In the coming weeks, hundreds of Humboldt County high school students will take their diplomas and cross the thresholds toward the rest of their lives. Some will head off to college in the fall. Others will enter the workforce. And at least a few will surely stay in their parents' homes, bumming around and trying to figure out what's next. While it's a fallacy to say these young men and women are just now entering the real world — they've been here all along — high school graduation is clearly a milestone, a symbol of achievement and new beginnings.
As we wish these folks clarity, perseverance, vision and luck moving forward, we take this chance to look back at three young Humboldters who have overcome seemingly every obstacle in their path to reach their goals. There's a lot that we, as a community, can learn from them.
Six Rivers Charter School Principal Nic Collart can picture the scene perfectly, in part, because it played out with regularity. He'd be standing on the edge of the parking lot of Arcata High School, which shares a campus with Six Rivers. Along with other administrators, Collart would be keeping vigilant watch as students trickled back to campus from their lunch break.
"All of a sudden, there's this boom-boom-boom," Collart recalls, adding that even from a distance, the bass was something felt as much as heard. Then Collart would watch a beat up, green Saturn station wagon come into view, slowing as it passed so the driver could offer Collart a wave and a smile. Collart would blush a bit, turn to his fellow administrators — most of whom work at Arcata High School — and explain that the kid returning to campus blasting old school rap music at unbelievable decibels was one of his, his valedictorian, in fact, one William "Billy" Askew Jr.
Collart smiles as he recounts the story, in part, because it underscores the fact that Askew is an enigma. In letters of recommendation, Collart and other Six Rivers staff used words like "driven," "diligent," "hardworking" and "maturity," but his story is more than can be reflected on a resume or a single to-whom-it-may-concern letter. For his part, Collart said he didn't fully know and appreciate Askew's story until recently.
The principal first met his star-pupil-to-be at one of Six Rivers' recruiting outreach events, where the school staff goes to different local junior high schools to explain what the small charter school of about 120 students has to offer: a college preparatory curriculum, small class sizes, a flexible learning environment and lots of individualized attention. Collart remembers the meeting clearly because Askew was so engaged, staying after to ask questions. What Collard didn't know is that Askew was in the midst of one of the hardest stretches of his young life.
Askew moved with his folks to Humboldt County when he was in second grade to help care for his dying grandmother. A few years later, Askew's parents divorced, with his father moving back to Chicago and him staying to live with his mother. Hard times followed. Askew and his mom got evicted from their apartmen, and spent more than three years — Askew's fifth through ninth grade years — homeless, staying on friends' couches, in their car and, ultimately, in a small trailer on a property owned by Askew's mother's boss, who ran a small pasta company.
Throughout this time, Askew and his mom were staying in places in Eureka, though he was attending school in Arcata. So, for the better part of three years, Askew would leave home at about 6:45 a.m., ride his bike to the bus stop, take the bus into Arcata, and then ride to school. He made the trek daily — rain or shine — and it took him about four hours, round trip. In his three years of junior high, Askew was late to class just once.
The family's financial hardships meant Askew was constantly working, too, picking up odd jobs to help out his mom. When they finally moved into that trailer, Askew would work one day a week with his mom's boss at the pasta company, in addition to his other chores of mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, walking dogs and caring for some chickens. While some might see this as a story of hardship, Askew doesn't. To him, it's simply one of determination.
"When I was doing bad, I wished that someone would come help my mom and I, but they never came," he explains. So, pretty quickly, Askew says, he determined that if he was going to make something of his life, school was his ticket. "I kind of had it drilled into me that I've got a free education, and I'm going to take advantage of that," he says, wearing an American flag T-shirt and adding that he's keenly aware of how much taxpayers are spending on his K-12 education ($122,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics).
Knowing what he knows now, Collart said it makes sense why Askew stood out that day at Sunny Brae Middle School. "He thought a smaller school would allow him to be more successful," Collart says. "I think it was a business decision, his choosing us ... I just think he's had to be an adult for a long time, self-reliant for a long time, and it shows."
