Q&A with 2020 Valedictorian Paula Figueroa-Monterola

Co-Editor-in-Chief Brittany Lopez: Where were you born? 

Paula Figueroa-Monterola: I was born in El Salvador.

BL: How is that different from the US? 

PF: In El Salvador, I used to live in a really small town. It was a very poor town, unfortunately. It was small, the education was so limited we were barely allowed to go to school. While here (in the US) we have all these resources, the internet, which is amazing. We didn’t have many resources (in El Salvador). We could barely go to town to get food, we had to grow our own. 

BL: How was your childhood in El Salvador? 

PF: It was very fun. As I grew up, it was normal. So I just grew up like a regular kid. I would go out and play with my friends all the time. I went to school when I was allowed. Our school was 8-12so we only got to go to school for four hours a day. We had like three teachers in the whole town, and they had to teach everybody. My normal day was just going to school, coming home, getting something to eat, and I just went outside to play the whole day.

BL: What advice would you give your younger self? 

PF: I would tell her to not stress about it too much. I feel as I grew up, I put a lot of pressure on myself. But at the end everything just kind of seemed to work out even when I stopped being so hard on myself. I would just tell her to calm down a little bit because a lot of the times I was very harsh on myself and I didn’t deserve it.

BL: What was the biggest culture shock you experienced when you came to the US? 

PF: I came in the middle of 1st grade and obviously the language barrier was the worst thing because I didn’t know how to speak English. So, the kids at school would be like, “Oh my gosh, she can’t speak English, she can’t write, she can’t speak,” and they would make fun as first graders do. But it was really hard so I would come home to my mom and I’d be like, “Mom, I’m sick I can’t go to school today.” I would lie to her so that I can stay home because of the kids making fun of me, but my mom would be like “No, you’re going to school,” because she didn’t believe me. The language barrier was the worst part, and it just kind of pushed me to learn it even faster because by the next school year I was already kind of fluent. So I guess the bullying really helped better myself. 

BL: How does being a non-native English speaker alter your experience in school? 

PF: I feel like when I was younger it really did. I would mix up some words. It would be English and I would forget the words. But as I grew I started becoming very good at English. I started reading a lot and studying more. At some point, it didn’t affect me at all. Now I feel like English affects my Hispanic culture. I’ve been so used to using English this whole time, I’ve started to notice that my Spanish is getting worse. So it’s the opposite now. 

BL: What would you say is your fondest memory of school in El Salvador.

PF: I have a really hard time remembering because I was so young, but I remember that in El Salvador whenever we had a lunch break we would always go home and get food. Our house was like literally a two-minute walk away. There was this time during the year where there were festivities going on and little shops would be in town. We would just go there and give a little quarter to play for candy. It was so funny because during our lunch break you basically play around and go buy things. 

BL: What role does education play in your life? 

PF: I think education is literally the most important thing in my life. When I was growing up, my mom had to work like two jobs to keep us living here (in the US). I would see her struggle and she would tell me that education was the key to not struggling like she did. When you’re eight you’re like, “That doesn’t even make sense.” But when you’re nine and you start to realize that you’re not seeing your mom as much, then you’re like, “Okay that makes sense.” So I started to realize that school would lead to a good college, lead to a good job, lead to a good life. I started grinding when I was little because I knew that it was the key to everything.  I feel like that’s why I’m valedictorian, because my mom was literally like, “This is the key to everything.” 

BL: Besides your mom, who or what motivated you to work hard despite these challenges?

PF: My whole family, I think. My mom was definitely the biggest influence on me. But when my mom met my stepdad I was about 10. He was also like, “ you have to work hard in school.” Both of them provided everything for me to be successful, they used to give me rides to anything I needed. They bought me my books, my pencils, literally everything. They pushed me to be a better student because they knew how important it was. So I think them for the most part and all my family, in general, knows how important education is. I thought it was my duty to make them proud and I’m glad I did. 

BL: Who are your role models and how have they influenced you? 

PF: One of my role models is my mom. When I was younger I had to see her go through a lot. My mom has a seventh-grade education and she didn’t have access to [higher] education. She constantly reminded me of it whenever I was like, “Oh my God I’m so tired of school.” She’s always just been a hard-working person throughout my whole life and she still is to this day. There’s not enough words to thank her for what she’s done for me, because things were really hard at some point but she never ever stopped. 

BL: What was your reaction when you found out you were the class of 2020 valedictorian? 

PF: I kind of wasn’t surprised because ever since I’ve moved here when they gave us our report cards I was number one ever since I was a freshman. So I was going to be really bummed out if I found out by the last year I wasn’t going to be the official valedictorian. It was Ms. Wade who called, and she called my mom instead of me because I wasn’t answering my phone at the time. But she said, “Congratulations, I’m so glad to tell you you’re the official valedictorian,” and obviously the word official made everything more concrete and real. When she said, “official valedictorian” that meant I was representing the whole class. That made me really proud of myself because I really like the class of 2020. We’ve been through a lot and it felt good to be able to represent them with my speech and everything.

BL: Due to the coronavirus your graduation ceremony was postponed to July 28. How do you feel about this?

