CLASS OF 2023: Determined to graduate, Roberts senior became a mentor to others

A chance encounter in the Dairy Queen drive-thru led to Monica Lamas earning her diploma.

Lamas, 18, is graduating from Roberts High School after five years attending three local high schools and working late nights.

She and her older sister are the first generation in their family to graduate. Her mother dropped out of high school at 16, later earning a GED, and her grandmother never went to school, she said.

“I looked up to my sister because she graduated from high school, so I want to do that,” Lamas said.

Lamas first came to Roberts as a sophomore in January 2020, after McNary High School expelled her for fighting. The alternative high school’s main campus, in a small building off State Street just past Interstate 5, gives students more individual help.

Lamas had other responsibilities, like caring for her younger siblings and working, that made keeping up with school difficult. She had struggled both at McNary and Claggett Creek Middle School to understand class work and said she felt teachers didn’t have time to help her.

After her expulsion, Lamas said she didn’t plan on going back to school. But at her expulsion hearing, she learned about Roberts and her grandmother said she had to give it a try.

“She was a handful initially. She wasn’t getting into trouble … She was just pissy,” Roberts counselor Jeanette Aguirre said, glancing at Lamas, who nodded in confirmation. “I think she was kind of testing us.” 

It’s rare for students to earn a diploma from the alternative high school. More typically, students expelled from another high school in the Salem-Keizer School District go to Roberts for a brief period to get back on track, then return to their home high school. Some opt for a GED instead.

Initially, school staff pushed Lamas to return to McNary, sending her back in the fall of 2020 after she served out her expulsion.

It didn’t last long.

“One day I pulled up to Dairy Queen in South Salem, and here’s Monica,” Aguirre said. It was April 2021, and her former student was working the window. The counselor asked Lamas what school she was going to. “She’s like, ‘I’m not, I was actually thinking I wanted to go back to Roberts.’” 

Roberts High School Counselor Jeanette Aguirre ran into student Monica Lamas working at the south Salem Dairy Queen in April 2021 and convinced her to come back and finish her high school diploma (Courtesy/Jeanette Aguirre)

Lamas said she’d gotten busy with work and stopped caring about school again. Aguirre wanted to help, and the two took a selfie in the drive-thru to seal the deal.

Aguirre talked to the school administrator and got Lamas enrolled at Roberts. Once they got her up to speed, they needed to move students on to make room for new expulsions, so Aguirre connected with a graduation coach and other staff at Sprague High School who could help support Lamas in the larger school.

She went to Sprague in January 2022.

That didn’t last either. Lamas attended initially but said her grades were bad because she had trouble keeping up when teachers had such large classes and so many students to help.

Aguirre again got her back to Roberts in November 2022, with Lamas as a fifth-year high school senior.

Lamas had a lot of partial credits, so she took online classes and completed missing assignments to show teachers she understood the classes she’d taken half of at other schools.

Aguirre said it was a difficult year, but her student was determined.

“Multiple occasions, I remember bringing you into my office and being like, ‘So maybe we should look at a GED?’ and you’re like, ‘Nope!’” she said to Lamas.

As she worked to finish her remaining credits, Lamas became a mentor to newer Roberts students, showing them around and helping them with classwork.

She continued working at Dairy Queen, finishing shifts at 11 p.m., then heading home to shower before getting up at 7 a.m. to get ready for school.

“It’s very hard trying to do my schoolwork because I work every day. But I try to come on time,” she said.

For now, Lamas said she hopes to find a better job and support herself. She’d like to go to college eventually, but said she’s taking a break first because she’s tired of school.

Lamas first came to Roberts with three friends from McNary. Aguirre said they’ve all since dropped out, but Lamas was persistent in her desire to graduate.

“I’m actually, like, proud of myself for doing it,” Lamas said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.