McAllen ISD IB/Nikki Rowe High School graduate Virginia Topete did not take a traditional road to high school graduation, but she has no regrets and no doubt that she took the right path.

After going through the Pharr Oratory of St. Philip Neri School System for first through eighth grades because her parents wanted her to have a strong academic foundation and to be bilingual and biliterate (which Topete refers to as a “wise choice”), she chose McAllen ISD’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program for high school, choosing Rowe as her home campus. Topete’s brother was a senior at IB when she was a freshman, which undoubtedly figured in to her decision.

Freshman and sophomore years are part of IB’s Middle Years Programme or MYP. When Topete completed her sophomore year at Rowe and IB, just as she was preparing to enter the Diploma Programme, her road to graduation took a major detour. Her parents decided to move to Mexico to be closer to family.

Topete first enrolled in Prepa Tec Milenio, a private high school in Mazatlan, Sinaloa. She only stayed there a month.

“The teachers were more like facilitators,” Topete said. “It was an inverted system, and it wasn’t for me.”

Topete transferred to Insitituto Anglo Moderno, where she stayed for the remainder of her junior year. But then another detour presented itself, this one much more difficult than the first. Topete’s dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. He had surgery in Mexico. Her parents decided to return to the States, his diagnosis a key factor in their decision.

The family moved to Mission, and Topete had to decide where to go to high school. Despite the struggles, she felt grateful for the opportunity to complete her high school diploma in the U.S.

“The public education system in Mexico is not at all the same as the public education system here,” she said. “When I transferred schools while there, I ended up in a school with a more traditional teaching style. I went to school from 7:15 to 1:30, but the school days seemed eternal. Mazatlan is more of a tourist city, and the students didn’t seem focused on learning. I was really disappointed.” As a U.S. citizen who knew she wanted to attend college in the States, Topete also felt she may be at a disadvantage with a high school diploma from Mexico.

She was zoned to Sharyland, but she didn’t know anyone there. She could return to Rowe for her senior year since she was familiar with the school and knew people there. Or she could re-apply to the IB Diploma Programme with Rowe as her home campus.

“My parents played a big role in helping me make my decision,” Topete said. “At the end of the day, it was my decision, but they guided me to make the right choice.”

She chose IB, but the choice wasn’t as smooth as one might imagine. In order to complete the Diploma Programme, Topete would have to spend two years at IB, thus delaying high school graduation for a year.

“My parents told me to look at my year in Mexico like a year abroad,” Topete said. “I asked myself, ‘Do I really care about graduating earlier?’ I knew I wanted to go to college, and even now, I’m only 18. I won’t be 19 until August (of 2017).” Furthermore, she had decided on a major—fashion design—and art colleges require applicants to produce a portfolio. Topete figured it would take her two years to put an impressive one together.

Two years later, Topete knows she made the right decision.

“All of my teachers were so supportive when I left,” Topete said, “and so welcoming when I came back. I like that the teachers at IB are so interested in what they are teaching. They are so passionate.”

As an example, Topete shared how IB math teachers Patricia Serviere and Fontaine Dearth came up with rhymes to help students grasp complicated math concepts. She also explained how, during a back-to-school, get-to-know-each-other activity, chemistry teacher Laura Nikstad helped her find a connection between fashion design and chemistry.

“That is one of the classes I enjoyed most,” Topete said, “And she is one of the nicest people I know.”

Topete also knows she made the right choice because the smaller size of the IB campus allowed her to get to know her classmates better. There is, at IB, what she refers to as “a level of intimacy.”

“Everybody at IB CHOSE to be here,” she said, “knowing it would be a challenge. We want to go to school and learn something new every day. It’s also a place of trust and of respect for each other’s things. This makes you feel safe and comfortable.”

Topete will move to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. Right now, she is drawn to designing sportswear.

“High fashion is just about how something looks,” Topete explained. “But sportswear is more about true design—making something functional, carefully choosing the fabric, and incorporating a lot more elements. This would challenge not only the artistic side of my design but the practical side.”

She is intrigued by clothing design companies like Patagonia that have a non-traditional approach with their employees.

“If someone creates running clothes, for example,” Topete said, “the designer would go out running to test the clothing herself.” She can see herself working in such a creative environment.

As she prepares for tomorrow’s IB Pinning Ceremony and Rowe’s graduation ceremony Friday night, Topete is grateful she took the road less traveled.

.“My parents have always been very supportive of whatever I wanted, as long as I knew I could do it and as long as I was going to be happy,” she said.

Her dad will not be with her this week because he lost his battle with cancer last year. Although he will not be with her physically, she knows he will always be with her.