Behind her beaming smile, Lee High School junior Jisel Ochoa often is considering center-stage topics in national politics: immigration policy, women’s rights, gay marriage.
Though she’s a talented student and runner, Jisel’s interests surpass sports and academics. She wants the world to be a better place, and believes young people need to make their voices heard about causes affecting their futures.
“I feel that a lot of teenagers nowadays don’t really talk about what’s going on in the world, and we should be involved in what’s going on,” Jisel said. “If we’re not involved, there are going to be all these decisions made that we won’t like.”
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools administrators recommended Jisel for the School News Network Student Leaders series because of her high involvement at school and upbeat attitude.
Brian Cahoon, an economics and government teacher, said Jisel has great potential and promise.
“It is awesome to see her genuine eagerness to be involved, and even better when you know that the person presenting these ideas is capable of legitimately making them happen,” Cahoon said. “I think it’s the sense of maturity and follow-through that sets her apart from many in her age group.”
Advocating for Change
Jisel moved to the United States from Mexico with her parents, Elva and Javier, twin sister, Jasiel, and older brother, Hector. She said she is motivated to do well in school by her background and “the fact that I left my country to come here.”
“My mom and dad would tell me stories about how it’s very different in Mexico, and it’s difficult there to be successful because of all the problems and violence. It’s hard to find a job,” she said.
Her father now works in a factory and her mother is astay-at-home mom.
“My mom has had a tough life,” Jisel said. As an orphan, Elva had to work starting at age 9, peddling snacks to take care of her sisters. “She always wanted me and my siblings to do better.”
Because the issue is so close to her heart, Jisel is a strong advocate for a just immigration policy. Calling it “something that I strongly believe in,” she recalled hearing the term “illegal alien” during a class lesson. “I thought ‘Why are you calling someone an alien?’ I don’t believe in that word.
“To me, it’s crazy how people, when they think of immigrants, think of bad things,” she added. “They should be looking at it as a positive thing because people leave their country and leave everything behind to come have a better life, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Jisel isn’t afraid to share her strong opinions on other controversial topics. She said she believes in advocating for same-sex marriage and that all people should have equal opportunities.
‘You Have to Keep Pushing’
Jisel has been active in student government and hopes to be elected class president her senior year. She is in Spanish Club, Diversity Club and a member of both the cross country and track teams, despite having battled several leg injuries. She also played on the middle-school basketball teams, served as a student leader on Freshman Focus, and attended the Michigan Youth Leadership Conference, which works to develop leadership potential in Michigan students.
In track, she runs the 800-meter race and 4×800 meter relay. She’s learned to apply lessons from the track to other areas of her life.
“It’s hard to go out there and run and push your body to the limit and not give up,” she said. “I feel like when you’re running you just want to give up. It’s so hard sometimes.
“Being a teenager you go through a lot of changes and mood swings. Sometimes you’re happy, sad or depressed. You still have to do your work, and if you don’t. your grades are going to drop. You have to keep pushing.”
Superintendent David Britten has noticed that Jisel is always grinning on the track and in school while working hard.
“I have known Jisel since the sixth grade, and her infectious smile and can-do spirit are always uplifting to me as well as everyone around her,” Britten said. “Many of the faculty admit that she has a knack for lighting up the room whenever she is near.”
Jisel said Britten has helped keep her moving forward.
“He’s been a huge influence on my life because I’ve known him for so long,” she said. “At track meets he is always giving motivational speeches and telling us to do better in school and keep doing the right thing.”
Jisel knows a world filled with opportunities lies ahead. After graduation, she hopes to enroll at Wayne State University, Oakland University or Grand Valley State University and pursue a career in law and politics.
“I really love the idea that the United States is the place where dreams come true, because I think it’s true. It might take some time, and you have to fight really hard and stay positive, but they will come true eventually.”
As a lawyer, she wants someday to help make college more accessible to students who need a better pathway. At Lee High, where a majority of students are Hispanic, their immigrant residency status can be an obstacle for some in areas such as tuition and financial aid.
“I really love the idea that the United States is the place where dreams come true.” — Jisel Ochoa
“I believe there are a lot of students here who work hard, but they aren’t able to attend college because they don’t have the things that are necessary to attend college,” she said.
For now, Jisel is already thinking about ways things can improve, in class, on the race track and among her peers.
“I always felt like I can do something bigger,” she said. “I don’t know what that is yet, but I hope someday I can make change and do something I believe in.
“I don’t give up easily,” she added. “If I want to make change, I won’t stop until I do it.”