Every year at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, teachers nominate students for a school-wide "Award for Excellence in Habits of Work," given to a student who has demonstrated achievement throughout high school by consistently working hard to meet expectations, managing one's time, proactively seeking help, reflecting on one's learning and setting goals for growth.
This year, the award went to Jocelyn Higuera, a shy, softspoken senior from East Palo Alto whom one teacher called "possibly the hardest working student that we've ever seen."
"When meeting for her independent research project for SRI (the school's Senior Research Institute), she would lay out her expertly annotated articles, their margins filled with definitions, explanations, questions and connections and systematically address each post-it note she had prepared for the meeting," that teacher, Stacy Ishigaki, said in a speech announcing the award. "It was even common to receive a series of text messages from her on a Saturday afternoon, detailing her latest findings and asking for clarification.
"Her consistency is laudable; her persistence, impressive."
Higuera, who officially graduated from Eastside last week, wrote her college application essays about this. Her persistence was born through a struggle with school, which she said has always been hard for her. It takes more time and effort for her to understand concepts and complete her work, she said. Ishigaki said Higuera always did her homework the day it was assigned to have extra time to seek help from her teachers (Eastside operates on a block schedule, so homework isn't due every day). She would often stay late at school, until 10 or 11 p.m., working with the vice principal or teachers, Ishigaki said.
This was difficult for Higuera, who said the first three years of high school were stressful and unenjoyable.
But now, as a graduating senior heading to Brigham Young University-Idaho in the fall, she sees the benefit of the long nights and early mornings spent getting her schoolwork done.
"I put all my time into it, and I didn't really go out as much as my classmates would. Now I can see that it's been beneficial for me to put all of that time and effort in that I did because now I'm actually going to go to college," she said. "I'll be able to live the dreams that my parents and I always wanted me to have."
Higuera, who grew up in Redwood City and moved to East Palo Alto in fourth grade, doesn't exactly fit the profile of most students at Eastside Prep, which gives priority to students who are the first in their family to be college bound. Higuera's parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when they were in their mid-20's, she said, were both educated in Mexico. Her mother couldn't finish for financial reasons, but her father received a master's degree in engineering. In the United States, her father works as a handyman and her mother, a housecleaner. Her older brother is in the U.S. Marine Corps and her younger sister attends Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
After moving to East Palo Alto, Higuera transferred into Beechwood Elementary School in Menlo Park. In eighth grade, in 2009, she was one of 10 students honored by a visiting Nobel Prize winner for their ability "to overcome difficult situations and achieve academically."
That year, Higuera applied to several private high schools in the area -- Woodside Priory, Castilleja School, Summit Preparatory School -- but wanted to go to Eastside.
Between Seminary, a religious educational program, every morning from 6:30 to 7:20 a.m. at a Mormon church in Menlo Park, school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and homework, Higuera said she doesn't have much free time. But her favorite school project was the Senior Research Institute she took with Ishigaki. Seniors chose a topic of interest to spend several months researching and at the end produced an in-depth paper and presentation. Higuera chose the effectiveness of water programs in South Asia. She remembered her sister coming home in sixth grade and talking about someone who gave a talk at Castilleja about the importance of water, both at home and abroad. The person mentioned children in South Asian countries who have to choose between going to school and walking the miles to get water for their families.
"I wanted to learn more about that," Higuera said.
If Higuera could give her freshman-year self advice, it would be both practical and encouraging.
"I would tell myself to do my graduation requirements, as well as take more electives, early during high school rather than leaving them to the last couple of years because it is so much harder to complete those requirements the last two years of high school," she said. "And to not give up when it gets difficult."
If you could give one piece of advice to your freshman-year self, what would it be?
"To not give up when it gets difficult."
-- Jocelyn Higuera