Inspiring Stories from Ventura County's Graduating Seniors

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She lost her home to the Thomas Fire in the middle of her senior year, but it didn't stop her from achieving her dreams. He's a competitive snowboarder who's part of the first graduating class of Ventura County's newest high school. They're just two of the graduating seniors we're proud to introduce you to in this edition of Focus on Education. Read their inspiring stories below on your computer or tap here to view on your mobile device.

Summer 2018                           Stanley C. Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Graduating seniors inspire hope in uncertain times
As thousands of Ventura County high school students don their caps and gowns and receive their diplomas this year, they're graduating into a world full of uncertainty. Sadly, our nation is more divided than many of us can remember and our sense of security often feels like it's eroding everywhere from school campuses to the international stage.
Amid this backdrop, it's heartening to see the that our local graduates, the young people who are poised to become tomorrow's leaders, remain full of hope, optimism and determination. They're overcoming personal challenges, achieving their goals and doing their part to contribute to their communities and the world. In this edition of Focus on Education, we're proud to share some their stories that will leave you confident our future is in good hands.
Stan Mantooth
Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Jillian Powell – Nordhoff High School
Thomas Fire claimed her home, but not her spirit
It was the middle of Jillian Powell's senior year, her thoughts centered on graduation and college, when disaster struck. The devastating Thomas Fire consumed more than a thousand buildings, including the home Jillian had shared with her family for eight years in the hills near Ojai. One of the only things that survived the flames was her steel shot put ball. Almost all of her other belongings were reduced to ash. "There were athletic shirts that I got at special meets that I wanted to give to my kids one day, but that will never happen," she says. "There were stuffed animals from my childhood and even from my mother and father's childhood that will never be replaced."
School was closed for weeks while the fire raged and smoke polluted the air. And once she returned to class, the trauma wasn't over. "I've never missed so much school before," she says. "It definitely affected my school work and I actually dropped two AP classes because I just couldn't keep my focus. I'd find myself drifting off in classes thinking I don't have my home anymore."
The charred remains of Jillian's home near Ojai after the Thomas Fire
But with the support of friends and family and the Nordhoff school community, Jillian regained her focus and resumed the busy scheduled that has made her a stand-out student. Throughout high school, Jillian has been involved in the chamber choir, marching band, symphonic band and jazz band. An avid athlete, she's participated in track and field, basketball and volleyball, all while taking some of Nordhoff's most academically challenging classes. "I like to call it my organized chaos," she says. "When I'm not involved in a lot of things, I find myself procrastinating and not finishing work on time, so I think having a bunch of activities keeps me together and keeps me organized."
Jillian has earned a scholarship to attend Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She plans to major in psychology and minor in communications and will be part of the school's track and field program. "I'm really excited. It's something that feels right in my heart and it's a brand-new start. A new state, a new school, new everything."
Jillian hasn't yet settled on a career, but she's considering social work, clinical mental health counseling or maybe even acting. Whatever the future holds, she says the experience of living through the Thomas Fire will make her stronger. "I'm hoping that this can be a shaping event in my life that shows me what I have and that I can't live to regret anything."
Jacob Al-Husseini – Rancho Campana High School
Accomplished student is in school's first graduating class
This year's senior class is the very first to graduate from Rancho Campana High School in Camarillo, which opened its doors in 2015. The school, which emphasizes engineering, science and the arts, is proud to count Jacob Al-Husseini among its first alumni.
Jacob got to experience living around the world as his dad, an immigrant from Jordan, relocated the family to take advantage of career opportunities. "I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, moved to Malaysia, then Puerto Rico, upstate New York and now California," he says. When fate brought his family to Camarillo, he was intrigued to learn about the brand-new high school with its state-of-the-art technology and specialized career-oriented academies, so he decided to give it a try.
With his eye on becoming a doctor, Rancho Campana's Medical Sciences Academy turned out to be the perfect fit. Jacob says the school's small class sizes allowed him to get personalized attention that made a big difference in his education. "It's good to have that kind of intimate relationship with those who are teaching you," he says. "If you have a concern, you can address it immediately and not have to worry about office hours or waiting to get help."
In addition to taking a rigorous course load, this overachiever has an internship with a local chiropractor and works 24 hours a week at Starbucks. On top of that, he's a competitive snowboarder who got his first sponsorship as a high school sophomore. "That was kind of my big break when I realized maybe this could eventually go somewhere," he says. Jacob took his junior year off to pursue snowboarding, but got sidelined after breaking his collarbone four times.
Back at Rancho Campana for his senior year, Jacob devoted himself to preparing for his future. He completed tough advanced placement courses and often visited UCLA to observe surgeries as he applied to colleges. He's currently deciding between pre-med programs at UC Davis and Duke University. With his injuries on the mend, Jacob says he'll be able to get back on the slopes as he transitions to college life. No doubt the sky's the limit for this high-flying future doctor who's graduating from Ventura County's newest high school. 
Vanessa Mena – Conejo Valley High School
Student gives back while overcoming her own challenges
Vanessa Mena's path to high school graduation hasn't been an easy one. The daughter of a single mother, she struggled academically at Thousand Oaks High School. To get back on track, she made the difficult decision during her senior year to transfer to the local alternative school, Conejo Valley High School. It turned out to be the right choice. "There were smaller classes and the teachers really helped me out," she says. With their support, she was able to earn her high school diploma.
At the same time she was dealing with her own difficulties, Vanessa was selflessly giving back to the community. For more than two years, she has volunteered at the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks, which provides a health care safety net to the uninsured.
