It’s not so easy to gather Yesenia Garcia, her parents and her 12 older siblings all in one room.
But most of the family – who moved to Monroe from Mexico before she was born – was there to see her graduate Saturday from Monroe High School, where she finished second in her class. She will attend UNC-Chapel Hill on a full scholarship in the fall – the second in her family to attend college.
Sometimes, Yesenia says, her friends ask if she ever gets spoiled as the youngest. To that question, she laughs.
“People ask me that, but the answer is, ‘Not really, because I have so many nieces and nephews.’”
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All but one of the siblings lives near Monroe, so they often get together on weekends to play soccer or volleyball. They remain close, despite ranging in age from 18 to 36.
“The best part about being the youngest of 13 is being able to learn from what my brothers and sisters have done,” Yesenia said. “They have taught me good morals, and how important it is to be humble and hard-working. They really are the examples.”
Yesenia and her sister Maria, 20, were the only members of her family born in the United States.
When Yesenia was 6, she and her family moved back to Michaucan, Mexico, where they lived for two years. The experience of living in Mexico, she said, made her realize what kind of opportunities she has in the U.S.
“It made me value school more, because the schools in Mexico weren’t offering as much,” she said.
Since the eighth grade, she’s biked over three miles to and from school. Her summers were spent between band camp and volleyball tryouts, constantly balancing activities.
When she first started at Monroe High School, she had big shoes to fill. Maria, now a student at nearby Wingate University, had already made her mark on teachers and coaches.
Four years later, Yesenia has shattered expectations.
She played three varsity sports, captaining both the soccer and volleyball teams as a senior. She was a member of the marching band and active in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. She also served as president of the National Honor Society.
How did she do it all? “Dedication and determination,” she said.
Monroe girls’ volleyball coach, Tiffani Craig, met a timid Yesenia during her freshman year and watched her transform into a confident player by her senior year. She remembers Yesenia frequently staying late after practice to help out her teammates.
“Yesenia is so nice and sweet,” Craig said. “You can’t make her angry. … But what does motivate her is helping others. That’s how good of a person she is.”
A new challenge
Two years ago, her father, Gildardo, who had worked as a welder, was diagnosed with ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His symptoms started appearing earlier, she said. He began to lose strength in one finger, then his whole hand, then further.
The family refused to send him to a nursing home, so Yesenia and her siblings trade off taking care of him at night so that their mother, Arcadia, can sleep.
“We have a schedule where I’ll take care of him two days a week, and then another sister will take care of him,” Yesenia said.
Yesenia said her father has been a role model for her.
“He’s such a hard worker, since he had to sustain his 13 kids,” she said. “He wasn’t at home as much when he was working, but he always used to tell us stories at night when he got home.”
Major Forrest Jackson, one of Yesenia’s ROTC instructors, is amazed at how she is able to juggle everything.
“Whenever one of our students is complaining, I sit them down and say, ‘Let me tell you a story about one of our students,’” he said.
Chapel Hill bound
Through high school, Yesenia knew she wanted to go to college, as Maria had already been looking at possible schools.
It wasn’t until her junior year that she realized what might be possible.
She applied for scholarships at colleges across North Carolina, including Wingate. Toward the end of her senior year, she narrowed down her decision: Appalachian State, which had offered a full scholarship, and UNC, which had not yet made a formal offer.
Once UNC offered Yesenia a spot as a Carolina Covenant Scholar with a full scholarship, the choice became easy.
“The community feels close-knit even though the school is really big,” she said.
One added perk of the UNC campus is easy access for biking, which Yesenia hopes to keep doing in college.
She plans to major in biology. She also wants to stay involved with ROTC and hopes to eventually attend medical school and work with Doctors Without Borders.
Nicole Shroyer, one of her teachers, said she knows Yesenia will be successful at UNC.
“Few students I have taught in 18 years are as remarkable as Yesenia Garcia,” she said.
Yesenia was especially happy to bring joy to her dad.
“I know he’s really proud of me,” she said. “He says it now more than ever.”