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Surprising teachers, herself

COSTA MESA HIGH SCHOOL:

Senior whose parents were both separately imprisoned wants to follow in her brother’s inspiring footsteps.

June 19, 2008|By Alan Blank

For video interviews with the Costa Mesa High School valedictorian along with those from other local schools, click here.

Michelle Figueroa didn’t pay for her cap and gown until three days before her high school graduation ceremony.

The Costa Mesa High School senior didn’t think she would make it after her turbulent childhood and her adolescence spent without either of her parents.

When Figueroa was 5 years old, her father was sentenced to prison.

Eight years later, her mother was arrested, imprisoned and later sent to Colombia.

Figueroa was left to live with relatives, and she found it hard to find motivation for school work.

“I didn’t really care about school, and I was a bad student. I was known as the bad student of Costa Mesa High School,” she said.

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The turning point for Figueroa was the early retirement of her brother, John Restrepo, from the Colorado Rockies organization due to injury.

Now, after graduating from Cal State Fullerton, he works as an intern in the Angels’ communication department. Figueroa moved in with her older brother, who she said inspired her to turn her life around.

“He’s the only one from our family that’s going somewhere with his life, and I want to be the second one,” she said.

Figueroa was a standout on the high school basketball team, but she was ineligible to play for part of her time there because of subpar grades.

Her brother changed her habits, she said, encouraging her to stop going out so much and to put her studies first.

Now she plans on going to OCC, where she will continue to play basketball.

“My teachers are really surprised that I’m graduating,” Figueroa said.

Starting over, succeeding in ‘new life’ in Costa Mesa

After being pulled out of school and transplanted to a foreign country at 10, German Briseño was forced to fend for himself.

He was sent to Davis Elementary School, directly into an English-speaking fifth-grade classroom, but he didn’t speak a word of English.

“It was like starting a new life. I had a cousin in my class who translated everything the teacher said for me,” Briseño said.

The first 10 years of his life, Briseño lived in Mexico with his parents, but when they divorced, he came with his mother to the United States in pursuit of a better life.

She couldn’t support him, and soon left him to live with his aunt and uncle in Costa Mesa. His father still lives in Mexico, and Briseño hasn’t seen him for 16 years.

The last time he heard about his father was when his grandmother came up from Mexico to visit a year ago and brought photographs with her.

“Pictures are the things that remind me of my dad. I don’t really know my dad,” Briseño said.

Although not an exemplary student, Briseño graduated with a passing average and looks at his achievement as inspiration for his 11-year-old brother, who looks up to Briseño as a role model.

“He’s always looking at what I do to follow my steps,” Briseño said.

“He told me he wants to be just like me.”

Briseño has enrolled in OCC for the fall semester, and wants to study criminal justice.


ALAN BLANK may be reached at (714) 966-4623 or at alan.blank@latimes.com.

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