It’s graduation season, a time when families and friends celebrate students’ great accomplishments. In honor of the Class of 2016, we’ve profiled seven graduating high school seniors from across San Luis Obispo County.
Nipomo High: Rogelio Flores
Friday will be a doubly important day for Nipomo High School senior Rogelio Flores: Not only is it his graduation day — it’s also his 18th birthday.
“I think I’ll be pretty sad as well, though,” he said. “I’ll be 18. I’ll be facing the world after that. So it’s pretty scary, but I think it’ll be a thrilling ride.”
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Flores has had a whirlwind four years at Nipomo High. He’s been on the varsity cross-country, soccer and track teams all four years; been active with community service through his church; tutored local children; and just “always kept busy,” he said.
He was even named homecoming king this fall.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” he said.
Flores has also had some help along the way: classes through the Advancement Via Individual Determination program and advising and counseling through Cal Poly’s Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound programs have given him a lot of the tools that made it possible for him to graduate, he said.
Without that extra help, he said he wouldn’t have known how to do a lot of things like apply for financial aid or look at colleges.
His parents didn’t attend classes beyond the eighth grade.
“It’s been difficult because I didn’t really have that help growing up,” he said. “But they are very proud of me, and are very happy for where I am right now.”
Flores plans to attend Cal Poly this fall to study biochemistry. From there he hopes to attend medical school to become a pediatrician and help underprivileged children.
“I know what it is like to not have health insurance as a kid,” he said. “So I want to be the kind of doctor who can help students and kids who don’t have insurance.”
Lopez Continuation High: Destiny Reynolds
Destiny Reynolds had never received straight A’s in her life until she started attending Lopez Continuation High School in Arroyo Grande a year and a half ago.
“Before that I had horrible grades, and I didn’t like that, but it was just hard,” the 17-year-old said. “Here, it feels possible to accomplish all A’s.”
Before switching to Lopez, Reynolds said, she had never enjoyed school. Because of that, she routinely missed classes and was eventually moved from Arroyo Grande High School to alternative-education school Mesa View Community School (also in Arroyo Grande) where she began turning her life around.
In 2014, she transferred to Lopez because she had shown significant improvement in her schoolwork and was quickly making up for the lessons she had missed.
“I had my downfall,” she said. “But Lopez was a huge comeback for me. It’s seriously been the best school I’ve been at. I love it here; it’s like a total family.”
When she graduates Wednesday, Reynolds is not only leaving with the best grades of her life, she’s also the reigning prom queen (something she said she is slightly embarrassed about).
“I wasn’t too interested in winning,” she said with a laugh. “I thought it was really cool that I had gotten nominated in the first place, but it was kind of surprising to me to win, honestly.”
Reynolds was also asked by three of her teachers and the school principal to give a commencement speech.
Reynolds is still undecided about what to do next; she is slightly interested in becoming a psychiatrist, though the prospect of medical school is intimidating, she said.
“But I’ve made it this far,” she said, shrugging. “And I know that I’m quite competitive, which I’ve heard is important in medical school, so I think I’m OK on that part.”
In the meantime, she plans to take online general education courses through Arizona State University while contemplating her future path.
“If you are having a hard time, come to Lopez — seriously,” she said, when asked for her advice for other struggling students. “As soon as I came here, I knew that it was for me. It’s the environment for anyone who isn’t extremely sociable or doesn’t just love school.”
Atascadero High: Robert Lastra
For Robert “Tony” Lastra, performing isn’t just a hobby — it’s a way of life.
The soon-to-be Atascadero High School graduate has used music and acting to overcome a troubled home life. Now he wants his talents to make an impact on other people.
Lastra grew up throughout Nevada, but eventually found stability when he came to live with his grandparents in the Atascadero area. At first, Lastra said he was constantly in trouble and acting out at school. But during his sophomore year, he “started thinking about where (he) was headed.”
Joining the high school’s show choir during his junior year changed Lastra’s life.
“It taught me to use all this energy that I had for something that could change people’s minds about certain things,” he said. “It also taught me how to look at myself and analyze what I was doing.”
Lastra said Dallas was his favorite character to portray.
“Dallas has this group that he looks at as his family,” Lastra said. “For me, that’s show choir. And he would do anything that it took to make sure everyone in that family was OK.”
Lastra plans to study drama at Cuesta College in the fall and eventually wants to enroll at the PCPA - Pacific Conservatory Theatre. One day, he hopes to be an actor on Broadway; his dream role is Usnavi from “In the Heights.”
