Working Hard for 'A Better Life'
ESL teacher Pati Cole, school counselor Lisette Pike and math teacher Jennifer Gantz with outstanding senior Wllian Virgilio Ayala Esperanza.
STUDENT: Willian Virgilio Ayala Esperanza
SCHOOL: Wake Forest High School
POST-GRADUATION: Hopes to attend college one day, but will be working to save enough money
June 11, 2018
Willian Virgilio Ayala Esperanza, who fled El Salvador to escape poverty and gang violence, arrived at Wake Forest High School two years ago speaking very little English.
So, naturally, he started off in Limited English Proficient (LEP) classes.
But there was something different about Willian, his teachers noticed. He aced everything. Like, aced aced. 100s. On everything.
“All of his teachers said, ‘He needs to be in higher level classes,’” says school counselor Lisette Pike. “They saw he had great potential and he needed to use that potential.”
That he did, taking honors-level courses in English, math and history, maintaining high grades even as he continues to master the language. “He came in here with the drive and hasn’t stopped,” Pike says. “He has motivation to do well in life, so he won’t stop until he gets there.”
A Long Journey
Willian says he left his parents and sisters behind and traveled north, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with a friend from El Salvador in 2016. He was taken into custody by border patrol agents and sent to a detention center in Arizona for two months, he says.
“It was very scary because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says.
Willian was permitted to live with his brother in Raleigh while he awaited a judge’s ruling on his case. “We were a poor family, we had little money,” he says. “I wanted to go to college in my country, but my family did not have enough money. So my only choice was to come here to the United States for a better life.”
Willian has had to live with the uncertainty of his refugee status. He still is not sure how much longer he will be allowed to live in the U.S., though he remains hopeful a judge will allow him to stay. But he was and is determined to make the most of whatever time he has in the land of opportunity.
The first thing Jennifer Gantz noticed about the quiet kid in her class was his meticulousness. “His notes were impeccable,” Willian’s Math III teacher says. “He would write everything down that I wrote down, and then color code it. I’d say, ‘This is important,’ and he would write it in red.”
She didn’t realize how little English he spoke until she got to know him better. But she says she didn’t have to make many accommodations - maybe a slower enunciation here or there - for him to earn a solid A in her challenging class. “I was amazed,” Gantz says.
He opted out of college-level Math IV in order to double down on English classes. “We tried really hard to get him to go further in Math, but he really was determined to learn English better,” Gantz says.
This is all in hopes of being able to succeed here in the U.S., Willian says. “The only thing I’ve had in mind is that I can learn English, because I have to if I’m going to live here and work here,” he says.
Above and Beyond
Willian credits teachers and even classmates with helping him along. He said many bilingual classmates would help him translate, especially during challenging English II Honors courses.
His LEP teacher, Pati Cole, also encouraged him to stick with it by reminding him that many others have been in his situation and gone onto success.
But Cole and all his teachers say Willian himself deserves the lion’s share of credit. “I have never seen anyone progress as quickly as he has,” Cole says. “He is the kind of the student who goes beyond what is expected. Everything he does, he goes a step further.”
Gantz says his work ethic and drive are all the more remarkable considering he doesn’t have parents at home. “Would you have spent hours a day getting your homework just right if you didn’t have a parent there to say, ‘Did you do your homework?’” Gantz says. “I probably wouldn’t have.”
Willian’s future is uncertain.
After graduation, he will work full-time with his brother installing wood floors, as he has during summers and weekends since moving to Raleigh. He hopes to save enough money to support family and perhaps one day pay for college.
Gantz, considering Willian’s meticulous notes, his math acumen and his experience in construction, can see Willian as an engineer one day. In fact, that is Willian’s career aspiration. But he’s just not sure right now what will happen, given his refugee status and limited financial resources. “In the future, I don’t know if I can go to college, because I want to help my parents because they are a poor family,” he says. “I have a purpose that I want to help them.”
Gantz is optimistic that a student this gifted and willing to work this hard will find a way. “He’s too intelligent to just sit there and say, ‘I’m going to go work for so and so,’” she says. “He’s too much of a perfectionist and he’s too much of a go-getter. I think he’s going to be the kid who creates his own break.”