Diane A. Rhodes | Contributor
The Hemet/San Jacinto Student of the Month program held its first recognition breakfast of the 2023-2024 school year at the Maze Stone at Soboba Springs Golf Course on Sept. 14. Seven local high school seniors were recognized and honored for their character, love of learning and commitment to academics in addition to their involvement in school and community activities and their ability to overcome difficult life circumstances. And they do this all in a setting that honors God, our country, family, community and free enterprise. Students are nominated by teachers or other school personnel for making a difference in their homes, schools and communities.
Local program founder and event facilitator Karena Zermeno also represents one of the sponsors, Altura Credit Union. Backpacks filled with gifts, a Student of the Month award, certificates of recognition and much more were donated by the program’s sponsors to the award recipients. “Thank you to all the sponsors and volunteers who make this program successful each month,” Zermeno said. “And thank you to our students who share their stories and leave us humbled and motivated to do better each day.”
Each student was invited to the podium to share their personal story, past challenges and future goals with a room full of supporters that included principals, teachers, peers and family members, as well as community and school district dignitaries.
September’s students of the month from Hemet Unified School District schools are Mason Dunn, Bailey Easley, Kai Loera, Diana Ramirez and Kevin Smith. San Jacinto Unified’s honorees for September are Camila Carmona and Kelis Hernandez.
Hemet Unified School District
Hamilton High School selected Mason to be recognized as an outstanding Bobcat who successfully overcame some educational challenges to become a straight A student. Principal Kari Sanchez said Mason is a “light wherever he goes.” His nominating teacher said Mason “does everything with gusto and enthusiasm.” Further, the meaning of his name indicates a builder and he said the senior “builds himself up and others.” Mason believes his greatest contribution to his school is his involvement in the National Honor Society and its numerous projects. He plans to attend Northern Arizona University to major in computer science with an emphasis on programming or building computers. He has prepared a seven-page to-do list of things he needs to do before he goes off to college. “The most significant life lesson I’ve learned is to always be aware,” he said.
Hemet High School chose Bailey for her “stoic humility, grace and peace” as pointed out by teacher Allen Kruse. “We all tend to struggle with life-changing and life-altering tragedies,” he said. “Bailey has been able to take her loss and make it a point of effort for her not just to honor her father but to be the best version of herself that she can be.” Bailey shared that her father died five days after she turned 15, when she was just a freshman. A U.S. Marine veteran, she plans to follow in his footsteps and serve her country in the military after earning a degree in exercise physiology at Northern Arizona University. She carries a 4.3 GPA and is active on the cross-country and track teams. “Standing beside my dad’s headstone, my grandpa taught me how to get rid of the weeds and only look at the flowers in my garden,” Bailey said.
West Valley High School’s top choice this month is Kai, who was cited as being well liked and respected among his peers. He is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, serving as IB president and plays varsity volleyball. Before introducing Kai, IB math teacher Frank Urquiza addressed all the students. “My encouragement to you is don’t forget where you came from and the things that you’ve already accomplished,” he said. “You all have a story to tell and make sure you share it with as many people as you can because you are all great students.” He went on to say that Kai can balance life with his academics/education, being involved with sports and clubs on campus and extracurricular activities. As a junior, he received the College Board’s National Hispanic Recognition Award. Urquiza said, “He’s quiet in spirit but full of life.” Kai’s dream school choices are Harvard or Cornell where he plans to study computer science to become a programmer. “When I was younger, an issue I had was learning how to read in elementary school and it put me behind everyone else in my class. My parents allowed me to go at my own pace and practiced with me at home,” he said. “Now I’m at the top of my class and Student of the Month. The most significant life lesson that I will take with me to college is that it doesn’t matter how good you do, it matters that you try your best and hardest to do it.”
