Ruben, center, with ELO coordinator Angela Bourassa and guidance counselor Bill Cannon.
Ruben, center, with ELO coordinator Angela Bourassa and guidance counselor Bill Cannon.

Imagine moving to a country when you’re 18 years old and don’t speak the language. Imagine enrolling in school in your new country, and you have a deadline of three years to learn the language and graduate. It sounds like a lot of pressure, not to mention intimidating.

Ruben Chavez-Lopez was in just that situation in 2012 when he arrived in New Hampshire from Guatemala. He began his American education at Central High School taking basic English Learner classes.

“When Ruben got here, we started out talking with an interpreter between us,” said his guidance counselor Bill Cannon. “Now we can have a full conversation in English, without an interpreter.”

To complete all of the credits required for graduation, Ruben loaded his schedule with the necessary classes. Once he became proficient in English, he took additional classes online to help him catch up to his classmates.

Ruben worked at a part-time job, but eventually he quit. Living with two brothers – one older, one younger – means Ruben also has other responsibilities at home that typical high school students don’t have.

“I only worked 15 hours a week, but it was hard to do everything when I was in school and studying,” he said.

Another resource available to Ruben was the Access Academy at St. Anselm College, which refugee and immigrant high school students in Manchester attend every week. The Access Academy programs teach students like Ruben the process of applying for college and the skills that will help them flourish in a college setting.

Ruben does see college in his future. He wants to be a music teacher.

“When I was 14 years old I started playing piano,” Ruben said.

Unfortunately, there was no room in his course schedule for music.

“I had no idea he could play or had interest in music,” Central’s extended learning opportunity coordinator, Angela Bourassa, said. “But when he told me, I took him to the music department, where he sat at a piano and played something. We were so impressed.”

For now, Ruben has a keyboard at home he practices on.

As for his academic success, Ruben says the key is reading.

“I like to read books in English,” he said. “Sometimes I just go to the library and read.”

He would tell any other student in similar circumstances to work hard on learning English, and to keep reading and writing.

Ruben’s motivation was simple and personal.

“I want to live a good life and be successful here.”