One Graduate's Story
|Vanessa Lizárraga accepts the William Shepard Biddle Cup from Headmaster Ben Williams on Commencement Day 2012.|
On Commencement Sunday, May 27, Vanessa Lizárraga sat with 75 other seniors on the traditional wooden stage in the center of campus, radiant against a stunning backdrop of blue sky and mountains. A seventeen-year-old student from South Central Los Angeles, Vanessa is headed next fall to the University of Pennsylvania, where she hopes to pave her way to medical school, and eventually become a surgeon. The daughter of Mexican immigrants -- a seamstress and a meat-company machine operator who speak little English -- Vanessa was surprised to learn that she had been selected to receive Cate's most treasured graduation award, the William Shepard Biddle Cup, in recognition of her peerless contributions to the academic and cultural life of the School during the 2011-12 academic year.
Vanessa's accomplishment was all the more extraordinary considering the fact that she and her family had had no knowledge of boarding schools when she was a 7th grader at John Adams Elementary School in Santa Monica, Ca. It was at Adams that she first heard about "A Better Chance," an organization that annually recruits, refers, and supports about 500 scholars at more than 300 of the nation’s independent schools. The agency directed Vanessa to Cate, the most diverse boarding school of its size in the country.
The young student arrived on Cate's pastoral campus 90 miles north of Los Angeles in the fall of 2008 without having seen it previously; neither of her parents could get time off from work to bring her to the Mesa for a visit. Both she and her family struggled with the idea of her moving away from home when she was so young, but they also recognized the rare opportunity that lay ahead.
|Vanessa Lizárraga with her parents during Parents Weekend in October 2011.|
As a freshman, Vanessa overcame early bouts of homesickness to pursue every academic and extracurricular avenue open to her. With her intelligence, drive, focus and maturity, she quietly stunned the faculty, many of whom have taught on the Mesa for 20 years or more and are accustomed to exceptional students.
During her first year, Vanessa represented the School at a national student diversity leadership conference, and as a sophomore she led meetings on diversity with the Cate's trustees and faculty. By the end of her junior year, students and faculty elected her to serve as one of the prefects of school; she was eventually chosen by her peers as one of the two leaders of that important group. She participated in a vast number of school activities, helping to lead the public service committee, the school newspaper, and the softball team, among others.
Vanessa has been equally impressive in the classroom. A survey of her teachers reveals the high esteem in which she is held. Her Japanese teacher calls her an "absolute star," and at the end of her junior year her AP Calculus teacher wrote, "Vanessa is an everyday reminder of how lucky I am to be a teacher." Her AP English teacher noted that Vanessa "has matured into a reader capable of gleaning much from a text, and she has also worked exceedingly hard to become a writer capable conveying her ideas not just clearly and concisely, but beautifully as well."
In what amounts to a near-perfect ending to her superlative Cate career, Vanessa was awarded the Biddle Cup, presented to the senior who best exemplifies and demonstrates the qualities of humanism, idealism and the desire to achieve that Cate seeks to teach its students. It is the School's highest award, and named for one of its most distinguished alumni.
Here, Vanessa describes some of her journey:
"Before coming to Cate, I didn't know anything besides Latinas working and struggling day and night to support themselves and their families. I didn't know that there was more to life than just that. I came here because I wanted more. Now, with everything I have learned has come the lesson that there is more to know and experience. Cate is the start of a life I dream to have for my family."
Before graduating seniors received their diplomas, Headmaster Ben Williams shared a reflection of each one. For Vanessa, he noted, "some faculty have argued, in fact, that even as a freshman, Vanessa was a senior."
Today, Vanessa is a graduate. -Sarah Kidwell