Sayra Barrera-Guzman, a graduating senior at Alta Vista High School, had just started her freshman year at Los Altos High School when life threw her a curveball. She remembers seeing an FBI car outside of her home and warning her father to stay inside, but he didn't listen. Her father was deported, for the third time, and once again her family -- and her chance of having a normal teen's life -- had been broken.
But Barrera-Guzman, the keynote student speaker at Wednesday's graduation ceremony, said she was able to bounce back, finding new friends and supportive teachers at the small, tight-knit alternative high school. She was able to thrive and join the 20 other Alta Vista seniors who made it through high school despite the odds.
"Many have said we would not make it, and we're here to prove them wrong," she said.
Alta Vista Principal Bill Pierce emphasized at the ceremony how resilient the class of 2016 has been, working hard despite adversity. Three of the students graduating this year are teen mothers, handling the stress of child-rearing on top of classes, while others recent came to the country and had to learn English as well as the regular curriculum. Other students, Pierce later told the Voice, were simply not a good fit for traditional schools and needed an alternative learning environment.
For some graduates, it was all about rolling with the punches. Barrera-Guzman explained that her father had only just gotten out of jail two weeks prior to being deported, and that she had only recently gotten over her depression from middle school. Freshman year was supposed to be a year for mending, she said, but her home life had suddenly become more unstable than ever.
After being transferred to Terra Bella Academy, Barrera-Guzman decided to try moving to Mexico with her father. But it ended up being a dead end for her -- she stopped going to school, couldn't find a job, and wasn't even able to spend much time with her dad, who was always working. She said she knew she had to come back.
"If I wanted to move on with my life, I had to leave my father behind," she said.
Transferring back to Terra Bella, and eventually to Alta Vista, was a difficult transition, she said, because of the stigma associated with attending a continuation school where the "bad kids go." But her experience at Alta Vista marked a big transition in her life. She said she met her best friends at the school, and many of her teachers went above and beyond to support her, making sure she stayed after school if she got low scores on assignments.
Barrera-Guzman said she plans to pursue a career in the military, and will leave for boot camp in about two months. Although she took a significant step in preparing for her career by attending Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo, she said she wanted to come back to Alta Vista to graduate with the school community that helped turn her life around.
"I chose to return to Alta Vista and walk this stage," Barrera-Guzman said. "It was here where I learned so much, and here where the best teachers are. If it wasn't for them, this school would not function."
Students and teachers tend to build strong relationships with one another at Alta Vista, Pierce said, and by senior year the graduating class always has a list of important staff members they want to thank on their way out. Unlike the traditional high school model, teachers at Alta Vista serve multiple roles, acting as advisors and counselors to students. Teachers like Alicia Triana and Marciano Gutierrez are often the first faces students see, so it's no surprise many of the students felt the need to give both a shout-out Wednesday night, Pierce said.
"That's part of the blessing of being a small campus. Every teacher here does more than teach," he said.
Although Pierce knew a lot about Barrera-Guzman, her story on how deportation tore her family apart was news to him and many of the staff members at the school. He said it's the stories students tell at graduation that remind him how much adversity so many of the students at Alta Vista face, and yet they still manage to make it up on the stage when they reach the end of senior year.
"It's stories like Sayra's that show these students have every reason in the world to quit, but they don't," he said.
Almost all of the graduates said they had plans for higher education -- many starting off at Foothill or De Anza College -- and many already had a good idea of what career they wanted to pursue after high school. Barrera-Guzman, speaking to her classmates, told them they deserve something great for all the time and effort they poured into school over the last four years, and not to get bogged down in the sacrifices they had to make along the way.
"Life comes with many sacrifices, and sometimes its the biggest sacrifices that are the most rewarding later on," she said.