weeks ago, he became one of the nation’s roughly 16,000 semifinalists for the 2024 National Merit Scholarship Program.
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