Students who rose above the obstacles to become stars in the class of 2017

No one said high school was easy. From the social challenges to the expectations, every student in the class of 2017 has struggled for their achievements. But some students faced adversity well beyond their young years, hardships that would be tough for even seasoned adults to navigate. They had to learn to fit into a world that didn’t always accept or understand them. These are the students who could have fallen through the cracks, thrown in the towel or simply walked away from a life that seemed to take more than it gave. Instead, when the world pushed them, they fought back, refusing to succumb to the strife. Their grace in the dark times made them into unlikely role models who demonstrate what it means to never give up.


Lizette Sandoval (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Lizette Sandoval (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

A Broadway star

Eduardo Castrejon took in his kid sister when she was 12.

He was 27 at the time, and in hindsight, he didn’t know quite what he was getting himself into. His sister, Lizette Sandoval, is a good kid. If anything, she keeps her brother out of trouble. But Castrejon, a bartender, says he had no idea how much it would cost to raise a child.

Lizette, now 18, is graduating from Molina High School as an honor student. And she plans to attend Marymount Manhattan College, a private liberal arts school in New York City.

Musical theater is her passion. She pictures herself performing on Broadway and “winning my first Tony.”

Lizette’s brother could see from the time his sister was a toddler that she possesses an artist’s mind. He remembers bringing home “Phantom of the Opera,” and in emotional moments of the songs, baby Lizette’s eyes would well up with tears.

“From then on, I knew she would be a drama queen,” he says.

Eduardo, the oldest of four siblings, is an artist, too. He is a dancer with the Dallas Black Dance Theatre and has been studying music since middle school.

They mostly raised themselves. Their mom’s education stopped after third grade in Mexico because she had to work.

“My mom didn’t understand the importance of having an involved parent because she never had an involved parent,” Eduardo says.

Eduardo steered Lizette toward the Sidney Lanier Exploratory Arts Academy, which she entered in third grade. She then attended the music academy at Greiner Middle School, where she learned to sing and play guitarrón in the mariachi band.

Lizette auditioned in dance at Booker T. Washington High School, but she wasn’t accepted.

So she instead chose Molina for its wide range of arts offerings, and her brother bought a house nearby, moving them from an apartment in Uptown. At Molina, Lizette’s done it all: Mariachi, drill team, show choir, theater and more. She played Ariel in the spring play, “The Little Mermaid.”

Eduardo works at an upscale Dallas restaurant, and Lizette has never had to have a job. She recently started working at a Ross store in northern Dallas, and it takes her an hour on two DART buses and a train to get there.

“If that ever got in the way of this, I would quit,” she says. “School is the most important thing.”

Eduardo calls his sister, “incredibly organized,” and he tells her, “to strive to be an independent female, an independent Latina, because sometimes our society teaches otherwise.”

She chose to play the massive guitarrón because it’s typically played by men. She sees herself as a leader, and she wanted to make a statement about female mariachis.

“Everything you do is to make you a better person,” she says. “Everything I’m doing, sometimes it hurts, but it will make me stronger and help me get to where I want to be.”

Although she plans to visit this summer, before school starts, Lizette has never been to New York. She earned the $1,000 Stevie Ray Vaughan scholarship from Greiner. And Marymount is giving her an additional $6,000. She’s eligible for financial aid, and she’s applying for more scholarships every day.

But Marymount is not cheap. It costs almost $53,000 a year, including tuition, fees, books and room and board.

She is determined to make it work, though. There are few doubts that she will.

“She’s the hardest working kid I’ve never met,” Eduardo says.


Paul Mata Jr. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Paul Mata Jr. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

A drum-line doyen

Paul Mata Jr. thought band was for nerds.

“Turns out, I’m a pretty big nerd,” he says.

The 18-year-old taught himself to play guitar in middle school, but he never considered band until a recruiter from Sunset High School called the summer after eighth grade and asked him to join.

