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When senior Victor Corral started at Henry Sibley High School four years ago, he was brand new to the country and only knew how to say colors, numbers and simple phrases like “How are you?” in English.

“I couldn’t complete a sentence,” he said.

Four years later, he’s not only a fluent English speaker, he just graduated with a 3.9 GPA and did well in Advanced Placement (AP) statistics, widely regarded as the hardest class at the Mendota Heights school.

Teachers attribute Victor’s achievements to a positive attitude and a willingness to work hard, while Victor said getting involved in school, especially sports, helped improve his English and help him feel like he belonged.

While ELL (English Language Learner) students do occasionally master English quickly, “what’s rare is to have as much success as Victor has had,” said Jessica Emery, his ELL teacher since freshman year.

And most ELL students aren’t ready to go to college here with just four years of American schooling, she said. But Victor was accepted to and received scholarships at several colleges. He wants to study biology.

Eric Vernon, another ELL teacher, said Victor has always been focused and inquisitive. In biology his sophomore year, Victor attended regular biology class but had an ELL teacher with him to help translate.

Though he could have taken the modified ELL assessments, he was soon asking to take the same biology tests the other students took. “I wanted to test myself, and see what was there,” he said.

It helped that the ELL program at Henry Sibley was a strong one. Each year, teachers take students on college visits to get them thinking about future plans. And this year, 100 percent of ELL students are graduating on time, Emery said.

Sports make the difference

For Victor, his parents, an older brother and a younger sister, the decision to come to the U.S. was made abruptly. After a visit to the Twin Cities the summer after Victor was in eighth grade, the family decided to leave their small town in Chihuahua, Mexico, and resettle here.

“We were here and decided to stay here,” he said, joking that the frigid weather wasn’t a selling point.

Among the hardest parts of adjusting to both high school and a new country was that he didn’t have any friends in ninth grade, he said.

Of course he knew his brother, Oscar, who was placed in the same grade as he was. But Oscar was frustrated with having every class with his little brother that first year.

It took joining the soccer team as a sophomore to help Victor make English-speaking friends. He also signed up for track and field that year, and ALMAS, a community service group for Latino students. Later, he tried Nordic skiing.

“If you do sports, you make a lot of friends,” he said. “If you make a lot of friends, you’ll be able to speak more with them, know their lifestyle and understand their communities.”

By senior year, Victor was captain of the soccer team, and his favorite high school moment was scoring his first varsity soccer goal. “It was a good memory, because it was on a big field, and so different from JV,” he said.

An uncertain future

Today, Victor is in a tough spot — he’s been accepted to several colleges, including Hamline University and Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and awarded generous scholarships at those schools.

But he and his family are undocumented immigrants, so he doesn’t qualify for federal aid — either grants or loans — and cannot afford to go. “I always knew this was coming,” Victor said. “I know I won’t be able to go to those schools.”

Academically, Corral has always had the support of his parents, who encouraged him to excel in school. “Learn something every day, that’s what they told me,” he said.

Vernon and Emery said that Victor and Oscar’s parents have attended every meeting related to their sons’ education. That included Latino parent nights, which encouraged undocumented families like theirs to explore college options for their kids, despite their status, Vernon said.

Vernon said it speaks to Victor’s character that he maintained a high GPA though he knew this would probably be his situation.

Victor does qualify for the Minnesota DREAM Act, meaning he’s eligible for a Minnesota State Grant, but he hasn’t been here long enough to qualify for the federal DACA program, which would allow him to receive federal aid, Emery said.

Tentatively, Victor plans on working his way through St. Paul College until he has been here long enough to qualify for federal aid and transfer to a four-year school. His brother, Oscar, wants to attend culinary school.

Vernon noted that Victor continues to have a great attitude, despite the disappointment. “He’s an exceptional story,” Vernon said.

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283