The power of perseverance

Valedictorians. Salutatorians. Honors.

Paul Valencia
Paul Valencia

High schools should salute the best of the best, those students who have recorded top marks in their academic careers.

But graduation ceremonies are not just for the elite students. They are for all who have earned enough credits, even the ones toward the bottom of the student rankings.

Zaleayah Blancas of Fort Vancouver will be walking on the stage Saturday afternoon to receive her diploma with a 1.98 grade-point average.

“I am proud as hell of that GPA,” Blancas said. “If it was not a 1.98, it wouldn’t have been anything. I’m not the best student, the best daughter, the best sister, but I sure tried. I’m proud of myself for making it, considering my circumstances.”

After several moves in the past four years, Zaleayah Blancas found a home at Fort Vancouver High School and turned around her academic career. While not one of the top students in her class, she is proud of her accomplishment: She has earned a diploma. Photo by Paul Valencia
After several moves in the past four years, Zaleayah Blancas found a home at Fort Vancouver High School and turned around her academic career. While not one of the top students in her class, she is proud of her accomplishment: She has earned a diploma. Photo by Paul Valencia

Blancas’ upbringing was not conducive to a stellar academic record. As an eighth grader living in east Vancouver, she, her mother, and her sisters became homeless. Zaleayah moved in with her dad in Hillsboro, Ore., but that did not last. She moved in with a grandparent in Spanaway Lake but that did not last. Back to Vancouver with an aunt. Did not last.  And now she is living with a friend.

In all, she has had six residences and three high schools in the past four years,

A year-and-a-half ago, she was just about done, just about out of hope. At one point during her junior year, she had four F’s and one D.

Blancas is intelligent, as evidenced by some of the advanced placement courses she has taken at Fort Vancouver. But she also had too many other things going on in her life to apply herself to her education. Or so she thought.

Vancouver graduation ceremonies

Vancouver Public Schools:

Saturday
at Sunlight Supply Amphitheater, 17200 NE Delfel Rd., Ridgefield

  • Columbia River HS, 11 a.m.
  • Fort Vancouver HS, 2 p.m.
  • Hudson’s Bay HS, 5 p.m.
  • Skyview HS, 8 p.m.

Evergreen Public Schools:
At McKenzie Stadium, 2205 NE 138th Ave, Vancouver,

Friday:

  • Heritage HS, 8:30 p.m.

Saturday:

  • Evergreen HS, 11 a.m.
  • Mountain View HS, 5 p.m.

Monday:

  • Union HS, 8 p.m.

It all changed with an essay she was asked to write in an English class. Then she was encouraged to share that essay at an open-mike event designed for students to interact with each other and professional authors.

Her essay centered on a song’s lyrics and its personal meaning. Blancas chose “Dear Mama” by Tupac Shakur. It was a way for Blancas to show her frustration with her mom, for mistakes made, but also show love for her mom, forgiveness. Blancas wanted her mom to know she he understood why some of the choices were made.

“It was very scary but it was relieving,” Blancas said. “I finally felt like I got everything out.”

When Blancas shared her experience with other students, well, simply put, that night changed her life.

“That was when I realized my life is not going to be controlled by other people’s actions,” Blancas said. “I’m cannot let the stress I’m going through now determine my future.”

English teacher Ben Jatos, who pushed Blancas into reading her essay publicly, said the change occurred almost immediately during her junior year.

“Something kicked in and she started working her tail off,” Jatos said. “An F to a B. And engagement, too. She was a student who was here but not here mentally, kind of tuned out. It clicked. She was actively engaging in class.

“She just figured it out that she could do it, and it was important.”

Blancas talked to her counselor about a path to graduation. As a senior, she received two A’s and two B’s on one report card.

Saturday, she will receive her diploma.

“I’ll probably cry, honestly,” she said.

She also has a bit of a chip on her shoulder that she uses for motivation. The diploma will be a tool to show to anyone who doubted her.

“It means a lot to me because of what it’s going to mean to those who put me down and told me I wasn’t going anywhere in life,” Blancas said.

Life brought her to Fort Vancouver High School. It took some time, but she found the support system she needed.

Her academic career is not complete. Blancas said she plans to attend Clark College in the fall and one day work as a social worker, to aid those like her.

“And those who have it worse than me,” she said.

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About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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