Watch video below of Wa-Hi AVID grads talking about their future.
WALLA WALLA -- The strum of a ukulele flows from the speakers of the Walla Walla High School commons, as Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Over the Rainbow" begins to play.
On a screen, a video is projected showing 15 students taking turns walking in front of a camera. Each holds a large postcard with messages of who they were on one side, and who they are now on the other.
Jose Beleche told a life's story in two sentences.
"Abandoned by father at age 2," he wrote on one side of his card. And on the other: "Found by Whitman College at age 18."
Beleche, a graduating senior, heads to Whitman this fall on a full scholarship. As a Gates Millennium Scholar. And as part of Whitman's soccer team.
Yet Beleche is not alone in his accomplishments. He is among 15 students who are all college-bound, and each the first in their family to do so, thanks to the support of a program offered at their school.
The students represent the first to leave Wa-Hi as participants of the Advancement Via Individual Determination program. The program launched at the high school three years ago with a group of freshmen and a group of sophomores.
Last week, the 15 then-sophomores who saw the program through held an intimate reception in their school's commons, where their "Signature Moments" video concluded a night filled with heartfelt speeches and tearful thanks and reflections.
The students are all continuing their educations this fall, some heading to community college, some to state universities, and a few to private colleges.
In front of family and friends, each student was presented a pin and certificate, recognized for their accomplishments and contributions during school, and then given a chance to speak about their journey toward higher education. Here are two of their stories:
A future engineer
For Beleche, Walla Walla is home -- and will continue to be through college.
"I was born in Pasco, but I've lived here my whole life," he said. After his father left, Beleche was raised by his mother and was an only child until the birth of a baby sister four years ago. In his speech during the AVID event, Beleche thanked his mom for her sacrifices and example, appreciative of her challenges being both a mother and father to him.
At home and in school, Jose found the inspiration to keep him motivated and thinking about college.
"Education has always been emphasized, since I was small," he said.
Beleche was a Blue Ridge student, then went on to Garrison, where the goal of reaching college began to truly take shape. As a sixth-grader, Beleche began the federal TRiO-Educational Talent Search program.
In eighth grade, he heard a college student speak at his school. The Washington State University student, majoring in electrical engineering, was also Latino.
"That was a great inspiration," Beleche said. Engineering was a future career that also tapped his passion for studying math and science.
"Since elementary school, I was good at those," he said about the subjects. The college student inspired Beleche more than he could have realized.
"I want to be an electrical engineer," Beleche said. "For sure."
During the AVID recognition night, Beleche's mother, Irma Duran, struggled to express the pride and joy she feels for her son.
Duran said her son was always responsible, and made good choices.
"I didn't need to be on him," she said, speaking in Spanish.
Duran also said that finishing high school is a beginning.
"I hope he continues this way," she said about his achievements.
"This doesn't end here."
A future doctor
The last to receive her pin and certificate during the AVID event was Janella Bermudez, whose quiet demeanor belies a confident and driven determination. Her accomplishments speak for themselves.
Bermudez leaves Wa-Hi with a 4.0, or straight A, grade point average. She is one of three valedictorians for the Class of 2011, standing out among more than 400 graduating seniors. She heads to Gonzaga University this fall on a full scholarship to prepare for a future in medicine. She is a Gates Millennium Scholar, like Beleche, and a Dell Scholar.
When Bermudez was 10 years old, her father left her family. Growing up in Corning, Calif., Bermudez moved with her mother to Walla Walla, and started as a sixth-grader at Garrison when she was 11.
Bermudez said education was not a particular focus when she was growing up.
"I was never told, 'you have to go to college,'" she said. But she was drawn to learning anyway.
"I've always loved school," she said.
At Garrison, like Beleche, Bermudez joined the TRiO/ETS program early on.
Her initial goals were to see herself finishing high school, setting a standard in her family.
"I'll be the first," she said.
Seeing her finish high school at the top of her class, and heading to a top college, has made her mother happy, Bermudez said.
"She's really excited," Bermudez said. "She keeps saying, 'I'm so proud.'"
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.
For Your Info
Walla Walla High School commencement for the Class of 2011 is tonight at 7 on the Wa-Hi lawn. About 456 students, including those graduating through alternative programs, will participate.