He took up the snare drum and perfected it by playing in the mirror from 4-10 p.m., six hours a day, every day.

Paul is headed to one of the best band schools around — Prairie View A&M University — in the fall. He’s only the second Sunset student to make the PVU drum line.

Learning those perfect, sharp drum strokes of his could take Mata a long way. But getting here hasn’t been easy.

Mata started smoking marijuana during his sophomore year. There were other drugs too — Xanax, LSD, painkillers. He started getting into fights and failing his classes.

He kept his nose clean long enough to march during football season and then things fell apart.

He got caught with weed and told his mom, “I’m not going to stop.”

For his whole life, young Paul has always been honest, his mother, Gloria Treviño, says.

He started sneaking out of the house. He once walked 4 or 5 miles to buy drugs.

“I was a careless person,” he says.

Then one day while sitting in class, he was feeling hopeless. He decided to kill himself, and he choked himself out right there.

He was rushed to the emergency room by ambulance.

“I felt alone,” he says. “But I really wasn’t alone.”

Paul’s grandmother happened to be volunteering at Sunset that day, and band director Remetria Smith drove her to the hospital.

Through all of Paul’s trouble, Smith has been there for him.

She checks his grades. She pops into his classes unannounced. She calls his parents.

“It’s not just Paul,” Treviño says. “She does that for every student. The connection that she makes with each student is amazing.”

Following the suicide attempt, Paul was diagnosed with clinical depression. He stopped doing drugs. He got caught up in school through the Reconnect program, and he refocused on his passion.

On May 27, he’ll be one of two Sunset percussionists competing at the UIL state competition. The other is his best friend since kindergarten, Gabriel Lopez.

Paul Mata Jr. is charismatic. He loves to teach music, often learning pieces months in advance so that he can help his classmates.

His mother says he’d never be here if not for that one teacher.

“Ms. Smith guided him like a parent,” she says. “She’s always gone above and beyond. I’m so grateful.”


Kenoly Kadia (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Kenoly Kadia (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

A concert pianist

Kenoly Kadia can play anything.

Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart, Lizst.

But there’s one he can’t stand.

“I hate Bach. I mean, I like Bach, but I hate playing it,” he says. “He’s one of those composers that his songs sound easy in the ear, but he’s really hard to play.”

Kenoly, an 18-year-old senior at Carter High School, was still weighing scholarship offers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Memphis when we met him in March. A gifted student, he also was accepted to Rice University. And he was a varsity soccer player.

He is one of the most sought-after high school pianists in the nation, according to the Fine Arts Chamber Players, where Kenoly has received free private lessons, from instructor John Tatum, since eighth grade.

It’s a wonder that Kenoly even made it to adulthood.

As a child in Camaroon, he suffered kwashiorkor, the deadly form of malnutrition that causes children to have distended bellies, among other symptoms.

“It was really bad,” Kenoly says. “They told me I’m not supposed to be here now. I used to throw up, and I couldn’t eat for several days.”

The disease, if treated too late, can cause permanent mental disabilities.

But Kenoly’s parents, Julius and Jaqueline, both teachers, fled their homeland when their youngest son was 6. They moved to the Italian region of Veneto, where he first learned piano.

“Music itself gave me hope,” he says.

Kenoly’s two older brothers graduated from Carter as well. The middle brother is now studying at UT, and Kenoly is leaning toward that school too.

Today, their parents work at a nursing home at least six days a week.

“They work incredibly hard,” Kenoly says.

But they came here for a better life, and they’ve found it.

Kenoly had to learn Bach for his college auditions, the ones that resulted in $16,000 and $80,000 scholarship offers.

Everyone tells him he’s an extremely gifted musician. But he says it’s because of teachers like Mr. Tatum.

“Every piano lesson that I have with him, I learn something every time,” he says. “He doesn’t make the piano lesson boring. That’s why people say I’m good. It’s because of him. He makes it more interesting.”

Although he says he wants to be an oncologist, Kenoly does plan to major in piano performance.