Together, they’ve become the Memorial High School StuCo family

Becoming a “family” sounds cliché, but for this group of Memorial High School graduates, their student council family is anything but.

Fernanda Aguilera speaks openly about being “DACA,” which refers to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy that began in 2012 and allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable, two-year period of deferred action from deportation.

“Before this,” Aguilera says, “we were restricted to where we could go.” But thanks to DACA, she was able to travel with other Memorial StuCo members on a three-day, nine-campus college tour. One of those campuses was UT-Austin. Aguilera had never had the opportunity to visit UT and probably would have chosen a different university. Her StuCo family helped her realize the home of the Longhorns is where she is meant to be. She researched and did everything she needed to do to enroll.

In the past, Aguilera’s family helped her brother-in-law. Now, he will be helping her finance her college education.

“Then it will be my turn to help with my nieces,” she said. That, she said, is what family is all about. Aguilera will attend UT-Austin and major in chemistry.

When Memorial StuCo graduate Lilith Cain was five years old, her 20-year-old brother died in a tragic car accident. A student at UTPA at the time, he had just been awarded a full ride to the University of Texas-San Antonio and was on his way there with three friends to check things out before the official move. Cain’s brother and his best friend were in the back seat. It was late at night, and their friend who was driving fell asleep. Cain’s brother and his best friend did not survive.

“It really crushed my dad,” Cain shared. She recalls elementary and middle school as a difficult time because of the emotional toll her brother’s passing took on her family. “I was very shy, very quiet.”

But when she entered high school, Cain decided it was time to turn that around, joining StuCo immersing herself in all of the organization’s activities.

“It has given me a foundation and a lot of support,” Cain said, “It has given me a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have had. StuCo has definitely changed my life and given me everything I was missing.”

And now, she added, her family has healed tremendously. Cain will attend UTRGV and major in psychology.

Memorial athlete Jaryd Lara didn’t join the StuCo family until this year. After serving as an FFA officer for the last two of his three years in the organization, but missing officer elections last spring due to a conflict with a baseball game, Lara ran for senior class secretary and won.

It’s been a busy year, between football, StuCo and working since December as an intern in the City of McAllen’s City Attorney’s Office. Lara, who plays the drums at Baptist Temple, did not know church elder Kevin Pagan, the bass player, is also the city’s lead attorney. He found out during a break one day when he shared with Pagan his dream of becoming an attorney like his grandfather, Leo Lara, and his uncle, Tomas Flores. After Lara shared his dream, Pagan told him about his position with the city and offered him an internship.

“It was in October, and I was still playing football,” Lara said. “He told me, ‘The internship is there for you, and I’m here for you. I really want to help you out.’”

Besides the support Lara has gotten from his StuCo family, he is also grateful that the organization has opened so many doors for him. He said being in the organization has made him realize that “athletes get more attention than the ones doing so much work.” Lara will attend Abilene Christian University and major in political science.

Michael Mata transferred to Memorial from IDEA Quest his freshman year at the urging of his mom’s friend and former co-worker, Heather Benitez, who taught English at Memorial at the time. Once Mata enrolled at Memorial, Benitez, a StuCo co-sponsor, convinced him to join the organization and the group’s leadership class.

“This organization works so well with NHS (National Honor Society),” Mata said. “We have worked to bring the school organizations together.” Mata will attend UT-Austin and major in biology.

Tavien Talamantez happened upon the StuCo leadership class when he and fellow StuCo senior David Bocanegra went to it one day during sophomore year with another friend who was in the class, rather than going to their basketball class.

“We were awestruck by it,” Talamantez said. “I realized this is the brains of the organization.” By that, he explained, he means he had seen and heard about events happening in and outside of the school, but he never knew who planned them and who did all of the work. He joined the class and the organization, and now he is part of the brains and part of the family.

“We have done so many things for individual students, for the school, and for the community,” Talamantez said. “It has helped me realize that, in the future, I want to continue to do things for others. The networking is also great. One of our speakers was Annie Holand Miller. She was the president of student council here and then the president of the student body at UT. Now I’m going to UT, and she is an awesome connection.” Talamantez will attend UT-Austin and major in biology/pre-med.

Azul Moreno didn’t have much direction in her life before she landed in Benitez’s English class at Memorial. Benitez encouraged Moreno to go to StuCo meetings and then to apply for the leadership class. She decided to interview and was selected.

