SPRING HILL — For the past 10 years, 18-year-old Nathalia Botero has called Spring Hill her "second home."
At the age of 8, Nathalia moved from Bogotá, Colombia, to the United States with her parents, Jose Ernesto Botero, 55, and Luz Stella Ortegon, 43, and her sister, Laura, 12.
"The decision was difficult to make. When we made the decision we saw it as a way our daughters could have a quality education and become competitive in the labor market," her father said. "We left behind our families, our well-being, all in order to ensure the well-being of our daughters."
Nathalia and her family settled into a small apartment with only their suitcases and a mattress, which doubled as a dinner table. Soon after, Nathalia entered J.D. Floyd Elementary School. She did not know English and could not understand her teacher.
Tonight, Nathalia will speak during graduation at Springstead High School as valedictorian of the Class of 2012.
"I worked myself up, and I think it's just very exciting to know that I worked hard to become valedictorian of my class," Nathalia said. "I want to motivate other people."
While being the class' top student was never a specific goal, Nathalia said that being from another country and learning English has made the accomplishment more gratifying. For her and her family, English was the largest barrier they faced in the United States.
"You try to come and get help through English classes, but often things like survival take priority," her father said. "So you get involved with working and you put something as important as language to the side."
He was the treasurer for a university in Bogotá. Now he works as a Walmart warehouse processor.
Nathalia's mother, a cafeteria assistant at J.D. Floyd, said that because she is a better English speaker and her husband is a better reader they "make a good team."
"English hasn't been a barrier for us to support our daughters in their education. We've always been there helping," she said.
Nathalia still remembers the time in her life when she was taking English for Speakers of Other Languages classes.
"You feel different from the other kids because you have to set time aside to learn more, and invest more of your time and energy since you don't know English," she said.
Now, along with being at the top of her class, Nathalia is graduating with an International Baccalaureate diploma that gives her college credit. The diploma required an advanced two-year curriculum and a cumulative final exam her senior year.
Nathalia said she was encouraged by some of her teachers to join the IB program.
"They saw the potential in me, and they thought that I could handle the courses, so I decided to go and challenge myself," she said.
After school, she spent time as part of the Humanities and Etymology Society and as president of the National Honor Society.
Kathleen Long, the adviser to both organizations, said Nathalia is "undaunted" when it comes to her education.
When Nathalia's grandmother passed away in mid January, Long said, she never missed school. Nathalia said that because she could not attend the funeral in Colombia, she relied on her family and friends for encouragement.
"In the industry of education, (Nathalia) was always serious. She strived to bring honor to her parents," Long said. "In spite of adversity she pulls through."
It was through the Spanish Club, Nathalia said, that she was able to connect with students that shared her heritage.
"I wanted to keep parts of my background alive, and then I got to meet some people with the same background," she said. "I know I should always keep those roots alive because it's what defines me in the end."
Despite the distance and her parents' hesitance, Nathalia will start classes this fall at the University of Rochester in New York, where she will study biomedical engineering.
She said that she has rarely traveled outside of Florida and looks forward to a different city and changing seasons.
Her parents said Nathalia can expect a call from them every day.
"We are really appreciative to the United States because it's a country of opportunity. It's definitely a country of opportunities for people who want to get ahead," her father said. "We believe the people who can do that are our daughters."
Laura Herrera can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.