An immigrant valedictorian. A mother of three. A look at standout grads in Sacramento area

As high schools in the Sacramento region wrap up the school year and send seniors off to their next adventure, we look at five students who spent the last few years paving the way to success – all in their own unique and inspiring ways.

Marwa Mayar, Rio Americano High, Arden Arcade

Four years ago, when Marwa Mayar landed in the U.S. for the first time, she found the trip — and transition from Kabul, Afghanistan — all very overwhelming. Monday afternoon, hours before her graduation, she found herself overwhelmingly surprised in learning she would be announced as one of Rio Americano High School’s valedictorians.

Mayar was thousands of miles away from her former school in Kabul, a place she could no longer call home because her father was receiving death threats while working at the U.S. Embassy. Mayar, her parents, and three siblings were granted special immigrant visas.

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Marwa Mayar recently graduated from Rio Americano High School. San Juan Unified School District

“All of the changes at school were rough, because the system was so different,” Mayar said. “But ever since I was a young kid, I tried to do my best at school, and in coming here, I had a better opportunity to do that.”

Mayar knew some English before she arrived, but drastically improved over the last four years., challenging herself with classes such as AP Chemistry. Her 4.0 GPA and straight A’s qualified Mayar to be one of the school’s 12 valedictorians this year.

Mayar is attending American River College and said she plans to transfer to UC Davis or UC Berkeley to study Bio Medical Engineering, then apply for medical school.

“There are so many opportunities here, and students should utilize them and always do the best they can,” she said.

Raquel Marquez, Folsom Cordova Adult Education, Rancho Cordova

Raquel Marquez is one of 92 adult high school graduates to earn a degree this year in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.

Marquez, 39, first went to high school in 1995 and intended to be in the class of 1999. But in order to help her family, she took a job at McDonald’s and ended up dropping out of school after completing the ninth grade.

While Marquez later got a job at Hewlett Packard, she was determined to return to school.

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Folsom Cordova Unified School District

“It felt like something was missing in my life and I needed to get it,” Marquez said. “Your high school diploma opens so many more doors.”

As a mother of three children — ages 20, 7 and 5 — Marquez said she wanted to be an inspiration to her children.

“They know I am doing this for them, and I want to learn as much as I can and push them to get careers,” she said. “It’s very important that they see me more than just their mom.”

Marquez credits her teacher, Kerry Marini, for helping her push through and complete 125 credits in just 8 months.

Her goal is work for the state of California. She is enrolled at Folsom Lake College, through the Promise Program, a program that offers students up to two years of tuition-free education, and plans to transfer to Sacramento State to pursue a degree in accounting.

Anaiyah Cabrellis, Sacramento Charter High, Sacramento

Sacramento Charter High School student Anaiyah Cabrellis grew up spending every weekend of her childhood visiting her father in Folsom Prison. Her father was released from prison just before she started high school, but her brother was sent to prison the year she started Sacramento Charter. Despite the challenges, she remained focused on school, and credits her parents for encouraging her to pursue new activities.

Her determination landed her the honor of being the valedictorian of her graduating class.

“My dad has always been a prominent figure in my life, Cabrellis said. “He always encourages me to do my best in school and never give up. My mom always advocated for me and introduced me to to new opportunities.”

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Sacramento Charter High School

Cabrellis spent her high school years cheerleading and active in student government. She also attended an after school program that helped minority students prepare for college.

College Track allowed her to review classroom lessons, prepare for college entrance exams, and helped students of color and from lower socio-economic backgrounds with college applications. Cabrellis also worked at Underground Books, an African-American owned bookstore in Oak Park owned by St. Hope.

“I love that I am able to give back to the community,” she said. “Working there helped me come out of my shell, because I was always a shy person.”

Cabrellis was accepted into a long list of universities including all of the UC campuses, Spelman, Northwestern, NYU-Shanghai. She was wait-listed for Harvard, where her sister attended graduate school.

She will be heading to the historically African-American Howard University in the fall to study International Business, after she was inspired from a leadership development trip she took to Uganda.

Marley Dooling, Sacramento Waldorf School, Sacramento

Marley Dooling was sitting through Sacramento Waldorf School assembly just weeks ago, and little did she know Duke University officials were there to surprise her with an alumni endowed $315,000 scholarship.

When Dooling applied for Duke, she said she never thought she would receive such a generous package.

“My grandfather attended Duke, and I included that in the application, but didn’t think much of it,” Dooling said.

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Sacramento Waldorf School

Dooling said the process she went through to earn the merit based scholarship made her nervous. Duke flew her out to the university in North Carolina for several interviews, where she shadowed students and met other scholarship finalists.

The scholarship will cover her tuition, room and board, and either a summer enrichment program or to study abroad. Dooling, who has been attending Sacramento Waldorf since she was in the fifth grade, said she credits the school for preparing her for college and having a “comprehensive view on life.”

“This school prepared me to be academically exceptional, but this school has also made me a person of substance in the world,” she said. When asked what she will miss about high school, Dooling said it’s always felt like family at Sacramento Waldorf.

“We are a tight-knit community, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been pushed out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I’m ready for the next step, because I feel prepared and I have confidence that I will excel. And I have family that live 30 minutes away from Duke, so I can always have a warm meal and place to do laundry!”

Dooling will study neuroscience at Duke.

Amy Garnet Phinney, Da Vinci Charter Academy, Davis

Amy Garnet Phinney, a student at Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis, said she wanted to take advantage of all the opportunities surrounding her in the city. But since her parents’ divorce, and since losing their home in the economic recession, money had been tight.

Amy Garnet Phinney

That didn’t stop Phinney from pursuing her passion and getting to jazz choir practice, theater classes and performances — only she biked everywhere for the first three years of high school, totaling more than 40 miles a week to get to her activities.

“My parents don’t have a college fund for me, so I think I was motivated to work really hard, and do well in school because that would be one of the ways to help fund college.”

Phinney taught herself how to play the piano, ukelele and banjo in her spare time, and joined ACME Theatre Company because it didn’t require a lot of money or parent involvement.

“I am passionate about trying new things, and there is always something new to do,” Phinney said. “It’s hard for me to get bored, because if I lose interest in something, I gain interest in something else.”

Phinney will start at UC Davis in the fall, majoring in Genetics and Genomics. She also received a $14,000 Beeghley-Merrit Scholarship provided by UC Davis for local students who saved some of their own money for college.

She credits her accomplishments to her determination in school and getting to all of her activities.

“In a way, it all helped me because I was able to become independent,” she said. “It taught me how to rely on myself, apply for colleges and maintain a good GPA.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.