Beatriz Perez with her son Aiden at the Teen Parent Program playground on the Chemeketa Community College campus. (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.

Beatriz Perez was all smiles as she chased her 3-year-old son Aiden around an outdoor playground on the Chemeketa Community College campus.

He’s at the age where his incessant questions can be tiring for his 18-year-old mother, who’s juggling school and a part-time job.

“He’s so energetic,” she said, rolling her eyes slightly. But her smile makes her feelings clear.

Perez is an aspiring environmental engineer with a love of robotics and technology, a career she’s pursued through Salem-Keizer School District’s Career Technical Education Center.

She’s graduating from the district’s teen parent program, part of the alternative Roberts High School.

Perez, originally from California, moved to Salem with her farmworker parents as a teenager. She was pregnant at 14 and gave birth to Aiden in September of what would have been her sophomore year.

She enrolled in the teen parent program while pregnant, but school was a low priority with everything else she had going on as a single mother.

“I just didn’t really care,” she said.

She soon dropped out, opting to work with her family full-time to support her young son. She woke up at 3:30 a.m. to carpool to distant fields, laying irrigation and tending crops from about 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. before driving two hours home.

Perez’s year off from high school convinced her she didn’t want to be a farmworker forever, so she re-enrolled in the program with just a few credits in hand. She hadn’t thought she’d graduate high school, but wanted to give it a shot.

“I was scared at first, but why are you gonna let that stop you?” she said. Old enough to be a junior, she had about a year’s worth of high school credits.

Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher who’s worked with Perez, said the young woman has proved herself more than capable.

“Once she got here thinking this was the place she could be, everything fell into place,” she said.

The program offers parenting teens free child care during the school day in the same building as their classes. Filling out a detailed profile of the child – allergies, likes and dislikes – is part of registering for classes.

The child care works as an incentive to keep teens engaged in class.

“Your job is to go to school and if you don’t come to school you lose your spot,” Perez said.

Beatriz Perez plays with her son Aiden at the Teen Parent Program (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In the summer of 2017, Perez took a robotics class through a migrant summer education program, a collaboration between the district and Chemeketa.

She worked weekends to earn enough to pay for a babysitter to watch Aiden for the four-week program, and returned the following summer. Then, she built a basic robot, programming it to move without running into other objects.

Perez said she liked the hardware piece best. Coding was new to her – the robot was programmed by dragging and dropping commands in an existing program, so she wasn’t writing anything from scratch. But she applied to the drone technology and robotics program to learn more.

“At CTEC you write the code, you figure it out,” she said. She’s been working with Arduino, a hardware and software platform to build programmable electronics, like motors that turn on or off for specified periods of time.

She had completed the algebra and geometry courses the parenting program offers, so she continued with college math this year.

Kara McGuirk, a science teacher in the drone program, first worked with Perez at the teen parent program. She found her timid at first, but said Perez has grown in confidence since her son was born.

“She knows when things are hard that if she keeps working, she’ll get there,” McGuirk said. And unlike many students, she’s not afraid to jump into a conversation about a topic she knows nothing about and ask questions.

“When she sees a challenge, she sees it as something she needs to practice at,” McGuirk said.

Throughout high school, Perez has helped her stepdad and other relatives with a Christmas tree business and said she likes being outside, away from the city.

She’d like to combine her experience in agriculture and love of technology into an environmental engineering career, addressing challenges like pollution and growing crops without exposing workers to as many harmful pesticides.

Perez recently started working as a breakfast host at the Holiday Inn and plans to continue that while attending Chemeketa in the fall. From there, she intends to transfer to Oregon State University for an engineering degree.

“There’s so much support here I kind of don’t want to move on,” she said. But she’s excited for new opportunities.

When talking about her path to graduation, Perez downplays any suggestion she’s intelligent or especially skilled at technology or math.

“I wouldn’t say I’m good. I feel like I fought harder,” she said. “Wanting it – that’s what makes you good.”

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

After nearly dropping out, West Salem grad earns full ride to WOU

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

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