“It provided me with opportunities and guidance I didn’t necessarily receive at home,” Moreno said. “It was hard for me to open up to people. Now I have seen college isn’t impossible for me.” Moreno will attend Texas State University and major in engineering.

Daisy Robles looked to her freshman English teacher, Benitez, for support.

“She would tell me, ‘Believe in yourself…she gave me the confidence I needed.’” That confidence led to Robles making the Memorial varsity soccer team her freshman year. The following year, Robles was selected for the leadership class, and she can’t say enough about the two current “moms” of the StuCo family, co-sponsors Vivian Velazquez Tamez and Valeria Carpenter, and former co-sponsor Benitez. (Carpenter teaches the leadership class, as well.)

“They are my biggest supporters,” Robles said. “They are like a family. Mrs. Tamez and Mrs. C. are always there for me. They helped me realize I have so much more to give in the future. I took what I learned and transitioned it to soccer. This year, I’m the captain.” Robles wholeheartedly agrees with Lara that StuCo members don’t get the attention they deserve. She will attend UTRGV, where she will play Division I soccer and major in kinesiology.

Bocanegra said he was a typical only child before being selected for the leadership class. “It gave me a comfort blanket over myself,” he said. “It has helped me so much. It improved my confidence and social skills. It provided me with a positive environment I wasn’t providing for myself. It has taught me not to be selfish. It has been a blessing, and it is a family. It’s good to be good.” Bocanegra will attend UTRGV and major in political science.

Marian Sifuentes also had Benitez for freshman English, but she didn’t apply for the leadership class until the end of her sophomore year because it conflicted with choir, and singing has always been a part of her life. Her decision to join has had a significant impact on her future.

“I have made such important connections and friendships,” Sifuentes said. “This year at the South Texas All Hazards Conference, I met a forensic pathologist. That is my career goal.” Besides being a gifted singer, Sifuentes is also a gifted artist, but for now, they both will remain hobbies. “Education comes first,” Sifuentes said. She will attend UTRGV and major in chemistry with a minor in biology.

Richard Galvan III and his sister have grown up in humble surroundings with their mom, a single mother. He had to give up football and track due to knee and shoulder injuries. Galvan joined the leadership class as a sophomore at the urging of Benitez. Although he learned at a very early age that “in order to get anything done, I had to put my head down and get to work,” StuCo reinforced this and taught him much more.

“StuCo helped me open up to more ideas,” Galvan said. “I have seen so many career paths. It helped me want to be a volunteer at the hospital.” (Galvan has volunteered at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance for three summers, putting in over 400 hours assisting with physical therapy.) He expressed gratitude to his mom, who worked two jobs to take care of him and his younger sister. Galvan will attend South Texas College and major in interdisciplinary studies before transferring to Texas State, where he will major in physical therapy.

Michelle Naranjo said Benitez opened her eyes to the organization responsible for all of the school’s fun activities, but she didn’t join StuCo until her junior year.

“Never had I found the fulfillment that I was provided with in here,” Naranjo said. “I needed something to get my mind off things, a real distraction. There was just so much going on, and things were hard. Never did I think people could provide such support and mentorship. I knew this was the place to stay… People that not only understand me but they share ideologies with me. This was my place, and I knew it since I stepped foot in the class. I met the most amazing people who truly loved life despite what had happened in their lives. The teachers have been so supportive of all of us and have treated us as their own. We are all a family. Joining student council has been one of the best things in life.” Naranjo will attend UTRGV and major in political science.

As their “children” head to college, Tamez and Carpenter each have a message for them:

“What makes you special,” Tamez said, “is that you are each different, and instead of it being something negative, you made it into something amazing. This is exactly what I hope our future leaders are like, able to have different views and backgrounds but still able to find a way to make it work for the greater good of our school and community. As a teacher, this is the WHY of my profession, the WHY I go to work every day, the WHY I deal with the paperwork, and the WHY I deal with the bureaucracy. YOU are my WHY!!”

“Never forget that you are capable of achieving whatever you set your mind to,” Carpenter said. “Do not be scared to ask for help, and know you have a lot of people rooting for you. We are so proud of you and everything you have accomplished. Your futures are bright, Seniors!”