UCLA Community School Celebrates the Class of 2013

One-third of the graduating class are the first in their families to earn a high school diploma; eight students were accepted to UC campuses.

The second annual graduation ceremony of UCLA Community School took place on June 6, with 58 members of the Class of 2013 celebrating their achievements and looking forward to the road ahead. One-third of the members of the graduating class were the first in their families to earn a high school diploma. Eight students were accepted to the University of California, including Raul Pool, Alejandro Molina, Kimberly Villanueva, and Hermelinda Calderon (UC Merced); Joshua Cho (UC San Diego); and Amos Kim (UC Irvine). In addition, Esther Sim and Anne Villegas were both accepted to UCLA.

A UCLA Community School tradition, the Senior Awards Dinner, took place the preceding week on May 30 at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools site, honoring students who had achieved awards of distinction in disciplines from art to mathematics, and providing the graduates-to-be the opportunity to celebrate with UCLA-CS teachers, administration, families, alumni, and friends who have supported them on their educational journey.

Principal Leyda Garcia welcomed families and friends to Commencement in the school’s auditorium in the historic Cocoanut Grove on the evening of June 6. She  commended the graduates for actively seeking out their passions and developing their skills.

“I really appreciate how so many of you dared to explore other things,” said Garcia. “Even if you didn’t think you might like something, you still explored it. Your education should be about becoming a full human being, who knows how to work with others, who understands different areas of study, who’s willing to learn.

“That’s what our program is about, that’s what your teachers do, that’s what you do for each other. And that really represents who we are as a school. We are UCLA Community School, and our core competencies speak to who we want you to be.”

Karen Hunter Quartz, director of research at UCLA’s Center X and UCLA Community School, addressed the graduates and emphasized the K-12 school’s ties to the university with the same caliber of education and students.

UCLA Community School seniors were feted at the school’s annual awards dinner on May 30. L-R: Citalli Antonio, Counseling Award; Latorsha Rosendary, Excellence in Art; Dzign Anderson, Excellence in Spanish, Anne Villegas, Excellence in Science Award, Raul Pool- Excellence in  Math; Stephanie Figueroa, Excellence in  SS/History; Joshua Cho, Excellence in English; and Soo Yong Suh, Excellence in Alternative Education Award. Photo by Catalina Herrera

“UCLA students pursue the same core competencies that you do,” she said. “This isn’t a coincidence. These competencies define what it is to be a well-educated person and a lifelong learner. So you are all graduating today as pre-collegiate Bruins, with bright futures.”

Echoing UCLA Community School’s mission of educating self-directed, passionate learners, Hunter Quartz exhorted the graduates to “Stay focused on your education journey. Continue to build your knowledge and skills, and most of all, stay true to your passions and direct your own learning. Reach out and engage critically in society. Embrace your culture, and many others. This will take fortitude, determination, and lots of support.

“As you leave our wonderful school, know that you’re not alone,” Hunter Quartz said. “Along with your family, friends, and teachers, there are 400,000 alumni of the Bruin family to cheer you on.”

Leisy Abrego, associate professor in UCLA’s Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, served as the ceremony’s keynote speaker. She described her experiences as a child, emigrating first to Mexico, and then to the United States from her native El Salvador. She told the students about her continuous belief that, “I wasn’t supposed to be here,” reinforced by her family’s survival of a harrowing escape from El Salvador in the wake of civil war in the 1980s, and then, overcoming prejudice from her own classmates and educators, who assumed that she would never achieve a higher education.

“In my family, I could count on one hand the number of people who had even finished high school,” said Abrego. “I did not know anyone who had gone to college, and I was lucky that even though I went to schools where we didn’t have enough books… [and] we didn’t have the resources that we needed, the teachers cared. I’m happy to see the students here recognizing their teachers, because they matter.”

Leisy Abrego, associate professor in UCLA’s Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, encouraged the graduates to go beyond others’ expectations of them.

Abrego, who attended a private high school on scholarship, faced more stereotypes there, and said that she continued to face them, even as a graduate student and eventually even in her current position as a professor at UCLA. She encouraged the graduates to look beyond others’ perceptions of them to achieve their goals.

“I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she recalls. “People told me things like, ‘The only Salvadorean I know is the nanny who raised me.’ Nannies and housekeepers – that was about it. They had no idea that people from El Salvador could be anything else.

“So, you can follow what people see in you, the way that you’re treated, what they’ve been taught to know about you or not know about you. You can choose to fulfill those expectations even if they are low ones, because in those positions, no one is going to question whether you should be or shouldn’t be there. I want to challenge you to redefine ideas about where you should be.”