Tahquitz High School recognized Diana for September and her volleyball coach Art Zambrano said she “has a passion for learning in the classroom and on the volleyball court.” Diana shared that she has spent many years in therapy due to many challenges such as losing her father at a young age, surrounding herself with people who were not good influences and using poor coping mechanisms to help her get through life. “The me of two years ago never would have believed I would receive this award. I couldn’t be prouder of myself,” Diana said. “No matter what I went through, I never let it define me in a negative way.”
The Academy of Innovation singled out Kevin as its first Student of the Month for the new school year. The school is part of a rotation with other small, specialized HUSD schools so they only have two opportunities each school year to honor their outstanding students. “Kevin was an easy choice,” his Spanish teacher said. “He’s a teacher’s dream and I’m so proud of the accomplishments he’s made in his educational career.” Kevin said he has faced numerous challenges during his academic journey, including the loss of loved ones and a fear of academic failure. “With the help of friends and family, I was able to see these challenges as opportunities for growth and the drive to always be better,” he said. Kevin plans to attend UC, Riverside as a business or computer science major. “My road to college is not limited to academics. To prepare myself for this new challenge, I have learned to be adaptive, resilient and self-confident so I can face any challenge that comes my way,” he said. “To my fellow students I’d like to encourage you to face each obstacle as an opportunity to do better and remember, the next step after failure is greatness.”
San Jacinto Unified School District
San Jacinto High School’s Camila was nominated by several teachers and principal Kristi Coulter shared what one of them wrote about the young student. As its current president and a leader with the LINK Crew program for two years, they said Camila has built an excellent rapport with her designated freshmen and has become a great asset to the program, always going over and beyond. She is also active with the school’s swim and water polo teams, marching band, various clubs and takes Advanced Placement courses. Band Director Patrick Harris said Camila is woodwind captain and helps tutor band students to help them keep their grades up and supports them in many other ways. “Helping people is the way I show my love and gratitude to those who have done so much for me,” Camila said. She aspires to become an OB/GYN doctor, stating, “A goal without a plan is just a dream.” She is accustomed to staying busy and has always filled up her days with extracurricular activities and supporting her brothers in their sports endeavors. “I always found a busy schedule normal and hated summers because my life would be so calm,” she said. Her mother added that despite some health issues, Camila never missed a day of school.
Mountain View High School chose to honor Kelis, who didn’t let becoming a teen mother disrupt her educational goals. “My greatest contributions are centered around my family and being the best role model I can be for my son and for my brothers. I also like to motivate others,” she said. Kelis plans to become a registered nurse and eventually a travel nurse after attending Mt. San Jacinto Community College and then transferring to Cal State, San Bernardino. “In my past and present I have been harmed by others and I’ve felt the pressure of motherhood stressful but it’s motivated me the most. Being a mom has taught me patience and responsibility but most of all that no matter what road you take – the straight one or the long, winding one – you can still reach your dreams. The lesson I will take with me to college is that hard times should never be the reason you hold back on your dreams – it should push you to where you want to go. I want to inspire the class of 2024 to do what you love and do it great.”
This month’s program began and ended on a somber note as the passing of Tahquitz High School Principal Kari McGowan was announced and acknowledged with a moment of silence by San Jacinto Assembly of God Pastor Jeff Johnson and remembered with final words by HUSD Superintendent Christi Barrett. “I cannot help but feel the absence of someone who embodied the spirit of community; someone whose smile could light up not just a room but an entire school site,” Barrett said. “Yesterday, we received the sad news that Dr. McGowan passed away suddenly from an unexpected health condition. This news has left a mark on our hearts and on our schools. Dr. McGowan was a true champion of school spirit and a prime example of the sense of togetherness that defines our communities. Her unwavering commitment to our students and her infectious enthusiasm for education set a remarkable example for all of us. Today, as we gather to honor the outstanding achievements of our students of the month, let us remember that each one of these exceptional young individuals represents the future that Dr. McGowan was so passionate about. In their accomplishments, we see the potential of our districts and in their dedication to excellence we carry forward the legacy of Dr. Kari McGowan.”
For more information, www.studentofthemonth.net.
Find your latest news here at the Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle