Every day, Ilse Villasenor commutes more than two hours, taking four buses from her Vancouver home to attend Hayes Freedom High School in Camas.
“I had been going to Hayes for three years, so when my father moved to Vancouver, I still wanted to come here,” she said. “Education is very important to me.”
Last week, Villasenor was honored for her commitment to education and overcoming struggles with the Youth of the Year award for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland. Finalists for the award complete a written application, a portfolio, and a series of interviews with judges.
Candidates were chosen based on their service to a local club and community, academic success, strong moral character, life goals, poise and speaking ability.
Villasenor, a member of the Jack, Will & Rob Boys and Girls Club, was awarded a $1,000 scholarship during a showcase ceremony at the Blazers Boys & Girls Club in Portland. She will now move on to compete at the state level.
“I had to get up and give a speech in front of 150 to 200 people,” she said. “I was pretty nervous. I talked about coming to a new country and struggling to see where I fit in with everyone.”
Villasenor, 18, emigrated to Camas from Mexico 11 years ago to live with her father. She knew no English, but was determined to learn. During that time, she found a place of refuge at the Jack, Will & Rob Boys and Girls Club.
“When I first moved here, it was a total culture shock,” she said. “The volunteers there are wonderful and they helped me with my reading so that I could learn English,” she said. “I really wanted to do well. I know that my American citizenship is something that most people in my country would do anything for.”
She has been volunteering at JWR for the past six years, helping teach Spanish to second- and third-grade students, among other duties.
“I really enjoy the variety of volunteer options,” she said. “I like knowing I have the chance to help others.”
Local Clubs recognize members ages 14 to 18 as Youth of the Month winners and select a Youth of the Year, who then participates in state competitions. State winners each receive a $5,000 scholarship and advance to regional competitions.
Regional winners receive an additional $10,000 college scholarship, renewable for four years up to $40,000. Six youth, including five regional winners and a military winner, advance to the National Youth of the Year competition for a chance at an additional scholarship of $25,000, renewable up to $100,000 for four years.
The National Youth of the Year represents all Boys & Girls Club youth.
Due to her determination and diligence, Villasenor has met all the requirements to earn her high school diploma, and is graduating early. She plans to apply for the Americorps program and is hoping to eventually complete a master’s degree in education.
Her mother, who lives in Mexico, finished elementary school. Her father completed middle school.
“High school costs a lot of money to attend in Mexico, so most people can’t afford it,” she said. “I have friends there working 16 hour days trying to get by, and some my age with babies already. I don’t take anything I have here in the U.S. for granted.”