“As children of immigrants, we are the realization of our parents’ dreams,” continued Abrego. “They did sacrifice a lot to be here in search of opportunities for us. Don’t be convinced that there are only limited paths and blocked-off spaces for you. Go out there and prove that you can be in those spaces. Explore precisely where people told you you were not supposed to be. Create paths for yourself … and keep opening up spaces for more of us to get there as well.”

Introduced by teachers Beth Trinchero, Maria Nakis, and Joel Vaca, three student speakers also graced the stage with heartfelt recollections of their time at UCLA Community School and hopes for the future for themselves and their classmates.

Anne Villegas arrived in the United States in 2009, emigrating from the Philippines just days before enrolling in UCLA Community School. Trinchero, who was her English teacher, stated that she was impressed by Villegas’s studiousness and abilities, and was surprised that her new student began UCLA Community School a grade behind due to coming from a different school system in the Philippines. She said that this situation – as well as Villegas’s inherent shyness upon arriving in the states – was quickly remedied.

In her speech, Villegas shared her experiences of adapting not only to a new school system, but to a new homeland as well.

“Sometimes I learned the most when I made mistakes,” said Villegas. “My fellow students, don’t be afraid to fail. This is just the first step to success. I know that life can be hard at times, but remember that life gives challenges to the strongest, greatest ones.”

Villegas, who will be enrolling at UCLA this fall, commended the graduating class for all its hard work, and serenaded her fellow graduates with an a cappella rendering of Katy Perry’s “Firework,” a song whose lyrics encourage listeners to strive for the best in themselves.

“We grew to be multicultural, bilingual, passionate learners, and active participants in our community,” Villegas said. “We have been following our dreams, and now, we are achieving them.”

Nakis introduced Alberto Calderon, a 10th grade dropout who discovered UCLA Community School after years of truancy and low academic performance. Although the transition to the school wasn’t an overnight success, Calderon went on to eventually to become an almost straight-A student and complete a senior internship in a college level class at Los Angeles City College.

“As teachers, we love to teach the MVPs, but I think we get even more joy out of teaching the Most Improved Players, “ said Nakis, who was Calderon’s math teacher and adviser. “To see and be part of the development of a young person into an academic scholar and a thoughtful, self-directed learner is both an honor and a privilege.”

Calderon, who delivered most of his speech in Spanish, thanked his parents, sisters, and his brother for their love and support. He also gave credit to UCLA Community School faculty and staff who had the greatest impact on him, including Nakis, Agnes Cesare, Rosa Jimenez, Jason Rangel-Torres, Catalina Herrera, and Pedro De Leon.

“Congratulations, Class of 2013,” said Calderon. “We’re about to enter the real world, and thanks to UCLA-CS for it.”

Finally, Vaca introduced Joshua Cho, who was affectionately known as “Dr. Cho” by UCLA Community School students and faculty alike. Although described by his teacher as a mathematical genius, Cho cautioned his fellow students against resting on their laurels.

“No other school, no other faculty, and no other community in Los Angeles cares for its students more than [UCLA Community School],” said Cho. “However, now that we’re done with high school, the question of what comes next arises.

“As much as it hurts me to say this, I’m not going to be the smartest guy [out there],” he quipped. “As we head our separate ways, we’re going to be small fish in a big pond. Let us take a moment to remember what our teachers taught us. UCLA Community School is a place where we grew together, a place where we opened our eyes to new ideas and discovered the importance of subtext. We found that through reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, we learned more about what it means to be human.

“We have been taught by our teachers to be cynical of the world, and to read between the lines of everything we’re told and everything we see. We will now be able… to speak up for our values and beliefs whenever we see something is wrong. We can be people who are able to participate in efforts to change the world for the better.”

Cho exhorted his classmates to not only recognize their abilities, but to persevere through the trials to come in college and young adulthood without losing sight of their goals.

“Let us not ever settle for less,” said Cho. “It is our dreams that will get us through the harsh times, the lousy part time jobs, the moments of homesickness, and the long nights spent cramming for some test we don’t care about.

“Congratulations to the class of 2013. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made it this far. Let’s show the world what we’re capable of.”

For more photos from the UCLA Community School Commencement and the Senior Dinner, visit the Ampersand Photo Gallery on the magazine’s homepage.


Above: UCLA Community School Principal Leyda Garcia addresses the Class of 2013.