Faces of the future
Four recent female high school graduates, all from diverse backgrounds, have not only overcome, but flourished, in their respective schools.
Ingrid Gutierrez Caldero and Jennifer Fisher
School districts across the Tulsa area are impacting students from around the world. Four recent female graduates, all from diverse backgrounds, have not only overcome, but flourished, in their respective schools.
From immersing themselves in a second language to becoming first-generation college students, each student credits her success thus far to a special mentor. As their lives continue to transform after high school, they say they will fondly remember the four teachers who helped guide them to become rising leaders.
From wallﬂower to wildflower: Ingrid Gutierrez Caldero
Ingrid Gutierrez Caldero arrived in Tulsa from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 2014. During her transition, Caldero struggled with the language barrier, feeling like the students treated her differently because of it. Her only experience with English was brief in her Nuevo Laredo school. While she had some background with the language, it was still difficult to use English upon her arrival in America.
“People speak English differently in the States than they do back in Mexico,” Caldero claims.
As she navigated her life’s big changes, she retreated further into herself.
“(Other students) didn’t talk to me. They said a lot of bad stuff about me,” Caldero says. “I didn’t have friends; I had acquaintances.”
Her parents were already wanting to upsize to a larger house when Caldero shared her experience at school with them. This solidified their choice to move to a new district. Little did Caldero know that soon a whole new world would open up for her.
On her first day at Union High School in January 2016, Caldero sat in the back of Jennifer Fisher’s marketing classroom. Once an extroverted and lively personality, Caldero only spoke to those sitting next to her.
“She had all these interests and talents, but she was really closed off,” Fisher says.
Caldero’s previous interactions with fellow students discouraged her from the inevitable task of giving a presentation in front of her classmates. She worried about her accent and her English pronunciation, two things that left her feeling alienated in previous schools.
During the presentation, Caldero “freaked out and started crying.” All she wanted was to sit back down and stay out of sight.
“I thought everyone was going to be the same,” Caldero explains.
On the contrary, the students began encouraging her to finish her presentation. Here, Caldero realized that Fisher’s classroom was a safe space.
“The kids really started to accept her,” Fisher says. “I don’t care where you come from or what you’ve done in the past. If you walk in my door and you’re on my roster, you’re my kid now. We’re a family.”
Fisher later learned of Caldero’s background and what spurred her move to Union. Taking Caldero under her wing, Fisher began plugging her into the different facets of her marketing and media classes.
“Really anything that she expressed an interest in, I just empowered her to go do it,” Fisher says. “Then I couldn’t shut her up.”
Through Fisher’s classes, Caldero not only emerged from her shell, but also gained videography experience and created a start-up business for herself with Fisher’s help. Caldero possessed a passion for makeup and photography and Fisher carved out time to help her develop a social media, business card and platform for it.
For Caldero’s last year of high school, she was selected as president of the U-Hype Crew, the advanced marketing program run by Fisher.
“You could see her confidence grow over the past two and a half years. It’s amazing, she went from wallflower to wildflower,” Fisher says. “She bloomed for all to see.” This little saying coined Caldero’s nickname, “Wildflower,” among her peers in Fisher’s class.
During high school, Caldero earned her certification as a TV production assistant through Tulsa Tech. After graduating in May, she looks forward to taking classes at Tulsa Community College and working toward a second certification from Tulsa Tech in cosmetology. She credits her success to Fisher, whom she refers to as “Mama Fish.”
“She won’t brag about herself, but without her I would be nothing,” Caldero says. “It all started here.”
As for Fisher, this fall she will enter her seventh year teaching at Union. “As a teacher, that’s why you teach,” she says. “You live for those moments — the lightbulb moments when a kid finds their passion or their wings and takes off. And that’s what I saw.”
From ‘Welborn yellow’ to Golden Hurricane: My Vu Le
My Vu Le moved to America from Vietnam in 2007 with her parents and younger sister. In a search for more abundant job opportunities and better schooling, Texas was their original destination. However, Le had relatives on her mother’s side who lived in Oklahoma, so they changed routes and settled in Tulsa.
Le first attended Union Public Schools but later transferred to Broken Arrow Public Schools as a fourth-grader, after moving into a different school district. When first integrating into American school, Le had a difficult time connecting with other students. She eventually befriended some peers who were also Vietnamese and could speak Vietnamese, allowing her some solace in her new surroundings.
Le met Christian Welborn during her junior year at Broken Arrow High School through her leadership class, as well as in student council. The director of student life and activities at BAHS, Welborn was impressed by Le’s work ethic and humility. However, Le did not need praise to work hard; it was just natural for her to excel.
Welborn has been in the education field for eight years; her parents, grandparents and aunts and great uncles were all educators, as well. Welborn says they encouraged her to pursue a career outside of their respective field due to the “current rocky climate in the Oklahoma education system.”
Following her parents’ advice, she originally worked as a dietician. After five years working as a dietitian in the field of diabetes, she wanted to pursue her original career path. She earned a master’s degree in administration, and Welborn says she feels blessed to work with students and is always encouraged when she comes across a passionate and hard-working pupil like Le.
“I love getting to do something that matters,” says Welborn, who is proud she has seen BA students embracing all genders and ethnicities.
Le says she never felt any negativity toward her background; instead, she experienced many opportunities at BAHS to play a major role in leading the student body.
And Welborn has been a main proponent in the student activities allowing Le to thrive. Le says she is impressed by Welborn’s ability to connect with her students and multitask in her daily duties. “She’s like Superwoman,” Le says.
