Two years ago Victor — everyone calls him Nico — Alvarez was already at a crossroads in his life at just 16 years old.
Attending Grade 11 at one of the best private schools in Mexico City since kindergarten, Nico had lost interest in academics, no longer wanted to be there, describing himself as lazy and unfocussed and failing academically.
His parents eventually learned from school officials their son would not pass and would not be welcomed back the following semester.
“Life punched me in the face and I knew I had to be a better me,” he said about that time in his life which to him now seems like an eternity ago.
It was then his mother suggested the idea of attending school in Canada. One of her colleagues had sent her son to Comox for his education and was raving about the results.
Nico decided to take up the challenge and left the city of 27 million, his homeland, behind and came to the Okanagan where he enrolled at Penticton Secondary School.
Before he left, his mother told him: “Look forward and show you have it to pass your Grade 11. Be brave, enjoy the experience, make conscious decisions to be better. We will not be there, but you are no longer a kid. This is a fresh start and will change your life.”
He admitted the first weeks were tough, he was homesick and wanted to go back, but could not bear the thought of disappointing his family a second time.
“For me it was a new beginning, new country, new school, new people, but I had to stay,” said Nico, who is December’s Rotary Student of the Month.
Fortunately, his host family in Penticton did everything they could to help in the transition, making him part of the family, including Nico in whatever activities they could.
What made it easier for him was the surprising number of other international students at Pen High, representing about five per cent of the population.
So he weathered that initial storm returning home for a visit in February with a newfound maturity, much to the delight of his very proud parents.
Successfully completing Grade 11 here, he went home and told them he was going to be the first Mexican to graduate from Pen High.
Coming back for his final year, Nico now has more friends than he ever did in Mexico.
“People here accept me the way I am and are respectful of where I come from, and I really feel welcome with open arms,” he said.
This acceptance also allowed him to exercise leadership in a way he never expected, deciding to do what he could to help other international students.
“I realized I had to encourage all these kids to be brave and just go for it,” said Nico. “They ask me ‘how do you get so many Canadian friends,’ and I tell them there is no secret ingredient, you just be you.
“People here are really, really cool, they’re kind of shy at the beginning, a little closed but once you get to know them they’re pretty cool, yeah.”
He was the hit of the night at a recent school dance when he offered to fill in as DJ for a couple of songs like he often did at home.
“He’s trying to remake himself and that’s what he’s done here and that’s the success story,” said Pen High principal Alan Stel. “He’s not a super star, just a pretty regular guy. He’s not a passive sit-in-the-back-row kind of kid but he’s very genuine and sincere, very likeable.”
Nico is heading home in February for a visit and is taking one of his classmates with him but is really looking forward to June.
“Life gave me this amazing gift, and I am so thankful to people who supported me. I will be so proud to graduate from Pen High as a better man than when I arrived.”
Joining him for graduation will be his entire family, celebrating his accomplishments and how he turned his life around by coming to Penticton.
Student of the Month is a Rotary Club of Penticton Okanagan initiative. The award aims to recognize outstanding students for unique combinations of achievement in scholastics, extracurricular activities, community involvement, leadership and service to others. The Rotary Club of Penticton Okanagan is partnering with Pen High aided by a generous financial contribution from Gateway Casinos as part of their proactive involvement in wide-ranging community service projects.