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‘We were able to achieve what we thought was impossible’: In a senior year like no other, these graduates found a way to thrive

‘Everything we’ve done is finally going to be celebrated’

Yanelis Camacho plans to attend St. Olaf College. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Name: Yanelis Camacho

School: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

Plans next year: St. Olaf College

When Yanelis Camacho’s family came to Minnesota from Puerto Rico 10 years ago, she struggled to adjust to speaking English in school. 

“We were all labeled as failures at some point in time because we didn’t know the language,” she said.

Her family moved to the mainland in search of better educational opportunities. Even before Puerto Rico’s debt crisis led to the mass shuttering of schools, Yanelis’s mother, a teacher, thought the island wasn’t heading in the right direction. It was difficult for her to get a teaching job without an insider connection.

Yanelis struggled in her first school in Minneapolis when she didn’t receive enough attention from her English-language teachers. But when her mom landed a job at Windom Dual Immersion School, Yanelis went with her as a student. There, her teachers “pushed me to my limits,” she said. By fifth grade, she had tested out of the English-language-learner program. 

At Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school off Minneapolis’ Lake Street, she found teachers who believed in her, too. Her senior year took place largely online due to the pandemic, which meant she didn’t have all the bonding time she would have liked with her classmates. A few activities helped, like a senior carnival to celebrate the colleges her classmates will be attending.

And as vaccines started allowing daily life to become more and more normal, she and her classmates could begin to plan for an in-person graduation—something they’d barely dared to hope for. Last year’s Cristo Rey class celebrated with a drive-through graduation. But that’s not the same, Yanelis said.

“We were able to take a deep breath,” Yanelis said. “Everything we’ve done is finally going to be celebrated among our family members.”

Despite the challenges of the pandemic and online learning, she and her classmates were able to maintain Cristo Rey’s unbroken success streak: For the 11th year in a row, 100 percent of the class earned acceptance to college.

“We were able to achieve what we thought was impossible at the beginning of the year,” Yanelis said.

After college, Yanelis hopes to attend law school to become an immigration lawyer: She thinks of it as an opportunity to give back to her community. She hopes to make legal support more accessible to everyone who needs it.

She’s looking forward to college and living away from home for the first time—though she’s also “petrified” about being a student of color in a predominantly white institution like St. Olaf College, in rural Northfield.

But now, she’s focused on graduating and making her family proud.

“Hopefully I will remember Saturday, as we walk across the stage and I look down upon our peers and family members,” she said. “Just seeing all of their faces as we finally take our own paths.”