Le decided her career path in eighth grade after developing an interest in chemistry. Now, as a recent high school graduate, she has committed to the University of Tulsa and will soon begin working toward a degree in biochemical engineering. She says her dream is to become a surgeon and travel to countries in need of efficient medical care. As a child, Le saw firsthand what lack of proper care could hinder.
The relationship between Le and Welborn is one both wish to maintain as they have grown close throughout the years. Le says Welborn has taught her to remain positive and calm, even in stressful situations. Le looks forward to carrying these lessons with her to college.
“I like being positive — that’s why my favorite color’s yellow,” Le says. “Whenever I see yellow, I think of Welborn.”
Welborn jokes her office will be painted yellow very soon.
From mentee to mentor: Esther Cing
In 2015, Esther Cing flew with her three siblings and grandmother from Burma, now known as Myanmar, to Malaysia to Nashville, Tennessee, to Tulsa, all to reunite with her mother. Cing’s mother had been in the United States six years, working and saving enough to bring her family here.
Cing wasted no time once her feet hit American soil. As soon as she enrolled at Jenks High School, she immediately sought out leadership courses. “I was recommended by one of my youth leaders (for the leadership class) because he took this class, too,” Cing explains. “He said it was going to challenge me to do a lot of things and to be impactful to the people around me.”
In her first leadership class, Cing met social studies teacher Annmarie Wright. An educator at Jenks for 27 years, Wright teaches leadership classes as well as Advanced Placement history courses.
Being submerged in English-speaking classes forced Cing to learn the language at a rapid pace. During her high school career at Jenks, Cing took seven AP classes, including AP English Language and AP English Literature.
“AP is a college-level class, which is amazing because Esther had only been here for two years and learned English, but she was reading from a college-level textbook,” Wright says. “Native speakers have difficulty with it.”
Cing says she often reads each passage several times to ensure she comprehends the subject. Despite the challenge, she remains motivated and grateful for her access to resources. “I feel like the education system here is very, very good and that I have more opportunities,” she says. “Money doesn’t have to be the thing that stops me from getting an education here.”
Cing not only found success academically, but also in developing new friends, including Wright. The teacher often had breakfast and coffee with Cing, trying to connect and learn more about her.
“What is amazing to me is how much students have going on in their personal lives,” Wright says. “You don’t always get to see that. I try to be mindful that as students are coming into my classroom, there are a lot of things that they may be dealing with.”
Cing names Wright as a main inspiration for who she is today. “Mrs. Wright is like a teacher and mentor, but also a mother figure,” Cing says. “I can open up to her.”
Cing will attend Oral Roberts University in the fall to major in psychology and with a minor in youth and ministry. She hopes she will be able to assist fellow students and youth members from her church, just as Wright assisted her. “I really want to be a role model for the younger generation, especially in my community,” Cing explains. “Most of them really struggle with assimilation.”
As Cing continues on her life path, Wright is confident the young woman’s “tenacity” will take her far. “She’s just an incredible young lady,” Wright says. “I feel like Esther and I have that connection and we will hopefully be able to continue that friendship through the years.”
From timid to triumphant: Brenda MedellÍn-Zaragoza
Born in Piedras Negras Coahuila, Mexico, Brenda Medellín-Zaragoza moved to the U.S. when she was only 11 months old. Medellín-Zaragoza’s father had already come to America in search of a job before his family followed. After finding work in the Tulsa area, the family settled in Glenpool where Medellín-Zaragoza grew up. The family eventually found their current home in Tulsa.
Medellín-Zaragoza grew up in a bilingual household that expanded her knowledge of multiple cultures.
Quiet and timid, she says she loves talking to people of similar interests but always found it difficult to come out of her shell. At Tulsa’s Central High School, she was a member of the National Honor Society and City of Refuge, a volunteering program with elementary and middle school students. This opportunity gave Medellín-Zaragoza a new passion for interaction and service.
Medellín-Zaragoza believes she would not have had the courage to explore her different talents and open up as much as she has in high school without the help of her teacher and mentor, Mr. Smith.
Andrew Smith taught at Central for seven years and was originally assigned to the school as a member of Teach for America. Smith taught math and served as an academic advisor for freshmen. During Medellín-Zaragoza’s first advisement appointment, Smith quickly realized her potential. “She has got a lot of abilities and talents and a kind of raw intelligence,” he says. “If something is hard, she doesn’t give up. She just finds a way to figure it out.”
The student and teacher developed a strong academic relationship through the five different classes they had together.
“I knew I was pretty good at math, but I didn’t actually know how good I was until Mr. Smith’s class,” Medellín-Zaragoza says. “That’s when I started realizing I excelled more at math than English or history.”
Due to her success at Central, Medellín-Zaragoza was named valedictorian this past May. With this, she gave a speech at her graduation ceremony. She says this was a huge milestone for her because she never pictured herself speaking to hundreds of people, let alone giving a speech the other students might remember forever.
“And her speech was great, by the way, too,” Smith says. “She talks about being nervous in front of people, but you just couldn’t tell that. She doesn’t give herself enough credit there.”
Medellín-Zaragoza will attend Tulsa Tech after high school for hospitality and tourism, and hopes to find opportunities to further her social skills internationally. “I’m able to talk to people, and maybe have a chance to travel the world,” she says.
Additionally she plans to attend Tulsa Community College and possibly pursue an engineering degree.
Smith will move to Edison High School in the fall to teach math and looks forward to what the future holds for both of them. As Medellín-Zaragoza said in her speech, “The challenges we have all faced have pushed us to do more than just our best; they have pushed us past our limits, and in return, we became better — better than we could imagine.”