When Selene Torres-Medrano talks about her childhood, you can tell it’s not an easy subject for her to discuss. She grew up in an abusive home, a place with no father and a mother who was physically and emotionally absent. Selene and her sisters had to take care of their many siblings and in her words “learn to be tough growing up.”
Selene’s escape was school. She attended Umatilla public schools starting in kindergarten. School, she says, was her safe place, a place she felt at home, a stable island in an unstable life. Her teachers, who knew of her home life, described Selene as “resilient.” Her 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Emmons, noticed her interests and gave her back issues of National Geographic to read. Mrs. Wilson, her 4th grade teacher, read The Chronicles of Narnia every day to the class, and got Selene interested in the school’s Battle of the Books. “My teachers all went above and beyond to help me,” Selene said.
In 5th grade, Mr. Lorence instilled in her a love of science, which continued the next year when Mrs. McElroy helped her do a science project extracting DNA from onions. According to Selene, this project “stunk up the entire 6th grade hallway,” but what she remembers is the support of her teacher and how she believed in her student.
Although things were good at school, her home environment continued to deteriorate. Selene’s 14-year-old sister left home, followed later by her 13-year-old sister, devastating to Selene. She had become interested in sports and was pursuing volleyball, basketball and track. But she still had to care for her siblings and after the family moved to Hermiston, it was difficult for her mother to drive her to Umatilla. Tensions escalated, Selene became angry and despite being a good student previously, her grades faltered. She said she put up walls and didn’t allow her teachers to reach out to her anymore.
Then, her sophomore year she got pregnant. The people she turned to were Mr. Cotterell, Mrs. Swarat and Ms. Guentert. Their unwavering support and that of other staff was still there, and Selene says “something clicked when I found out I was pregnant. I had to do something great in my life, this other person coming into existence was depending on me.”
She got a job at Good Shepherd Medical Center and started her junior year of high school pregnant, but she worked hard at her classes. Her mother had kicked her out, but she moved in with her boyfriend’s family. Her daughter, Ariana, was born in January 2010. That spring, Selene found daycare for her baby and returned to school, and her teachers and the school staff were still there, supporting her. “They rooted for me and believed in me and saw that I was much more than a teen mom.”
During her senior year, Selene played varsity volleyball, she was a member of the National Honor Society and she participated in student government. In the spring of 2011, she graduated from high school. She was accepted to Eastern Oregon University and moved herself and her daughter to La Grande, where she worked 30 to 40 hours a week at McDonald’s and attended college. Eventually, this pace took its toll and she moved back to Umatilla, where she got a job at McNary Elementary and commuted to Washington State University in Tri-Cities. Her son, Hendri, was born in December 2014.
In spring 2017, Selene will earn her bachelor’s degree in biology; she is taking the MCAT next summer and plans to apply to medical school. She is hoping to attend an osteopathic medical school in Lebanon, Oregon.
Selene will tell you again and again, there is no way she would be where she is today without the support of the Umatilla School District and its teachers and staff. “My teachers are a huge part of my whole life. They told me ‘you can do whatever you want to do in your life.’ They made me love books and get interested in science and they always, always went the extra mile for me,” Selene says.
Recently, Selene was presented with an opportunity to return some of the goodwill received from Umatilla schools. She is heading up the PAC (political action committee) of citizens helping to support the Umatilla School Bond on the November 8 ballot. When Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe asked her to help, Selene didn’t hesitate, because she said she wants the best learning environments possible for Umatilla students. “I am who I am because of the Umatilla School District and everyone there who touched my life. This is my chance to give back.”