Oliser Aguilar was 17 when he left his dirt shack in a small village in Guatemala and was determined to make it to the United States.
On this day four years ago, he left his mother and grandmother without saying goodbye.
“I just started running,” Aguilar said, adding he was penniless and didn’t speak English.
But he had an uncle in the Bay Area and had a choice between living in abject poverty and working in the fields, or having a bright future if he survived the journey.
This week, Aguilar will not only graduate from high school in San Francisco, but he will do so with near-fluent English and a 3.95 GPA, which he earned working two jobs.
Aguilar fended off his chances with hope and hard work. Since his uncle gave him a home, he continued, undeterred by his lack of education, language skills, or money. He had dreams.
“If someone told me when I started running, I’d be here in four years,” said Aguilar, who is a graduate of Thurgood Marshall High School. “I can’t believe something like that.”
Aguilar was one of 69,488 unaccompanied minors who arrived in the United States in 2019, a number that reached nearly 129,000 in 2020, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. In recent years, the vast majority have come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
San Francisco has 1,876 new students enrolled in the district this year, a number that has fluctuated over the years depending on federal policy and international circumstances. The pandemic, for example, led to a significant drop in immigration numbers.
Because it is a city of refuge, officials do not ask about the immigration status of new students and families, or whether the young people were unaccompanied. The focus is on meeting everyone’s needs, officials said.
Oliser Aguilar, 21, will attend Skyline College in San Mateo to take courses in English, math and other majors. He hopes to learn about the jobs of electrician and plumber.
Yalonda M.James/The Chronicle
The now 20-year-old, like many others hoping to enter the country, embarked on an arduous journey that involved physical dangers into the United States, only to be met with political controversy over which new immigrants would be allowed to stay.
Upon arrival, some immigrants are homeless and often living in cramped conditions as they seek work and find their way back to school after years of not setting foot in a classroom. Many have escaped violence, gangs and hunger, their young lives filled with tragedy in their homeland.
It may seem inconceivable to many in the United States that a child or young person could make the journey to the southern border alone or in the company of guides who prioritize money over safety.
They make the trip because, even at this young age, they are the breadwinners forced to support their families, said Angela Romano, school social worker and coordinator of San Francisco Unified’s immigration and refugee program.
“It’s not about you; it’s about your whole family,” she said. “A big part of their identity, self-esteem and success is supporting their family.”
Romano added that it can be difficult for people in the United States to grasp that having a real childhood is a privilege.
The district’s goal is to help new immigrant students navigate their education. This starts with showing them how to open a locker, understanding what a cafeteria is and what is expected in classrooms, including reassurance that it’s good to join.
San Francisco offers several entry-level programs for students, including a specialty high school and a new program, El Camino Alternativo, which primarily offers online learning for older students who need a more flexible education to get work. Other traditional schools offer a range of programs and English courses for newly immigrated students.
“We stand ready to confront students as they navigate this difficult transition, sometimes with sadness, anxiety and fear that some of their issues at home may follow,” said Daniela Funes, a high school counselor at Thurgood Marshall . Her job, she said, is to help students like Aguilar feel safe so they can access an education.
Oliser Aguilar, 21 (right), a graduate of Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, receives his cap and gown May 26 in San Francisco from school counselor Daniela Funes. “On day one I said I would take any opportunity, and four years later I did,” Aguilar said.
Yalonda M.James/The Chronicle
Like many others, Aguilar had what educators call an “interrupted education” — lacking any significant academic ability, but was sent to secondary school because of his age.
He got to Marshall and hid behind a hoodie.
“On my first day in Marshall, I was scared of school because my teacher and classmates spoke English. I was just looking around,” he said. “I did not know, what I should do.”
But he always smiled, said Funes. And he wanted to get a clear one.
So he continued to go to school, even though he had two jobs on the side – in the restaurant in the evenings and as a janitor on the weekends.
To say his family was poor in Guatemala is an understatement. They grew the food they ate but had no money or opportunity to earn anything and relied on neighbors to give them discarded clothing or shoes.
“A lot of kids here have a father and a mother and they don’t have to work, they have stuff and shoes,” Aguilar said. “For me, this is a great opportunity.”
When the pandemic struck in March of his freshman year, Aguilar was presented with a laptop, the first time he’d ever touched one, he said.
“What is that?” he asked then. “I didn’t know anything about it. I never held a computer in my hands.”
Undeterred, he learned to use Zoom and other online platforms to keep up in school. He spent his sophomore year online.
In his senior year, Aguilar took advanced courses in English and concert band, where he plays drums, and ran a new club for indigenous Guatemalan students who, like him, speak the Mayan dialect Mam, Funes said, noting he is now trilingual.
He completed the first semester with a grade of 4.0.
On graduation day, Aguilar also learns that he has won several school awards, including the school’s highest honor, the Thurgood Marshall Way Award, given to the top two students who demonstrate leadership, determination, and motivation.
“I’m so proud of him,” Funes said. “He’s an inspiration to me.”
On Wednesday, she said she will give up mascara because she will cry too hard.
“I want to break the stigma,” she said. “Just because the odds are against you doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
Aguilar isn’t the only one at San Francisco high schools who’s made it.
“He’s extraordinary and there are so many stories like his,” she said. “He is not alone in battle and not alone in success.”
Aguilar is still writing his success story.
He plans to enroll in community college in the fall and is looking for an electrical or plumbing degree.
His mother was overcome with pride, he said, adding, “Sometimes she can’t believe I would graduate from high school.”
He also has a hard time believing it and saying it doesn’t feel real, it feels like he’s dreaming.
“I want a better future,” he said. “I have always said that I will seize this opportunity.”
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