Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Graduation is a big deal for any senior.
For the class of 2021, being able to walk the stage in person is a particularly momentous occasion, marking the end of high school during a pandemic and, hopefully, a shift to a more normal life.
But, for 17-year-old Agustin Leon-Saenz, graduation means even more.
“This is a very special opportunity for me to represent my community on such a big stage,” he said. ” … I’m a first-generation Latino immigrant from Ecuador, I’m in the bilingual seal program at my high school and I’m definitely very proud to represent my community.”
The anticipated valedictorian of Albuquerque High School is planning to stand before his peers on May 14 and give a speech about resiliency, community and hope.
Coming to the United States permanently from Quito when he was 6 years old, Leon-Saenz has had resiliency braided into his story from a young age, starting with him learning English, combating racism and, most recently, getting into Harvard on a full ride.
“I was very scared, not knowing what my future was going to be,” he said about leaving Ecuador. “Unfortunately, in those first few years … I endured some racism and xenophobia, and that took a toll on me.”
He remembers an elementary teacher in Florida screaming at him to “go back to Mexico.”
“In the first few years in the United States, I definitely struggled with questions about my background and the way people viewed me,” he said.
As he gets ready to move his tassel and then go off to Harvard, he views his successes as a way to reclaim his own narrative and prove wrong anyone who tried to pigeon-hole him based on his background.
Reflecting on how far he’s come is emotional for the 17-year-old. When he left Ecuador, he felt like he was losing a part of his culture.
“But I would tell 6-year-old Agustin, first of all, I’m so proud of him,” he said, the words catching in his throat. “Me personally, and then together with my family, we definitely had to do a lot to be able to immigrate.”
His parents initially moved the family to Florida and they’ve been in Albuquerque for about eight years.
“One of the biggest goals that they had in mind was to give (us) all the opportunities that I didn’t necessarily have in Ecuador that my family and my brother have here, especially with my education,” he said.
On top of the emotional toll of coming to a new country, he had to overcome language barriers, as well and take English as a second language classes in elementary school.
“I actually didn’t know any English,” he said. “English is my second language and Spanish is my native first language.”
But the early years of his life were also formative in such positive ways as when his fourth grade teacher told him that she envisioned him at Harvard one day.
“All these years, I’ve kept that in mind and the words of my teacher inspired me to dream big,” he said.
Nearly a decade later, he’s made that dream a reality.
Leon-Saenz found out on April 6 that he had been accepted into Harvard College. He’ll be getting a full ride between scholarships and financial aid.
He was at home doing homework when he got an email that an update had been posted to his admission portal.
He said it was surreal to log on and read the words every college hopeful wants to see: “Congratulations” and “Welcome to Harvard College.”
He sat in disbelief for a couple of seconds before running out of the room to tell his parents.
“My mom said it made all the sacrifices worth it,” Leon-Saenz said.
He sees getting into Harvard as a testament to his hard work, but also to his parents.
“I am forever grateful and in debt to them for literally everything they have done to give me the best life opportunities possible,” he said. “Their sacrifices are actually one of the main motivations I have today to succeed.”
Leaving home will be the hardest part of the transition to college for Leon-Saenz because he is so close to his family – not to mention leaving Albuquerque’s sunshine and green chile. He even considered staying in New Mexico for school so that he could be close to his parents and little brother.
“I’m definitely going to miss them a lot,” he said.
But he’s excited to learn from world-renowned educators and make friends from a student body that’s from across the nation.
As far as the workload, he’s prepared to juggle multiple plates. He said he’s taking seven AP classes this year, and has a laundry list of extracurriculars and clubs.
He isn’t certain what he will study yet, but he’s eyeing environmental engineering with the goal of making social justice impacts through his work.
On May 14, walking the line will represent a sort of culmination of Leon-Saenz’s perseverance and his family’s journey. He was nervous that in-person graduations weren’t going to happen this year because of the coronavirus.
“When I received the news that it was going to be in person, I definitely became very excited,” Leon-Saenz said.
Last year’s seniors had to go without traditional graduations, replaced with video and drive-through celebrations.
Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder said he is “simply delighted” that students will get face-to-face ceremonies, albeit with COVID-safe practices, such as outdoor venues, masks, social distancing and limited guests. The majority of APS ceremonies will take place next week.
“Kids will walk that line, and the parents and family members that are able to be there will be there, and these kids are going to graduate, which is the most important thing,” Elder said.
Like Leon-Saenz, Elder said principals and students he has spoken with are relieved and excited. “For the current graduating class, it is important to congratulate them on their persistence,” he said.
That’s what Leon-Saenz will also try to get across in his speech. “As a class, we’ve survived – and even thrived – through a pandemic in so many ways,” he said.