PF: I have to say it’s not ideal obviously, but the administration is doing everything they can to keep us safe, which should be the biggest priority. It’s also very sad if you’re like me and you’ve been working on this for your whole life. It’s like ever since you were four until now you’ve been working to walk down the stage. At some point in my life, I didn’t think that I was going to graduate from high school. I was like, “I’m probably not even going to graduate.” But when I got here, that was a big thing that was going to happen. It was no questions asked, I was going to walk that stage one day. Then it doesn’t really happen and it’s really sad because it feels like all that work and dedication seems lost. But the fact that they’re postponing it and not canceling it entirely shows how much our community cares for us. It shows that we are important to people. It means a lot to me that we are holding a real graduation because even though the virtual one is kind of cool, it just doesn’t give off the same energy. 

BL: How do you feel knowing that you can’t spend your last summer before college with your family and friends without risking your health? 

PF: That makes me really sad because this summer I had so many plans. Just have fun. This is the last summer and it really bums me out because my family and I were planning to go back to El Salvador and visit during the summer. We were going to go back in this month actually and we can’t go back because it was canceled because of the virus. As long as we stay safe it should be fine. 

BL: In what ways are you remaining in touch with your loved ones without risking your health?

PF: I’ve honestly been breaking the guidelines a little bit. My family is really close and they come over every single weekend. We just have a little get together every weekend, it’s just tradition I guess. We’ve had a lot of birthday parties. That’s something you can’t just put a hold on. I guess we’ve made the exception for family because they don’t have corona. I know it’s not healthy, but we’re so used to being all together it’s kind of hard not to be. As for my friends, I guess I haven’t seen them in a while but social media is basically our best friend right now. 

BL: Do you have plans to celebrate your achievement with your friends after the coronavirus is no longer a threat? 

PF: We don’t have any concrete plans right now but we’re definitely going to celebrate. My friend group is very indecisive so it’s hard to make plans but definitely. 

BL: How do you plan to celebrate your achievement during quarantine? 

PF: Just with my close family. I know my mom wants everybody like my grandma, my aunts, and my cousins to come over on Friday for the virtual graduation. I guess she’s gonna get a cake or something. I’m not sure but she wants everyone to come over and celebrate. 

BL: What do you think will happen to the world in terms of the coronavirus? 

PF: I honestly don’t have the slightest clue. I’m just scared that everything is opening up too soon because that’s going to cause a second wave. I really don’t want that because I thought we were going to stay in quarantine until it was officially over so we can have a little bit of summertime. Now that everything is opening up, I’m not sure that it’s going to happen. That also affects what happens with college. My college hasn’t yet decided on whether or not they’re going to open up again in the fall. I’m really scared that they won’t because I’ve been looking towards college my whole life. This is where I finally get to meet new people and experience new things. I’m just scared that’s not going to happen. 

BL: Do you see yourself actively helping with the coronavirus in the future? 

PF: I’m thinking about it. I’m going to Emory and it’s known for its medical program. I don’t know if I see myself being an actual doctor. I want to do something more like psychology and help people with mental disorders. I guess in that sense I would be helping and honestly, Emory has a big volunteer community. The Red Cross gave me a scholarship and I don’t plan to lose contact with them at all. I want to keep helping through the Red Cross. 

BL: How did you decide to go to Emory? 

PF: When I first moved here initially I wanted to go back to Boston because Georgia doesn’t really fit right. I really liked the thought of being in a city. Don’t get me wrong, I love Athens. It’s a great small college town, but I wanted to live in a city where there’s a lot of things to do: ilke a lot of new people and everybody is more diverse and open. I wanted to go back to Boston, but then I realized how much out of state tuition costs. I toured Emory and I just fell in love with the people. The campus was pretty and I was next to the city. Everything was just a perfect fit and it felt like a good place to go. 

BL: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

PF: I’m not sure because by now I’m undecided in my major and it depends on my major. Hopefully, I’ll have a stable job, that’s the most important part for me. I don’t know if I might have a family. I don’t even know if I want kids, I’m very indecisive. I’m not sure what I want to be but I do want to be helping people in 10 years. I want to be able to give back to the community that helps me out so much. 

BL: Have you picked up any hobbies in quarantine? 

PF: I’ve lost like all my motivation for everything and it’s awful because I’m usually a very motivated person. I procrastinate a lot but I still get things done. I’m usually very motivated but ever since quarantine started I’ve been in a very low mood. But I have started cooking a lot and baking. It’s not good for my weight but it’s still like a hobby, I guess.

BL: What advice would you give other Cedar students, especially those who are immigrants so they can thrive academically? 

PF: I would say talk to your parents. Immigrants have a really hard thing going on. I know a lot of people that are forced into the workforce and they put work before their studies because they are struggling economically. But just talk to your parents and ask them for advice. Ask for guidance because I know a lot of them want us to thrive. 

BL: Is there anything else you would like others to know about you or something you would like to say? 

PF: I want to mention Mr. Castile because he was my favorite teacher throughout my high school career. He basically accepted me for who I am. He didn’t try to change me in any way and he just wanted to understand me. I would sit in his class as his only 12th grade student and we would discuss literature. We would rant how this author would culturally appropriate Hispanic culture and just have a good time. He wasn’t only my teacher but he became my friend and like my family. I just wanted to say thank you. 

Brittany Lopez

Brittany Lopez is a senior Co-Editor in Chief for BluePrints Magazine She has attended both the Georgia Scholastic Press Association and the Southern Interscholastic Press Association. Lopez is interested in English, Journalism, and Social Work. She hopes to become a better writer, meet new people, and create a more efficient publication this year.