Askew's been all business in the classroom, as well, earning straight As through his high school career, which includes a number of college-level advanced placement courses, leaving him with a grade point average well north of 4.0. He's especially excelled in math, which he says just comes easy. Outside the classroom, Askew is also driven. He recalls trying out for Six Rivers' basketball team as a freshman and being stuck on the "developing group," a unit of young players who simply didn't have the skills to see the court in a game. Four years later, Askew is the starting center and captain of a team that won its league championship last season.
In a couple of weeks, Askew will graduate from Six Rivers Charter High School and begin the rest of his life. After spending the summer working at Arcata's Sushi Spot restaurant as a dishwasher — Askew says the job can be monotonous but he's good at it, and he likes to be good at things — he's headed to University of Illinois in the fall, where he'll be close to his father and some extended family and plans to major in accounting.
Why accounting? "It's a stable job. There's always demand for accountants and it's the second best accounting school in the country," Askew says, adding that the accounting school hosts a career fair at the end of every school year that's attended by a number of Fortune 500 companies and that most graduating seniors leave with jobs.
Billy Askew has made his next business decision.
It's hard to believe Arcata High School's valedictorian could ever have been shy or insecure. After all, she's spent a summer as a science intern at Stanford University, is dancing with a local company's adult ensemble and boasts a gaudy 4.5 grade point average, the product of having taken 11 advanced placement, three honors and five college courses in her high school career.
But, to hear Claire Robinson tell it, there was a time when she was almost paralyzed with self-doubt. "I was too shy to raise my hand in class, even when I knew I had the right answer," she recalls. "I was really shy and insecure and it led to trouble with relationships — not speaking up when I deserved more from someone, not speaking up when a teacher wasn't treating me fairly in class."
Robinson, who moved to Humboldt from Palo Alto in grade school, says there's was no storybook moment when she realized her self-worth, no low-point when she decided she needed to put herself out there. Instead, she says, it was a gradual process. "I just realized that if I was going to get where I want to get in life, I just kind of had to get over it," she says. Dance, she says, was a critical part of the process, adding that when you're a dancer alone on stage, you either need to be supremely confident or convincingly fake it. So Robinson says she generally faked it and, over time, the confidence became genuine. It seems to have suited her well.
Looking at Robinson's resume, it's clear that she is gifted in the field of science — she studied independently for her college level advanced placement chemistry test, as Arcata High didn't offer the course — but it's also clear that has aggressively hunted out opportunities. After her sophomore year, Robinson says she was infatuated with science and desperate to spend her summer learning. So she sent out an email to everyone she knew — family friends, teachers, everyone — asking if they knew of anything. She wound up interning at Stanford University's Bio-X program. Her job was to watch and digest 150 faculty lectures detailing research, then summarize each lecture in four to six sentences, with a grabby headline. "It had to be scientifically accurate, but very accessible," she explains, adding that she loved the 10-week experience.
More recently, Robinson was cruising social media when she came across a blurb about SciNote Magazine, an online publication "started by some kids from Harvard." Robinson contacted them and was quickly signed up as a contributor to the site, on hand — along with PhD candidates and undergrads — to answer science questions from readers. Robinsons says she loved the experience, relishing the chance to research things like why all snowflakes have six sides (the shape is determined by the molecular structure, so while every snowflake is unique, they all have the same number of sides).
But Robinson's passion for science has also helped her find another. As she's become more and more involved in the heavily male-dominated field, she's thought about the struggles and issues unique to being a woman. She founded Arcata High's Women's Advocacy Club, a group that allows young women to get together and discuss issues in a safe space, helped plan last year's Humboldt State University Take Back the Night event and worked closely with Arcata High's Girls Who Code club, which gets girls together in an all-female group to practice computer programing.
When describing Robinson, her teachers and counselors use words like "mature," "poised," "articulate" and "tenacious." In a letter of recommendation, her teacher Shelley Stewart says simply: "Her promise and potential for growth are without limit."
If there's a moment when Robinson seems shy, it's when these comments are brought up and her resume is read back to her. Then, she blushes slightly. "I've had a lot of special opportunities that not everyone has," she says. "Some people have a lot of accomplishments that don't show up on a resume."
