- Associated Press - Saturday, June 2, 2018

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Maria Rivas recalled how fourth and fifth grades were the most difficult school years for her.

As a displaced and bewildered 9-year-old girl who had recently arrived in Jefferson County from Mexicali, Mexico, she said she was frequently teased and bullied by other classmates at Ranson Elementary School.

“I didn’t speak English, but I could tell they were making fun of me,” she said.

Rivas was enrolled in the county school system’s English as a Second Language immersion program, where initially half of her school day’s instruction focused on learning English. Her regular mainstream classes in math, science and grammar, however, were taught in English, and Rivas struggled academically to survive.

“It was definitely hard,” she said. “I remember crying every single night.”

By the time she reached middle school, her English skills had improved. She started making friends-and earning solid grades.

Recently Rivas, an honor roll student with a 3.7 grade point average, received her diploma among 284 other graduates from Washington High School.

“I’m just excited to start a new chapter in my life,” she said while reflecting on her academic journey so far and challenges ahead at Shepherd University.

Jefferson County Schools currently has 340 students in its ESL program, the most enrollment among the 55 school systems in the state, officials reported. And Rivas is a standout success for the program.

Math was her favorite subject in high school, in part due to an inspiring teacher, Mr. Coleman. Those classes taught her perseverance and self-reliance by working out solutions to problems on her own, she said.

“I enjoyed it so much,” she said.

Rivas still remembers grade school in Mexicali while living with her grandmother. School in the dusty city of 700,000 people by the California border had fewer rules, but it was also less academically rigorous than in America, she said. Everyday life was harder though, she added. The daily struggle centered on obtaining the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing, rather than classroom performance.

“I always say that we were so poor, but love was always there,” she said.

Migrating to Jefferson County to live with her mother opened opportunities that she would never have had in Mexicali, Rivas said. “I feel like once I came here I took my education seriously,” she offered.

Now pursuing her U.S. citizenship, Rivas plans to study international business and marketing in college. To save money, she plans to live at home while attending Shepherd, she said. And she is determined to be the first member of her family to graduate college, she added. She sees how her mother and stepfather strive every day to make ends meet, and she wants to make them proud and happy by earning a college degree and establishing a career.

“My mom, she has literally fought so much for everything we have for us,” she said. “She just wanted a better life for us.”

While continuing an internship with the local Chamber of Commerce, Rivas also plans to continue volunteering this summer at a local nursing home where enjoys visiting with the older ladies and sprucing up their nails with splashes of color.

She still thinks about her grandmother, whom she hasn’t seen since leaving Mexico a decade ago.

“You’re leaving so many things behind just to have a better life,” she reflected.


Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/

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