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Off they go

Five graduating seniors talk about the genesis of their career plans

For students 17 and 18 years old who are about to graduate from high school, visions of the future tend not to include horizons. No mileposts have gone by marking sadder and wiser perspectives after a career they've grown tired of, or the discovery that their real interests lie elsewhere, or any number of surprises, achievements and disappointments.

Not that Woodside High School seniors Jessica Morales, Juan Osorio and Luis Espino Cervantes, and Menlo-Atherton High School seniors Aidan McKay and Esveide Gonzalez-Lombera, aren't prepared to handle the rough spots. But they are confident of their chances as they look ahead. Their passion, too, is evident.

Toward justice

Gonzalez-Lombera, an 18-year-old resident of Menlo Park, will be attending Santa Clara University on the way to becoming an attorney working on behalf of social justice. "Ever since I was little, I've always wanted to become a lawyer and just fight for people's rights," she said in an interview.

"Right now, my plans for college are to pursue a degree in math because that's a subject I'm really passionate about. I really enjoy math. ... It's also a really good major (to prepare you) for law school, I've heard."

Social injustice has been a part of her life with family and friends, including her parents' recollections of being treated poorly because of their Hispanic heritage. Her career plans are "really just because of that," she said. "Not for any other reason."

She came to M-A from Castilleja School in Palo Alto, where, she said, her capabilities were acknowledged, but with limits. She was excluded from honors classes.

"They didn't think I was capable of doing well," she said. "That was a total hit to my self-esteem. ... I thought I wasn't good enough and it was really overwhelming me." She recalled having panic attacks upon earning a grade of B on an exam.

M-A was not without its issues. "I started realizing that most of my classes were filled with white students and I wasn't really being included, and I didn't really see that strong connection with my peers like I did in middle school," she said. "In projects, people assume that my work isn't going to be as good as theirs. That's when I started realizing that there is a problem and it's really affecting me and this is something I want to change and I'm capable of changing."

McKay, who is 18 and a member of a Menlo Park family with progressive politics, said he plans to major in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. He listened to what his M-A peer had to say during their joint interview with The Almanac.

"Social justice is definitely an issue," he said. "It's very important to me as well, but I also think economic justice and equity, and just the entire class structure in America is very oppressive, for lack of a better term. ... I'd like to become a labor organizer, trying to help other people."

"If you asked me in ninth grade what I was passionate about, I didn't know," McKay said. "I was kind of apathetic at that time, but I guess I really changed in the last years of high school. (A class in) advanced-placement U.S. history really hit me hard, I guess. We really learned about the entire history of the labor movement. That was my favorite class last year."

The labor movement is experiencing hard times, though the 2011 social justice movement that began with Occupy Wall Street was a bright spot, McKay noted. It happened before he was aware of his own deep interests, "but even then I was like, 'Yeah. That's something that I believe in,'" he said. "It kind of died off, which is unfortunate."

Asked about the coming impact on labor of automation and artificial intelligence, McKay turned to the concept of universal basic income. "Because when robots take over everyone's job, you're going to be left with, like, a large lower class that just does nothing," he said. "And that's going to be really detrimental and I guess UBI is a way to appease that."

Recent teachers' strikes around the country have been a positive development, he said. "That's definitely gaining traction, and that's positive, (but) there's still a long ways to go in achieving education equality, which is another important issue that can help contribute to a solution for all of this."

Inclinations to help

Espino Cervantes emigrated from Mexico with his family at the age of 13. Not knowing English, he attended eighth grade at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City and moved on to Woodside High. He is now 18 and plans to attend the University of California, Irvine, to study computer science.

As a volunteer tutor at Woodside, Espino Cervantes said he encountered many students who struggled with English. Recalling his own efforts, he decided to help them "so they feel like they're not alone, (and know) that I have felt (like they do), that it's possible to make the transition," he said. "It's hard for them to adapt to this new language. I feel like I became more passionate about helping people ... to adapt to a new place."

He said he would probably be headed to a community college "to figure things out there" had he not participated in Woodside's Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. "My teachers have been really pushing me towards trying to figure out what I wanted to do," he said.

The AVID program helped him discover that he likes computers and had a talent for math, he said. "It was there, but they showed me it was there. I didn't know it was there."

Osorio said he figured out what was what for himself and more or less by himself. "From a very young age, I've always enjoyed math," he said. In high school as a volunteer, he worked with elementary school students and said he discovered that "I want to be in the position where I want to show and teach, kind of have that leadership position."

That combination, a love of math and the appeal of being a leader, led to a plan for a career as a high school math teacher. Osorio is 17, a resident of Redwood City and a future freshman at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

"At first I wanted to be an accountant or something to do with banking and business," he said. "Once I got that exposure with community service – helping peers and younger students – and having that leadership role, mentor role, tutor role, I kind of wanted to apply that for my future."

"I really enjoyed calculus and algebra II and trigonometry," math that you can use in everyday life, he said. "I've always enjoyed working through these different concepts and theories and (determining) how you can apply them to real-world situations."

Morales' focus is the importance of education and independence, in that "education can help people be more independent. I'm passionate about helping others," she said.

She works with third-graders at Fiesta Gardens International School, a six-year elementary immersion school in San Mateo, she said. "I try to do my best to inspire them to pursue higher education."

"I never plan to stop volunteering," she added. "I plan to continue going to elementary schools or (even) middle schools to talk about my experience. I just don't want to give up working with kids, inspiring them."

Asked whether third grade was a little early to be talking about higher education, she replied, "I guess so, but a lot of those kids don't finish high school, or a lot of their older siblings don't finish high school. I would say that just finishing high school is some form of higher education."

The children at Fiesta, many from a variety of ethnic minorities, are excited about their future, she said.

Morales, who is 17 and a resident of Redwood City, will be heading to Gonzaga University in Washington state to study human physiology; she said she plans to have a career in physical therapy, and is particularly interested in helping people recover from leukemia and the bone-marrow transplants involved in treating it.

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