When Abigail Espinoza Cervantes was in middle school, she started studying in the Cambridge program, an initiative at the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District that prepares students for the Cambridge International Exams.
The classes offered a different teaching style that struck a chord with her. “You had to start thinking for yourself, and that really changed my way of facing problems,” she said.
And in eighth grade, her older brother’s example encouraged Espinoza to sign up for the local JROTC cadet program.
“He was already a senior and he’d been in JROTC all four years. And I really saw a change in him in the program, and I wanted to see one in myself,” she recalled this week. “So I decided to also join.”
Now, as Espinoza nears high school graduation, both her military commitment and academic dedication are on display.
She’s already enlisted in the Navy through the Delayed Entry Program. In August she’ll ship out to Illinois for bootcamp.
And earlier this year, she was named valedictorian of Rio Rico High School’s graduating Class of 2020.
But even as she prepares to head off for training far away, Espinoza is thinking about home.
“What really motivates me is my family, my sister. I want her to see a good example of someone trying hard,” she said.
When Espinoza learned earlier this year that she was the top student in her class at RRHS, it came as a surprise.
“I didn’t really look at ranks for a while, and then when I found out I was valedictorian, I was surprised,” she said. “All that hard work from all those years really paid off.”
Her mother, Liz Cervantes, was also pleased.
“She’s fought for everything,” Cervantes said of her daughter, adding that she was “super, super proud” to learn about the recognition.
For Espinoza, the distinction wasn’t expected – in part because she earned a few B’s in her freshman year at RRHS and didn’t think she was the best student in her class. But she found an encouraging voice in a JROTC leader.
“That’s when 1st Sgt. Brown really motivated me, and told me not to give up,” she said, referring to Larry Brown, a former JROTC instructor at RRHS.
She also credited a few faculty members at RRHS for helping her along the way.
Math teacher Philip Brown was a mentor for Espinoza while she studied in the Cambridge program. “He’s the one that taught us to calm down, look back and then look at the problem from a different angle. And I’ve used that a lot throughout the years,” she said.
Spanish teacher Ana Romero-Davis, she said, “taught me that school is fun, that learning can be fun.”
Larry Brown, the JROTC instructor, “taught me to believe in myself.”
JROTC was a major commitment on top of schoolwork: Espinoza participated in different activities each day of the week, including physical training, classwork and uniform inspections.
These days, with classes cancelled and most activities restricted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s spending more time at home.
That means she’s around her brother, who went on to join the Marines and is now back home, and her younger sister, with whom she likes to bake and go hiking. Her sister, a sixth-grader at Coatimundi Middle School, recently joined the district’s Cambridge program.
Espinoza is studying for three AP exams that she’ll take in the next few weeks, a process that was tricky at first since the family didn’t have a reliable internet connection at home. (They recently got a wireless hotspot, she said.)
Still, she took on the challenge with characteristic gusto, heading to the library, where she would connect to wireless internet while sitting in her car.
“I would try to do the most I could when I had the internet, and then worked at home (on) what I didn’t need internet for,” she said.
The coronavirus-related closures have also changed her preparation for bootcamp, which includes plenty of physical training. While she used to train at the gym, Espinoza has now taken to working out at home while watching TV. After sunset, she’ll head out for a run or a long hike on the Anza Trail.
In the Navy, she’s planning to specialize in mass communications, giving her a chance to take photos for the armed forces.
“I really like nature and I’m interested in people and writing, so I like taking pictures,” she explained. “And I feel like if I take pictures with the Navy I’ll look at more careers, more jobs, more cultures and lifestyles, and then decide what I really want to do.”
“I feel pretty excited,” she said of the upcoming training. “I’m still studying a lot and preparing physically for this, but it’s a challenge that I’m ready to take on.”