The speech below was given to 150-200 students (elementary to high school grades) at the 2015 Reclassification Ceremony in Hemet, California. This was an event to celebrate and award students whose English was not their first language had successfully learned it. It was a very significant ceremony, as I had to go through the same program as they did when I was in middle school. 

Thank you for the Introduction.

Congratulations everyone! This moment is very significant. For our schools, it demonstrates the benefits of language diversity and inclusion; for your parents, it is a proud moment of achievement. But above all, this moment is most significant for you.

I am much honored to be speaking in front of you today. I was once in your exact position and never imagined addressing others like us.

I am graduating from college in exactly one month. Like myself now, thousands of students who also underwent English Learning programs, have, are, and will graduate from college. All of us thousands have two things in common… two qualities that together equal success and happiness = opportunities & decisions.

I flew here from New York to share with you how these two qualities work together and to remind you that you already have them. See, the difference between opportunities and decisions is that opportunities are external – others provide them for us all the time. Decisions, on the other hand, are internal – it is up to us individually.

I was born in San Diego, California, but I was raised in Tijuana, Mexico by two divorced parents. I started middle school in California without knowing any English. Other kids at school would just think I was shy because I wouldn’t speak, but I just didn’t know how!

Having lived both in Mexico and California made me realize something important - I had an opportunity others did not. Thanks to my parents, I could receive an American education.

Thousands of Mexican children would give everything just for the opportunity to study in California. I would notice this every time I crossed the international border.

I decided I was not going to waste this opportunity.

In middle school, I would attend the before-school tutoring program, then the lunch tutoring session, and finally taking afternoon tutoring classes. I would spend eleven hours in school every day from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM in addition to Saturday school. I did all I could to learn English.

After only three semesters and a summer of more classes, I was re-classified - like you are being today - and enrolled in regular English classes at Acacia Middle School. It was a very special moment for me. My grades improved, had more friends, and made my parents proud.

We are given by our family and teachers the opportunity to learn and succeed, but it is up to us to determine what we will do with this opportunity.

Today, you all have already made your decisions. You took advantage of being able to learn a new language and decided to do so.

Congratulations. You have now created many more opportunities for yourselves by learning English.

There is one thing I can promise you all: You will always be given the option to be happy. This option can be given to you at home or school, but it is YOU who must decide.

New and good opportunities require sacrifices. For years, my mother would commute for four hours every day to get to her business, driving two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon just so that my brother and I could be exposed to an American education. My father would be separated from my step-family and us for five days every week as he spent Monday to Friday in Riverside working and drove back to Tijuana every weekend to be with everyone.

The opportunity I had for an education here took a lot from my parents – it was my responsibility to make their sacrifices worth it.

Senior year in high school was very difficult – there was a lot of pressure and confusion, but one thing was clear to me. I wanted to be an architect. I knew that designing buildings is what made me happy. My family, teachers, and principals all gave me the opportunity to go to college and learn architecture.

I decided to apply to Cornell University despite being afraid of rejection. The happiness of being able to become an architect, however, was strong enough to overcome any fear. The university knew and accepted me into their architecture program.

Whether happiness to you means college, our military or volunteer service, you are just starting to live. Do not be afraid to be happy!

Our lives are a network of different moments. Elementary is connected to middle school, just as high school is often connected with college. One opportunity always leads to another.

Once a freshman in college, I was alone. I had left my family, my friends, my home here in Southern California and flown across the country to the East Coast. As alone as I was, I only needed to remind myself of one thing: I wanted to be an architect. I eventually got a part-time job on campus, made new friends, and most importantly, learned.

Even as a university student, I have fears. I was afraid of not getting a job after graduating because of the economy; but then an opportunity came to me last fall. I was given the chance to do a short internship in New York City, shadowing an architect for 3 months. I decided to take the opportunity and it turned out so well, that they offered me a full-time job at their studio for after graduation.

I accepted the offer and will now be working, finally, as an architect in New York City starting this summer.

As afraid as I have been in college, I have always focused on the bigger picture. The big picture is that I was raised in Tijuana, learned English in California, applied to colleges in high school, and have now reached happiness.

You have already overcome a significant fear – not speaking English.

When the opportunity comes for you to go to college, or to serve our country, or volunteer in something that will make this a better world, do not be afraid. Make the right decision and run with it!

I did and it proved to work. I know it will work for you as well.

In one year, or ten years, it will be you speaking here to other students like us, sharing your story.

Success and happiness are never obtained alone. We need the opportunities that our schools and families give us – but it will come down to us, individually, to make the right decision.

Congratulations to all of you for making the right decision today and I wish you all infinite success and happiness – I have no doubt you will all obtain it.

Thank you.