She says the clinic's program that provides toys to kids from low-income families during the holidays really hit home. It reminded her of the time her mom lost her job right around Christmas. Unable to afford gifts, her mom drove her to see the Christmas lights of nearby homes. "Through the window, we could see a big family around the table with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, daughters, sons and the parents all in the same room eating together," she remembers. "All I wanted was to have a big family all together in a beautiful home one day. And after driving around all night, we went to McDonald's and got Happy Meals."
Vanessa is now on her way to making her dreams come true. She'll be taking adult school classes in Thousand Oaks and plans to attend college in Washington state, where her grandparents live. Her goal is to become an emergency medical technician and ultimately a paramedic.
Her greatest motivation to graduate from college is her mom, who emigrated from El Salvador to build a better life for her children. "Since she didn't get her education, she sometimes feels less about herself and I don't want her to feel that way," Vanessa says. "I just want to make her happy so she can feel that she did something and I want to graduate for both of us."
Trevor Jenkins – Triton Academy
Autism is no obstacle to a bright future for this graduate
Graduating from high school is an important milestone for anyone, but earning a diploma is especially momentous for Trevor Jenkins. Trevor is living with autism, which made him an easy target for bullies when he started middle school. With his grades suffering, he was referred to Triton Academy in Camarillo, a school operated by the Ventura County Office of Education that specializes in serving students with autism.
At the time, his mom Jackie wasn't sure about the move. "It was very scary. At first, we had no clue what to expect from Triton," she says. But she quickly found the school's specialized programs were just what Trevor needed. "He just blossomed," she says. "Once he found out the other students were just like him, he made friends very quickly. He responded so well to the teachers and the therapists that he just took off. The change was amazing."
Trevor says switching to Triton was a huge improvement. "I like Triton much, much better," he says. "I have more friends here and I'm able to learn more. I have teachers who understand my troubles." In addition to graduating, he's getting work experience stocking inventory at a CVS pharmacy through the WorkAbility program for students with disabilities. He's also had the opportunity to take courses in auto body, hospitality and first aid from the VCOE Career Education Center. He's now planning to take philosophy and physics classes at Ventura College and pursue a career in the food service industry.
"I wish more kids could go to Triton because it's amazing," Jackie says. "Without it, I think Trevor would be in a much different place." This proud mom says her son is now more independent than ever and has the confidence to keep reaching new milestones such as getting a driver's license and living independently. "At Triton, he was able to meet his goal of graduating with a diploma and that's huge for him. I believe that he'll be able to do whatever he puts his mind to."
Skyler Martinez – Royal High School
Former missionary helps minorities make it to college
Skyler Martinez had anything but a typical childhood. The daughter of missionaries, her family lived in Asia and Africa before returning home to Southern California just before the start of her sophomore year. She entered Royal High School in Simi Valley a year after other students had the chance to build friendships and adapt to school life. "I have literally slept in the same tent as cannibals, but it was more nerve-racking starting high school," she says.
She credits Royal teacher Brian Dennert with helping her navigate the school's many offerings. With his guidance, she enrolled in AP classes and got involved with the school's International Baccalaureate and music programs. She says she quickly realized how privileged she was to be able to pursue her academic goals. "I do believe that having a decent education should be a right of every single person, whether we are citizens of this country or not," she says. "The type of education I'm able to get here is phenomenal and I believe anyone who doesn't utilize it is truly wasting a multitude of opportunities."
Skyler wanted to help more of her fellow students take advantage of those opportunities, so she joined a program that encourages Hispanic and African American students to take college-prep classes. "Many of the Hispanic girls at our school don't feel as motivated as they could be," she says. "They feel like they have to abandon their dreams to find a job to support their families." As a Latina herself, she worked to show them by example what's possible. "I've seen their eyes light up when they have the encouragement to pursue something greater beyond high school."
Skyler also served as the Royal student council's first Vice President for Academics and Arts. And in her spare time, she gives guitar lessons to refugees from Iran to help them acclimate to life in the United States. 
Because of her non-traditional education before coming to Royal, Skyler had to take summer school and jump through hurdles with admissions offices to get into college. But her hard work paid off and she'll be attending Lehigh University in Pennsylvania this fall, majoring in biological sciences. She also has her heart set on attending medical school at Harvard, where she participated in a program for high school students last summer. Her ultimate goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon and continue blazing a trail that others will be able to follow.
Yeifan Lei – Buena High School
From China to Ventura: Building a new life in the USA
From the language to the food to the culture, Yeifan Lei entered a new world when he moved from his native China to join his mother in Ventura and become a freshman at Buena High School. With limited English skills, he started taking English language development classes and made quick progress. By his junior year, he was taking college-prep English. And as a senior, he moved up to advanced placement English, allowing him to earn college credit in a language he could barely speak just a few years before.
Yeifan also had to adapt to a different style of teaching. While schools in China emphasized memorization and strict adherence to structure, Buena gave him more opportunities to learn by doing, such as by conducting experiments in science classes. "Here, the teachers let students explore more rather than textbook style teaching," he says. "I figured it out really quickly and it was more fun to do hands-on stuff." With more freedom came more responsibility to be self-motivated to learn. "You have to figure it out yourself and be more independent," he says.
That's not to say he didn't have plenty of people in his corner. Yeifan credits his Buena teachers and counselor with helping him navigate unfamiliar terrain and reach his academic goals. With their support, he was a straight A student while being active in Buena's music programs, including the marching band and jazz band. "He's taken multiple AP classes and has been a rock star in our jazz band, which starts at 7am," says his counselor Natasha Hillis. "He's grown by leaps and bounds and he's incredibly humble."
Leifan has big plans now that high school is coming to a close. He earned a full scholarship to Northwestern University through the QuestBridge program, which helps high-achieving, low-income students afford college. He's considering careers in medicine or chemistry and is looking forward to putting down roots in his adopted home.