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Jardine: Ambitious grads took their own advice

KEYES -- Four years ago, Jose Luis Montelongo wrote a letter to himself, to be opened when he graduated from high school.

Isamar Vega, his longtime classmate and rival for top academic honors at Spratling Middle School in Keyes, did the same.

The purpose of the letters Jose, Isamar and their eighth-grade classmates wrote to themselves? To encourage students at a school where 70 percent are Latino, 80 percent come from low-income families and 34 percent don't speak English at home to begin thinking about their futures by setting some long-term goals and expectations.

Spratling kept the letters until mailing them out last week, just days before Jose and Isamar graduated with honors Friday from Pitman High School in Turlock.

"I wrote how I was always competing against her," Jose said. "And the last thing I wrote was, 'Remember to go to a good college.' "

He heeded his own advice. Jose earned a scholarship and financial aid package to attend Columbia University in New York City in the fall.

Having moved a few times during high school, Isamar hadn't received her letter when I talked with her last week. Perhaps it was a forwarding address away, and she doesn't recall what she wrote to herself in 2005.

Still, you can assume she was equally motivated. Isamar, 17, will attend Harvard.

Soon to be Ivy Leaguers, these students represent an element of the great American immigrant success story. Both grew up in families where Spanish was spoken in the home.

Isamar was born in the United States after her parents moved from Mexico in the 1980s. They eventually divorced. She discovered she loved school.

Jose, meanwhile, spoke no English when he came to the United States in time to begin fifth grade. His father moved the family here during the construction boom of the early 2000s. A year later, Jose challenged Isamar for academic supremacy among Spratling's sixth-graders.

"We really didn't get along until about midway through high school," she said. "He got on my nerves. He wanted to be better than me."

"I wanted a challenge," Jose said. "That's why I was competitive."

Competitive? As eighth-graders, they took a 100-question test on the U.S. Constitution.

"I beat Jose," she said.

"She got a perfect score," he said. "I got a 98."

In science, he beat her by one-tenth of a percent during the first semester; she beat him by the same margin in the final semester.

"We ended up shaking hands," he said.

They arrived in the summer of 2005 as freshman at Pitman, with an enrollment of 2,000. Coming from Spratling, which had only about 280 students, familiar faces were rare. Instead of competing against each other, they found dozens of high-caliber students roaming the campus.

"There were 32 in our (graduating) class with a 4.0 (grade-point average) or higher," Isamar said.

Jose and Isamar took several classes together, teamed up for projects and finally admitted they'd become friends.

Neither ever considered not going to college. Jose's older brother, Rafael, became the first in the family to get a college degree, graduating from California State University, Stanislaus, and becoming a teacher in San Jose.

Isamar will be the first of her family to go.

"A lot of it has to do with drive," she said. "I can't imagine just graduating (from high school) and starting to work."

Their rivalry resurfaced when they began applying for colleges, but in a good-natured way.

He'd applied for Columbia, deciding in December to go there. That upped the ante.

"Once he'd decided, it drove me more," she said. "I was more nervous."

After all, she'd also applied to Columbia -- along with Dartmouth, Princeton, Swarthmore, UCLA, UC Davis, Cal, UC Santa Barbara and Harvard.

Acceptances streamed in, and she decided to attend Harvard the moment she got that letter. Still, she wanted Columbia to accept her just because a rejection would mean, well, Jose won that round.

"I got in," she said, beaming. Then she declined Columbia's offer. "That's his school."

No matter. Both are heading to the Ivy League -- academic coups for Pitman and Spratling.

"It is a monumental claim for a high school to boast of having a student go to an Ivy League school from a graduating class of hundreds," Spratling teacher Ray Nobuhata said. "So you can just imagine the pride I feel to say that I know of two who came from a graduating junior high class of approximately 60 students to achieve this."

Jose wants to study astrophysics and someday work for NASA. Isamar hasn't decided on a major, but "someday I might want to find a cure for cancer," she said. "I found out this year I really love biology and genetics."

So now it's time to dictate letters to themselves again -- this time for, say, a decade into their futures.

"Graduate. Get a master's. Work toward a Ph.D. Work in an international organization that does some meaningful work," Isamar tells herself. "Get a map and put a pin on every place I visit. Start a family, maybe. Become a polyglot (speaking numerous languages)."

Jose's letter to himself is equally ambitious.

"I hope you have graduated by now," he said. "Have a Ph.D. Go to Cambridge (University in England). I hope you've been a positive influence. ... Go to Africa to help. ... Visit at least one country on every continent."

Good advice from someone already experienced in predicting the future.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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