UC Merced student Ezekiel Camargo never seriously considered going to college until he met Wayne Denno, a Merced High School guidance counselor, during his senior year.
Camargo, who transferred from Atwater High School to Merced during his senior year, said Denno was different from his previous counselors.
"He provided too much opportunity for me, he just showed me whatever I wanted to do was possible," said Camargo. "He had this confidence in me that I didn't even have."
Thanks to Denno's influence and Camargo's own hard work, the 22-year-old became the first person in his family to graduate from college, getting a bachelor's degree in literature from UC Merced on Saturday.
And to pay his respects to his guidance counselor, Camargo also based a one-act play called "Pushing" on his own life experience and Denno's guidance at "Merced: Born and Raised -- One-Act Plays by Local Artists." It played at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center last week.
Of their first meeting, Denno recalled, "He came in and was kind of shy, and I looked at his test scores and thought, 'This kid has the ability to be successful.' "
He said he always wants students such as Camargo to succeed -- because he can't stand students underperforming or underachieving.
"I knew he could. He had it in him," he said of Camargo's success at UC Merced. "If you put him in a challenging situation, he would not quit for anything. He would succeed."
Denno, who was an English teacher for 25 years before becoming a guidance counselor, said the kids who may not have had access to educational opportunities or mentors were the ones he was drawn to because they reminded him of himself.
"It was kind of my experience. I came from a poor family and no one in my family had ever gone to college. I was the first one," Denno said. He went to Modesto Junior College and then Fresno State.
"(It's) that lack of confidence and self-doubt (that) comes with a person who doesn't have anybody in his or her family or with whom he's familiar to share their experience with," he said.
Born and raised in Merced, the 67-year-old retiree taught English at Merced High School before becoming a guidance counselor there.
"I like kids a lot and I enjoyed teaching a lot but sometimes when you're in the classroom, you're so aware of other issues they have," he said. As a teacher, he couldn't address them because he didn't have the qualifications or background.
So he went back to school, this time attending California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock to earn a master's degree in counseling.
"I learned how to help and provide resources," he said. "I wanted to help at a more personal level."
As a counselor for 15 years, he estimates he oversaw at least 400 kids per school year. And, Denno said, he still enjoys working with students in the community he grew up in, taught in and mentors in.
"The joy of seeing a kid come from a background where he doesn't have a great deal and doesn't have aspirations or dreams nourished in life ... to see that kid succeed?
"That's why being in a community like this is the best," Denno said.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.
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