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Sticking with it: Lily's story

Seventeen-year-old Lily Mejia didn't speak any English when she began the seventh grade at Scenic Middle School in Central Point.

Nearly six years later, Lily is poised to graduate June 4 from Crater High School's Academy of Business Innovation & Science in the top 5 percent of her class and with a 4.0 GPA.

Lily's father and mother, Refugio and Petra Mejia, never advanced past the second and third grades in Mexico.

Their dream to see their children complete high school drove them to immigrate to the United States, where one son and one daughter have already done so.

Lily will be their third child to graduate from high school and the first in her family to go to college.

"When I was in Mexico, I never imagined going to college, but I always liked school," Lily said.

With $7,500 in scholarships from organizations such as the Morris Family Foundation and the Fairy Godmother Fund at the Rogue Valley Manor Foundation, Lily plans to earn a pre-engineering associate's degree at Rogue Community College. Then, she wants to go on to earn a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Southern Oregon University.

Reaching high school graduation took uprooting from her family's ranch in Zacatecas, learning a new language and culture and trudging through schoolwork that took her more time to complete than her peers because of the language barrier.

Lily grew up on the family's ranch in Zacatecas surrounded by livestock and corn, bean, gourd, watermelon and peanut crops. She and her older sister, Gaby, used to ride horses together in the mountains.

She went to school in Zacatecas through the sixth grade, the highest grade offered in the town.

"I would have liked to stay there because I had a happy life, but I understand what my dad says that he wanted us to study and do something better," she said. "Over there, we couldn't do that."

So in July 2002, Lily, Gaby, their mother and older brother moved to Central Point where her father was already working as a cook.

Lily enrolled at Scenic Middle School.

"She had absolutely no English whatsoever," said Mike Meunier, a former administrator at Scenic and now principal of the business academy at Crater.

"The first day of middle school I didn't know where to go," Lily recalled. "I would point to the schedule. Some nice students would help me, but I couldn't understand what they were saying, so I would just go where they pointed."

"When the teachers saw that I didn't speak English they would look for a student who spoke Spanish to translate," she said. "Some of the teachers understood what I was going through. They knew how hard it was for me. It was difficult for them, too, trying to explain things to me. If I needed help they would be happy to help. Mr. Meunier was one of those, so I was really happy when I found out he'd be at Crater."

Lily's first year at Scenic was difficult, but her language skills gradually improved.

"I could understand English by the eighth grade," she said. "By ninth grade I could communicate with people. By the 10th grade I could read and write assignments in English. I still had to use a dictionary, but I never gave up saying I couldn't do it. I would just try something different."

Sandy Wasserman, Lily's English Language Learner teacher in the 10th and 11th grades, helped her through some of the most challenging moments in high school, providing translation help and encouragement.

"She helped me control my stress because I was always worried about my assignments," Lily said. "She would say, 'Breathe. Calm down. You'll finish everything.' She even bought me a palm tree for oxygen to breathe."

During high school, Lily also found time for public service, reading to Spanish-speaking students in the free federal Head Start preschool program for low-income children and baby-sitting the kids of parents enrolled in the school district's parenting classes.

She stayed involved in her church and also played basketball for fun.

Her dad has been one of her inspirations for working hard in school, where language was a constant challenge. She works with him at Hometown Buffet, him as a cook and her as a line server and baker.

"He is very, very supportive," she said. "When I get good grades, he smiles and is very proud. He says, 'That's my daughter.' He always tells me to do my best and never take education for granted."

In 10 years, Lily wants to be a civil engineer living close to her family.

"I hope I'll have a good job and still have time for my family and go to my (church) meetings and donate money, give back to the schools that have supported me," she said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or at pachen@mailtribune.com

Lily Mejia will graduate June 4 from Crater High School’s Academy of Business Innovation & Science with a 4.0 GPA. Six years ago she didn’t speak any English. Jim Craven 5/21/2008 - Jim Craven