Series begins today

If you spend time around any teenagers these days, you’re probably aware that the high school academic year is coming to an end. In the next month you’ll read a lot about valedictorians, star athletes and scholarship recipients — all deserving of the attention they’ll get for their hard work.

But today we launch a series of stories about some members of an often-overlooked group with an amazing achievement of their own. Over the next three weeks we’ll introduce you to some of the “first generation” graduates from the Class of 2014.

These high school seniors — many of whom will attend in-state colleges and universities — are blazing a trail by embarking on a higher education. All of them faced the familiar challenges presented to their classmates, from slipping grades to rising tuition, but have the extra burden of being the first in their families to extend their formal education beyond high school — and in some cases the first to graduate from high school.

Their stories of perseverance are inspirational, unique and sometimes a little surprising.

Leading up to commencement weekend, June 5 to 7, we’ll feature students from one local high school per week. We’re starting with Forest Grove High today, followed by Gaston and Banks.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Cornelius residents Alondra (left) and Alejandra Rojo, wholl graduate from Forest Grove High School June 7, will go their separate ways come fall. Alejandra will attend Oregon State University, while Alondra will head to the University of Oregon.When Alejandra and Alondra Rojo were in fourth grade, they both dreamed of someday attending the University of Oregon in Eugene. Now, however, the sisters are planning a mutual parting of the ways.

Next fall, Alondra will be a freshman at the U of O, while Alejandra will go to Oregon State University. The Rojo twins — the first in their family to attend college — will be members of a “house divided,” wearing different school colors on separate campuses for the first time in their lives.

“We’ve already got the T-shirts,” said Alondra, the older of the 18-year-old sisters by 15 minutes.

Whether sporting Duck green and gold or Beaver orange and black, however, the 2014 Forest Grove High School graduates aim to blaze a trail for their younger siblings — second-grader Janilet and 3-year-old Adrian — by showing them that ambition and hard work pay off.

“It’s very important to us to be good examples for our little brother and sister,” said Alejandra, who plans to study science and Spanish at Oregon State.

“We already set them up to go to UO and OSU,” quipped Alondra, who will major in political science and minor in international studies.

Eventually Alondra hopes to be a lobbyist or a political consultant. Alejandra plans a career in nursing.

The teens’ older sister, Evelin, graduated from FGHS in 2012, but did not go on to college. Their dad, Arturo Rojo, is a nursery worker in Cornelius, where the family lives. Their mom, Teresa Rojo, is a housekeeper.

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Arturo and Teresa — who emigrated to the U.S. in 1986 and 1993, respectively — did not proceed beyond grade school in their formal schooling.

“My dad went through third grade, and my mom through sixth grade,” noted Alejandra. “They worked on their parents’ farms.”

Today Teresa is enrolled in a community-college General Educational Development (GED) program, with her daughters cheering her all the way. “I’m her tutor for her classes,” Alondra said proudly.

Rising through the grade levels in the Forest Grove School District — starting with Joseph Gale and Fern Hill elementaries and then Tom McCall Upper Elementary, Neil Armstrong Middle School and Forest Grove High — the Rojo sisters never failed to take advantage of lessons they could learn or opportunities to savor.

Since freshman year, each has taken “six or seven” advanced-placement (AP) classes, Alejandra said, excelling in social studies, math and Spanish — their first language — “in order to perfect it,” Alondra said.

“We learned English in kindergarten,” noted Alondra, but Spanish remains the preferred language at home.

Both National Honor Society members, the sisters played soccer, participated twice in their school’s lip-sync competition and helped mentor freshmen as part of Vik Crew. They also joined a teen advocacy group at the Cornelius Public Library and volunteered as counselors at Outdoor School.

The summer before their junior year, Alejandra attended a leadership camp at OSU — where she first became familiar with the Corvallis campus — while Alondra flew to Washington, D.C., to study politics and government with a group of 10 students from FGHS.

In high school, they’ve gained a reputation for being serious students.

“We’re usually the ones initiating study groups,” said Alondra, who pointed out that neither is likely to leave the other behind, even though sibling rivalry has reared its head now and again.

“Our freshman year it started off as a competition academically,” Alejandra said, “but then we thought, ‘Hey, we need to help each other out.’ So we did.”

They passed the who-gets-better-grades torch back and forth, eventually landing fairly close together in terms of their rankings among the 454 members of the Class of 2014. Alondra is in the top 13 percent, while Alejandra is in the top 20 percent of graduates.

Both are earning special Certificate of Advanced Mastery diplomas, a testament to their hard work. When they march across the stage in the Basinski Center gymnasium at FGHS during commencement the evening of June 7, their parents will be in the audience, bursting with pride.

“They wanted us to be successful and to have a better future than they did,” said Alejandra, adding that the elder Rojos encouraged their daughters to go to college even though none of their brothers or sisters or their kids — Alondra and Alejandra’s uncles, aunts and cousins — pursued a higher education.

Come fall, it will be hard for them to watch their girls leave home.

“It can be emotional at times talking about it,” said Alondra, who said she and Alejandra have spent hours filling out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork and applying for dozens of scholarships in order to afford hefty college costs. “Our mom gets kind of sad, but she wants us to have our dreams.”

Alejandra landed a residence hall internship at OSU that will take care of her room and board costs. She also won a diversity scholarship.

In addition to FAFSA funding, Alondra’s UO tuition will be paid through a PathwayOregon grant.

Both plan to avoid campus distractions and stay on track to obtain their bachelor’s degrees in four years.

“I’m going to keep my grades up,” said Alondra. “No doubt.”

“I’ve heard a lot of stories [about campus hijinks],” added Alejandra, “but I’m going to try to have fun the right way.”

Both trace their success to an experience they had when they were ninth-graders: seeing graduating seniors in the hallway in their gowns and mortar boards.

“Some of the grads had just plain robes, and others had the gold cords and the National Honor Society medals around their necks,” Alejandra said. “We decided we wanted those medals.”

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