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Many middle school students don’t even know what a valedictorian is.

For Ely Guerrero, it’s an honor she’s been working toward since seventh grade.

It hasn’t been an easy road for the 18-year-old Liberty High School senior who graduates Saturday, but she persevered. Guerrero earned a 4.0 grade point average through middle school and high school, and now she is one of four valedictorians in her class of 322 students.

What drives her?

She’s always been self-motivated. But more importantly, it’s hope that keeps her going.

Sandra “Ely” Guererro hopes that one day she will be able to be a citizen of the country that she’s called home since she was 2-years-old.

Her parents brought her and a brother to the United States from Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico.

“They brought us here because they knew we’d have a better opportunity to have a better education,” Ely said recently, while taking a break between advanced placement exams.

She recalls being “super excited” to start kindergarten. A student in Hillsboro schools since second grade, Ely said she has always enjoyed school. But in seventh grade, she got some news that might cause a different kind of person to give up on school.

Her mom told her that the family had come to the U.S. without visas — they were here illegally.

“I had been studying immigration,” she recalled, so she understood immediately what her mother was telling her.

“I wasn’t going to be able to get a job or get a house or go to college,” she explained. “I was really upset. Even at the age that I was, I had goals of becoming a doctor and going into the Navy.”

Ely was devastated by the news, but it made her stronger and even more determined.

“I’ve always been self-driven,” Ely said. “I wanted to be someone. I wanted to do something. I still had hope that something would happen to help (her undocumented status).”

So she hunkered down and studied, determined to keep her grades up. And she worked. She dressed as a boy to get a job in construction and, she said, so she wouldn’t be subject to teasing on the construction site. Her goal was to save money to pay for college, knowing she wouldn’t be able to qualify for student loans or federal financial aid.

Ely got a solid start, saving more than $3,000. Then in July 2012, President Barack Obama signed DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Ely viewed DACA as that glimmer of hope she was looking for. She knew applying for DACA wouldn’t give her legal status or get her any closer to citizenship, but it would allow her to work and attend college.

Ely hired a lawyer to guide her through the DACA application process. She spent her own money — the money she had saved for college.

Undaunted, Ely continued to work hard in school. In October 2012 she received her work permit. She studies, works and — in her spare time — pursues her love of Latin dance at Line’s Dance Studio in downtown Hillsboro.

At Saturday’s commencement, she finishes one chapter of her life and begins another. Ely has received a scholarship to attend Linfield College in McMinnville. She still has lofty goals. She’ll study biology, in hopes of someday becoming a gynecologist. And she still wants to serve in the U.S. Navy.

“I have to look forward,” Ely said. “Hope is the biggest thing. It’s always been my motivation because I have seen things change.”

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