“(Show choir) really changed (me) a lot,” Lastra said. “It helped me become a better person altogether.”
Morro Bay High: Yesakor and Debora Tolessa
A few years ago while he was living in his native Ethiopia, Morro Bay High School senior Yesakor Tolessa was kidnapped.
“I was walking with my friend and these guys grabbed me and pulled me into their car,” Yesakor said. “They thought I was someone else, a friend of mine at school, and I said ‘no.’ They said ‘prove it’ and so I showed them my ID. They laughed and pushed me out of the car into a bush after about five minutes.”
The men were planning to hold his friend for ransom, Tolessa said. That friend and family left the African country two weeks after the incident.
His hometown, the capital city of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, usually isn’t that dangerous, Tolessa said. In fact, he finds the bungled abduction amusing now.
But the opportunity to achieve his goals in America attracted Yesakor and his twin sister Debora Tolessa to Morro Bay last year, where they were reunited with their mother for the first time since they were babies. The twins, 17, graduate Thursday.
Their mother, Wudinesh Ayana, left Ethiopia for the U.S. when they were 11 months old and tried for years to bring them and their 21-year-old brother to live with her. Last year, her application for a visa for all three of her children was finally approved.
“It was hard to leave our friends and family, and our father, behind,” Yesakor Tolessa said. “But there, you have to work really, really hard to succeed. Here, if you work hard, you can get what you want.”
The twins, who speak fluent English at school and their native Amharic at home, have slowly gotten to know their mother, a nurse at California Men’s Colony. They studied English since they were small children while being raised by their father, who works in the dairy industry.
Both twins will attend Cuesta College next year on the Cuesta Promise, which offers free tuition to San Luis Obispo County graduates in their first year there.
Yesakor, who enjoys history and social sciences, plans to become a teacher and possibly start a business in Ethiopia someday. Debora enjoys the sciences and wants to pursue a career in preventive medicine to help people from poor regions, including Africa.
“Graduation is scary but exciting,” Debora said. “It will be a different thing. I think it’s exciting to be moving on.”
Paso Robles High: Cassidy Moses
Cassidy Moses is ready to help mold the minds of young students.
The Paso Robles High School senior has spent the past four years working with 3- to 5-year-olds at the on-campus Bearkitten Preschool. Students teach children using skills they develop in dual-enrollment high school/Cuesta College early childhood education classes.
Now, Moses wants to put some of her experiences to use as a pediatric neurologist. She plans to major in neurology at Davidson College in North Carolina, where she’ll start in the fall.
“This is where I kind of figured out what I want to do,” Moses said while sitting in the colorful Bearkitten classroom.
Along with her work at Bearkitten, Moses also helped create a Junior Optimist Octagon International high school club, an offshoot of Optimist International. The group helped raise money for various causes, including the school’s news magazine.
Moses said she wants to use the science, English and education skills her favorite teachers have taught her to help children, especially those with few opportunities.
“I like watching them grow and develop,” Moses said. “I want to figure out what I can do to help families who don’t get to have those experiences and who don’t get to send their children to school because it’s just too hard.”
San Luis Obispo High: Manny Maldonado
As a sophomore in high school, Manny Maldonado was surrounded by friends who were gang members and was on a path to land himself in serious trouble while living in his hometown of Marina near Salinas.
He consistently cut classes and ignored homework.
Maldonado managed to avoid joining a gang, but his parents saw trouble on the horizon and decided he should live with his godparents in San Luis Obispo. They told him the visit was temporary, but it wasn’t.
Maldonado graduates Friday from San Luis Obispo High School, having turned his life around.
“There, you had to watch your back all the time and the police were always on you,” Maldonado said. “My environment was hanging around with people who were in gangs. I sold drugs. I was forced to move out here to clear my mind and get caught up in school.”
Maldonado said his godparents, Martin Landeros, a math teacher at Allan Hancock College and Monica Garcia, a preschool teacher, encouraged his academics, and he said it was here that “I actually did homework for the first time.”
“I was never a dumb person, but I just didn’t go to class,” Maldonado said. “Slowly, I had to learn how to become a good student. My godparents helped me.”
Since then, Maldonado has focused on his schoolwork, attending all of the classes needed for college, earning a roughly 3.0 GPA, and earning admission and scholarship money to attend UC Merced, where he starts in the fall.
He said that when he goes home to visit his parents, he doesn’t go out and no longer interacts with his old group of friends.
“It was a culture shock moving here,” Maldonado said. “But everyone is nice.”
Staff writers Lindsey Holden, Kaytlyn Leslie and Nick Wilson contributed to this story.