Eddie Perez cuts a classmate's hair at the CTEC salon. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This profile is part of a series on Class of 2019 high school graduates. Salem Reporter asked high schools in Salem and Keizer to select an outstanding graduate – someone who accomplished something significant, whether through art, academics, advocacy or overcoming obstacles to graduate. We’ll be sharing their stories over the next week.

Eddie Perez stopped caring in high school.

Though he’d been a straight-A student at Walker Middle School, Perez found himself bored in his first year of classes at West Salem High School and decided he’d rather hang out with friends or sleep in.

He was tardy more than 60 times and often skipped school entirely. By the end of sophomore year, he had a 1.4 GPA.

“It was just childish,” he said, shaking his head at the memory.

Now, Perez is graduating with a full ride to Western Oregon University to study pre-nursing. This week, he’ll take the state licensing exam to become a barber, a job he plans to work to earn cash during college.

His path to graduation came about thanks to some tough love from his parents, Mexican immigrants who have always pushed him to do well in school. His mother only attended elementary school, and his father didn’t finish high school.

Fed up with their son’s lack of drive, they laid down some rules the summer after his sophomore year. The goal was to make him “act like an adult to see how hard life is,” he said.

Perez worked five days a week in a food packaging plant, then spent Saturdays helping his father on construction jobs.

“It was so bad,” he said.

His packing job often hit 50 hours a week, and his Saturdays included laying on his back to install insulation. His father didn’t pay him.

“There’s so much dust, allergies, it’s so hot in there,” he said. “It’s the worst experience I ever had.”

Perez said he was thrilled when his first paychecks came out to about $1,000, but he quickly learned that money wouldn’t go far with adult expenses.

Out of his earnings, he paid his parents $350 rent and $200 toward meals, and covered all his clothes, gas and anything else he wanted to do.

He’d been thinking of dropping out, but the lesson stuck.

“I realized that my parents didn’t come to this country for me to waste an amazing opportunity,” he said.

When he returned to West Salem as a junior, his first stop was the office. He talked to counselors about his desire to get into Western, where his older brother was studying business.

“From that day I improved a lot,” he said.

As a sophomore, Perez also applied to the district’s cosmetology program at the Career and Technical Education Center. He liked the idea of being a licensed professional and thought it would be helpful no matter what he chose to do, he said.

Perez started those classes his junior year, one of just a handful of male cosmetology students. Teachers said that didn’t bother him.

“We kind of see Eddie as one of the vanguards” for boys in the program, science teacher Jasmine Filley said.

In the two years he’s spent at CTEC, he’s grown more confident as a barber, Filley said.

“Eddie has just taken it to another level from where he was at the beginning,” she said. “He’s a very smart kid. He does really well in his academics.”

He earned a 3.8 GPA during his junior and senior years.

Eddie Perez cleans a chair at the CTEC salon in preparation for a client. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

With clients in the salon, he’s easygoing, asking fellow students a few questions about their field of study and interests before turning to hair.

“I like how you can make a friendship out of each client,” he said. “It’s just a different experience on each cut.”

He’s been interested in nursing since a bad bike crash put him in the hospital. While heading to basketball tryouts, he was riding down the big hill by West when he crashed, flipped over the handlebars and briefly lost consciousness.

As he recovered, he started talking to the nurses in the hospital and thought their job sounded interesting: a chance to help people and new challenges every day. He plans to complete a nursing program at Chemeketa, Oregon State or Oregon Health & Science University after initial studies at Western.

Perez saw how hard his parents were working to support his older brother through school at a cost of about $13,000 a year. He didn’t want them to keep struggling for him, so he worked diligently to find scholarships of a few thousand dollars here and there. Between that and his financial aid package, he has his full cost of Western covered.

He’ll graduate from West on Monday, June 3, then attend his brother’s graduation June 15. Over the summer, he’ll take over his brother’s apartment in Monmouth while his brother moves back home with a business degree.

He has an on-campus summer job lined up doing maintenance work and plans to cut hair too, he said.

“I never thought I would graduate from high school and I never thought I would go to college,” he said.

And his parents?

“They’re really excited.”

Other graduates

McKay senior graduating on time despite starting senior year with half the credits needed

Blanchet grad heading to selective Florence Academy of Art hopes to make career of oil painting

South Salem grad will spend summer studying cancer drug delivery before heading to Yale

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

JOIN US: FACEBOOK and TWITTER.

SUBSCRIBE AND DRIVE LOCAL REPORTING -- For $10 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.