Heads of the class: Two McNary grads chart new paths in college

McNary grads Crystal Llanos and Samuel Hernandez recently reunited at a leadership conference at Harvard University.

It seemed that both Samuel Hernandez and Crystal Llanos had the cards stacked against them while growing up in Keizer, but that didn’t stop them from achieving their goals.

Despite coming from low-income households, Hernandez and Llanos were two of several valedictorians at McNary High School in 2018 and are now wrapping up their freshman years and a pair of prestigious California universities.

Llanos is attending Stanford University where she is majoring in biology engineering and minoring in Latino studies. Hernandez, on the other hand, got a full-ride scholarship to Pomona College, one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, and is majoring in public policy analysis with a concentration in economics.

As of 2018, Stanford had a 4.3 percent, acceptance rate — which is lower than Ivy League Schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton — so when Llanos got the call that she had been accepted, she didn’t even believe that it was real at first.

“When I opened it and saw the word ‘congrats’ I was in shock,” Llanos said. “I literally didn’t believe it. I asked my sister to read it to me because I was in complete shock.”

“It wasn’t until I got accepted that I realized that I had the potential to go to Stanford.”

Going from Keizer to the Bay Area was a bit of a adjustment for Llanos, but she has adapted quite nicely.

“So far, my year has been amazing. College can be a really amazing experience when you find community and people you identify with,” Llanos said. “Stanford is a very difficult academic school, but I feel like the skills that I learned in high school have transferred over.”

Those skills, however, didn’t just come from McNary.

As the first members of their respective families to attend college, Llanos and Hernandez both acknowledged how influential the Willamette Academy was for them.

Willamette Academy was founded in 2001 by members of Willamette University with the goal of educating, inspiring and empowering students from historically underrepresented communities who have the desire to advance to and achieve higher education.

With a five-year cohort that allows students to enter the program in seventh grade, the Willamette Academy hopes to bring the benefits of higher education to communities who may never have considered it possible.

“The Willamette program demonstrated to me that I could attend college, despite my obstacles. Not just a community college or a local college, but any college I set my mind to,” Hernandez said. “The work I did there was important to me because I didn’t want to repeat the cycle of poverty.”

“It definitely defined my path.”

Because of his past experience with college access programs, Hernandez wanted to find ways to get involved in that arena once he got to the Pomona campus.

It didn’t take him long to do so.

In February, Pomona sent Hernandez to Harvard University to attend a leadership conference for first-generation low-income students.

Whether it was talking about uplifting intersectional identities, or meeting people from across the country with similar backgrounds, it was a trip that Hernandez won’t soon forget.

“It was one of the best weekends of my life,” Hernandez said.

While he was at Harvard, one of the first people wanted to share the information with was his former high school English teacher, Heather Woodward.

“I was very surprised when I picked up the call and Samuel wanted to talk to me. I could hear how happy he was in his voice right away,” Woodward said. “I was shocked he was thanking me. I mean, I’m just one small part of these students’ lives. It’s so amazing to get the chance to hear from them as successful adults.”

Woodward, who is now a language arts instructor at Claggett Creek Middle School, taught Hernandez and Llanos at McNary during their junior years.

Hernandez struggled with depression in the latter part of his high school life. As a coping mechanism, he would write poetry, and he trusted his teacher enough to let her read and critique it. Through these interactions, Woodward encouraged Hernandez in a way that stuck with him for his remaining days as a high schooler.

“I found solace through poetry and (Woodward) helped me process my emotions in a productive manner,” Hernandez said. “It helped me get through some really difficult times, so when I was at Harvard, I just felt like I needed to share that excitement with her.”

Llanos also expressed her appreciation for Woodward as a teacher.

“She was not only a good person, but she really cared about helping us develop skills that we could apply later in life,” Llanos said. “She cared enough to be honest with her students and that builds a really strong relationship with students.”

“She also helped me a lot with my college essay and I think that was one of the things that helped me get into Stanford.”

As the school year is wrapping up, both Llanos and Hernandez are getting their plans set for the summer. Hernandez is planning on interning for Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden while Llanos will either do community service work in Ecuador or work for a nonprofit in California.

But whatever Llanos and Hernandez end up doing, their former teacher has all the confidence in the world that they are going to excel.

“They are survivors. They’re tremendously strong. When they want something, it’s best to just step aside, because they will dig in their heels and get it,” Woodward said. “Crystal and Samuel personify that strength, that resilience. They also have great love for the people around them and an overarching need to see justice for all people.”

“I find that people who have experienced injustice first hand tend to make it their business to bring justice to others. As an English teacher, there is nothing more gratifying than to see students use their words to improve our community.”