Isaac Ortega is a classical high school graduate. He has a 4.0 GPA and serves as the student body president at Central Valley High School. He’s making plans to go to college. What makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable is that he has been on his own for the past two years.
Ortega said his parents divorced when he was two. His father is from Mexico and his mother was born in California. Her parents emigrated from Mexico as well. Ortega lived with his father, but he said it wasn’t an ideal living situation.
“It just wasn’t the safety for me or my brother,” he said. “I didn’t really feel safe there. There were times when I felt kind of neglected.”
He filed for emancipation, and it was granted in October 2019. Both his parents signed the documents. Ortega said it was the first time he’d seen his mother in eight or nine years. Despite that, he said he doesn’t see growing up without his mother in his life as a hardship.
“It’s all what you know and what you’re used to,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
He stayed with family members while he worked until he saved up enough money to get his own apartment, where he’s been living for the past seven months. Living on his own has its benefits, but it also has drawbacks, Ortega said.
“It’s really cool, but it’s a lot of stress for a 17-year-old,” he said.
One of the things he did in school that he’s proud of was breathe new life into the Diversity Club. There’s always been different groups for students of color, but none of them seemed to last, Ortega said.
“It was always rebranded,” he said.
During his junior year he and a couple other students launched the club again and worked to recruit new students. The club was given the task of hosting the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly.
“I think it gave us a chance to speak about what being a student of color was like,” he said.
Through it all, Ortega had one goal. He wanted to graduate from high school and earn his way into a good college. His grades are very important to him as he sees them as a means to achieving his goal.
“School has always been the biggest thing,” he said. “I stayed true to the biggest thing to me, my education.”
Ortega has been accepted at Vanderbilt University, where he plans to major in economics.
Along the way, Ortega has impressed people, including teacher Leanne Donley, with his accomplishments.
“It’s not grit, it’s not resiliency, it’s not determination,” Donley said. “It’s bigger than that.”
Ortega has the ability to balance the important things and see where they fit, she said.
“Not only is he academically intelligent, but he is wise,” she said.
Ortega has big dreams, but Donley is convinced he can achieve them.
“He wants to fix the ills of the world, and I think he will,” she said.
Nina Culver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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