She says she is also fortunate to have realized relatively early in her life that she needs to believe in herself, even to the point of diving into opportunities she feels underqualified for. The way Robinson sees it, self-doubt is about the biggest challenge facing our society, which is permeated with the message that we are never attractive, intelligent or successful enough.
"The resultant self-esteem deficit is leading to a crisis of confidence throughout our society," Robinson wrote in an application essay for the Rising Stars Stellar Award, which she won.
Maybe we all need to take a lesson from Robinson, who's bound for Stanford University in the fall, and fake it until we believe it.
Alan Cuautle-Palafox was 6 years old when he entered a first grade classroom in Fortuna, not knowing any English at all. "I felt trapped in a bubble," he says. "I just didn't know how to communicate."
Cuautle-Palafox says he longed for his parents to take him back to Tlaxcala, town in central Mexico that the family had left with hopes of finding a better life in Fortuna, where an uncle lived. It wasn't just the language, Cuautle-Palafox says, he also missed family and friends, spending long days with his folks and grabbing his soccer ball — his only toy — and heading out into the streets for a pickup game. Life in Fortuna was just completely different.
And Cuautle-Palafox says he saw his parents struggling, too. They'd work long hours — his father as a logger and his mother at a fish processing facility — and then come home and stay up late with an English-Spanish dictionary to help him with his studies. So Cuautle-Palafox says he just dedicated himself fully to learning English, wanting both to make his life easier and to get to the point where he could help his folks.
"I just worked really hard and paid attention," he says, adding that within about a year he was completely fluent: speaking, reading and writing. In short order, he became the family's translator, tagging along with his mom and dad to the doctor, the dentist and other appointments. "My childhood was in Mexico, and when I got here I started to grow up fast," he says. "I got a whole view of the real world."
As he progressed through grade school, Cuautle-Palafox also began to realize he was truly gifted at math. "My math scores were off the charts — I knew how to divide and multiply in first grade" he says, matter-of-factly, adding that he always liked math and his mom would sit him down from a young age with multiplication tables. "It came natural to me as a child and it still comes natural to me."
Today — just a little more than a decade after arriving in Fortuna — Cuautle-Palafox is preparing to graduate ranked first in his class of 185 students at Fortuna High School with a grade point average of 4.6, having taken 12 of the 13 honors and advanced placement courses offered at the school. But those around him are quick to say those things can sell the young man short, noting he's so much more than a GPA and a resume. First and foremost, they point to the Excel Program, an after-school program for grade schoolers where Cuautle-Palafox has spent nearly 600 hours volunteering as a math and science tutor. "He is a whiz kid with a heart," as science teacher Pam Halstead wrote in a letter of recommendation, going on to describe him as "personable," "likeable" and "the opposite of arrogant."
Cuautle-Palafox was also a key contributor on Fortuna High soccer teams that won back-to-back league titles, and was elected by his peers to be his class' commander of arms, taking a leading role in planning homecoming and other events. For his part, Cuautle-Palafox says his only regret is not having been more involved.
In her letter, Halstead says Cuautle-Palafox exudes a palpable sense of joy while learning. "Alan is a nerd in the best sense of the word," she wrote. "He has a curiosity about and engagement with the world that fits both a scientist and an everyman."
This fall, Cuautle-Palafox will attend University of California at Merced, which he says offered a good financial aid package, has a wonderful campus and is a strong engineering school. He's planning on studying engineering with the goal of becoming the first in his family to graduate from a four-year university and, ultimately, working for Tesla Motors.
But Cuautle-Palafox also has larger goals, like inspiring the Latino community to see that anything is possible. "I want them to see that I can relate to them: I, too, left family in my home country, struggled with the language, take care of my young sibling when my parents work, play sports and have to manage time to do homework," he says.
In a personal essay applying for a scholarship, Cuautle-Palafox offered the following quote from Cesar Chavez, saying it applies to both his life and the change he wants to make in the world: "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours."