At 16, Elio Cortez was ready to drop out of high school.
He was a year behind academically, and he was surrounded by friends who all felt school was a waste of time.
Not long after his 17th birthday, Cortez had a wake-up call.
He realized he was missing out on his chance at an education, an opportunity he knew many in his home country of Guatemala desired.
Cortez came to the United States at age 5 and moved to Sioux Falls with his parents a few years later.
“It was hard for me to say, ‘I give up,’ knowing that someone else in my country would be willing to take my spot and not give up,” Cortez said.
Now, at age 20, Cortez is ready to walk the graduation stage and receive his diploma.
The decision to finish high school came alongside a renewed focus to live a healthier lifestyle, Cortez said.
Before committing to earning his diploma, Cortez felt himself feeling down because he’d let his grades slip and his weight increase.
He started exercising, which helped him work past the problems he was having in school. Cortez said his weight loss was the “key to focus and a healthier mind.”
“I couldn’t see myself being a couch potato … so that was the moment where I was like, I’m health, I want to keep moving forward,” Cortez said.
He began taking classes through the Joe Foss Ombudsman program, which is designed to help students who are not on track to graduate in four years.
Joe Foss Principal Rachel Black has seen Cortez working day after day to achieve his diploma, but she’s also seen the impact he’s had on the school’s community.
“He really takes time to think about other people,” Black said.
Students at Joe Foss work at their own pace, meaning students often don’t choose to interact much during the day. Cortez is different.
He’s formed friendships and acts as a mentor for younger students, encouraging them to get their diploma as he did. He’s even brought treats for teachers at Joe Foss.
Cortez doesn’t know what the future holds for him. He wants to go to college, and while he isn’t certain what he’ll study, he said he’s always pictured seeing his name either on a desk or a book someday.
For now, he’s just proud to say he’s a high school graduate.
“I feel nothing more than satisfaction,” he said. “Of being able to grow up and not leaving the opportunity that I got behind.”
Originally Published By: Argus Leader
Author: Megan Raposa