As a middle schooler, Ashley Sotelo was following an all too familiar path. Her brothers skirted in and out of trouble. Her parents, who had little education, struggled to make ends meet. And Sotelo and her friends just drifted.
“I thought maybe smoking weed was cool,” said Sotelo. “I hung out with the wrong crowd.”
By the time she was in the seventh grade, her two older brothers had dropped out of school, headed toward gang life.
“The word college had never been spoken in my house,” Sotelo said.
But Sotelo saw something beyond the limited prescriptions society seemed to offer. She knew she could do better, but didn’t know how.
Then she met Ellen Febonio, a teacher at Fitz Intermediate School in Fountain Valley and coordinator of the school’s AVID program, which is designed to help underachieving students with high academic potential turn around their performance and pursue higher education.
The teacher knew of Sotelo’s brothers and their checkered history.
“She said, ‘I’m not going to judge you,’” Sotelo said she was told by the teacher, who became a mentor and a steadying presence in her life.
Febonio said Sotelo came to her as a seventh-grader, a year before she would even be eligible for AVID.
The teacher made the student jump through all the hoops, the paperwork and transcripts. Sotelo never missed a beat.
“She did everything and then some,” Febonio said. “She had a conviction that she needed to be different from her family to break the cycle. She was determined. She had the ID part of AVID.”
It was at an interview required to enter the program that Febonio uttered the sentence about not judging her that resonated with Sotelo.
“I remember saying that,” Febonio said. “I had no idea it was a seminal moment.”
However, there was no magic potion. Sotelo’s family continued to struggle and there was always drama.
In her sophomore year at Los Amigos High, Sotelo’s father, Arturo, was deported to Mexico. Her brothers continued to use drugs and were in and out of jail and the house, she said.
Her mom, Rosalda, had to work three jobs and rented out two of the three bedrooms in the family home, one to an aunt and one to a stranger.
Then in her junior year, Sotelo’s oldest brother, Kevin, died in an altercation with a rival gang. Her other brother, Kaeri, was in jail at the time. When he got out, the family took him to Mexico to prevent him from seeking revenge or becoming another target.
The only way Sotelo knew to get through it all was to turn inward.
“I decided I would just focus on school, ” she said. “I kind of isolated myself from my family.”
Sotelo found her refuge in school. And it was there she excelled. Sotelo has a 4.2 grade-point average. She ran track for three years, was active in AVID and Latino Unidos.
And she studied.
She just graduated from Los Amigos and will attend UCLA in the fall.
Jared Fulton, an assistant principal at Los Amigos, marvels at how Sotelo has been able to separate herself from her family struggles and drama.
“She put her focus in a positive direction,” he said. ” She really is a role model for students. She’s open, she honest and she’s passionate.”
According to Febonio, Kaeri Sotelo makes it a point to make it to his sister’s events and is proud of his little sister. Being the first in her family to go to college means a lot to Ashley Sotelo.
“It means I’m no longer a stereotype. I’m not a statistic of minorities failing,” she said. “I want to change myself and help other who grow up in similar circumstances.”
Sotelo hopes to study psychology at UCLA. And she says, her goal after that is to help her parents.
“I hope in the future to make enough to provide for them,” she said. “I want them to rest.”