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For summer grads, it’s on to the next chapter

July 24, 2018

It took Terence Joseph Benavidez just 52 minutes to fulfill his second chance at life.

That’s how long the summer graduation ceremony for 28 Santa Fe high school students lasted at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center on Monday, but the quick time frame didn’t reflect all the hours Benavidez put in during the past couple of months to make up for credits lost by a lackadaisical approach to school and his many absences.

When Capital High’s most recent graduate moved the tassel on his cap from right to left, it was more than just a cue for “Pomp and Circumstance.” He said it meant he finally found a path for success.

“As long as you have that little bit of hope in your heart, you can get it done,” the Capital High School graduate said just seconds after the ceremony came to an end at the Santa Fe Convention Center.

“I’m here,” he said. “I made it.”

For Benavidez — who let loose with a victory dance of sorts as he received his diploma —becoming a graduate two months after the majority of his classmates walked across the stage in May means he can pursue his immediate dream of returning to school as a teaching assistant. There he hopes to help students who struggle with school and want to give up — something he contemplated even in the last week of summer school, Benavidez’s mother Joyce Benavidez said.

The Benavidezes were not the only ones in the crowd of 150 who exuded a sense of relief and accomplishment. Friends, family members and supporters gave off similar vibes as they cheered on the graduates from Capital High, Santa Fe High and the Early College Opportunities program during the ceremony.

No one in the crowd looked upon these students as laggards, losers or misfits. Educators who spoke during the commencement said the students showed as much, if not more, spunk, grit and perseverance than those who graduated back in May.

For example, Kelly Rinaldi, assistant principal at ECO, said she thought she had never felt more fulfilled by being an educator than she did on graduation day back in May. But upon reflection, she told the students seated next to each other in the front two rows of chairs in the center Monday: “Today is my proudest moment. You represent so much of what not only a parent wants in a child but what Santa Fe Public Schools wants in a student.”

Santa Fe High School Principal Carl Marano said with the exception of four students who actually graduated nearly a year earlier than planned, the rest of Monday’s graduates did battle every day with economic, social, emotional and familial challenges that cost them credits and forced them into summer school to earn their diplomas.

All of his seniors in summer school also were working to help support their families, he said, which compounded the problem.

For some, severe personal challenges didn’t slow their desire to move forward in life. Santa Fe High graduate Shenyah Lucero, who actually earned enough credits this summer to graduate a year early, managed to stay the course despite both of her parents dying in the past year.

“It was a crazy, awful year,” she said.

But she needed that high school diploma, she said, for one reason: “I want to move to the next chapter of my life.”

That new chapter includes attending Santa Fe Community College and then the University of New Mexico to earn a degree. She would like to become a neonatal nurse.

For others, it was just a matter of not applying enough energy to an algebra class — like Thomas Vigil Gallegos, whose graduation cap bore a replica of the American flag set against the backdrop of a field of Army green. He’s going into the military and plans to become a tank mechanic.

Surrounded by excited relatives who hugged, kissed and photographed him, Gallegos maintained an almost stoic air of indifference about the entire affair — looking like a teen forced to show up at a birthday party for a 4-year old sister when he’d rather be tinkering with his car out in the driveway.

“It means more to them than it does to me,” he said of his diploma. He credited those family members with helping him stick with his studies through the summer.

His mother, Sarah Vigil, downplayed that idea. “He says we did it together, but he did it on his own. I just stood next to him.

“It was a nail-biter, but he made it. Now, he can do anything.”

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