Through success in college and a job with ODOT, Vela-Moreno still proud to call Woodburn home

Photo Credit: TYLER FRANCKE | WOODBURN INDEPENDENT - Gustavo Vela-Moreno poses at the Woodburn Memorial Transit Facility, part of the $70 million Interstate 5 Interchange Project, which the 23-year-old Woodburn High School grad worked on last month as part of his job with the Oregon Department of Transportation.Gustavo Vela-Moreno is one of those kids who’s going places. It’s what his family, his friends, his teachers and most anyone who knows him have always said.

And it’s true. The 23-year-old graduated from Woodburn High School in 2009 as salutatorian and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from George Fox University four years later.

He’s spent the past year working for the Oregon Department of Transportation as part of its graduate engineering program, and in less than a month, he and his wife, Alma, are moving to Stanford, Calif., where he’ll pursue his master’s.

There’s much that can be credited for his success: natural talent, an indomitable work ethic learned from his parents, the support of his family and teachers, good role models, his own hard work and so on.

But, no matter how you look at it, Gustavo’s story is irrevocably tied to the town he grew up in, the town he still calls home.

“This community is very important to us,” Gustavo said of himself and his wife, also a Woodburn High and George Fox grad and now a teacher for the Canby School District. “I guess you could say we were practically made in Woodburn.”

The son of Mexican immigrants, his father a longtime employee at Willamette Egg Farms and his mother a first-grade teacher in Woodburn, Gustavo learned early on that he would have to work for everything he would ever have.

As a young boy, he dreamed of going to Stanford, but the odds were against him. In school, he watched as some of his classmates gave in to the temptations of drugs, alcohol and gangs, and tried to persuade him to do the same.

“There’s always those kinds of influences,” he said. “I think it’s like that anywhere. As a teen, you just want to fit in with what’s cool.”

He said sports helped him tremendously to stay focused on his dreams. Gustavo was a star soccer player for Woodburn, serving as team captain and earning all-league honors. He also played for the Bruins at George Fox.

Practicing his Christian faith helped him keep his priorities in line as well, he said, and his teachers were also a major inspiration.

“There are a lot of teachers here that believe in the potential of the students,” he said.

Jaime Valverde, a health teacher at Valor Middle School, knew Gustavo from his days in the Woodburn School District and has stayed in touch with him ever since. He said Gustavo’s work ethic always impressed him.

“He’s just very, very, very dedicated,” Valverde said. “I’ve known him since he was an elementary school kid, and he’s always trying to seek the highest possible goals, not just for himself but for his community and his family.”

When he was in eighth grade, Gustavo and his father traveled back to the Mexican state of Guerrero, where he said he learned he was “blessed with so many opportunities.”

“Seeing how both of my parents were very hard-working immigrants, and they made certain sacrifices to bring us here, I just couldn’t let myself not continue on the path that they had taken,” he said.

At Stanford, he plans to focus on research in sustainable design and climate adaptation. But after earning his master’s, he said he and Alma hope to return to the area and help other kids beat the odds and achieve their dreams.

“We have that desire to serve,” he said. “We want to work with kids, help them see that there’s a bigger world out there, and college can help prepare them for it.”

As part of his job with ODOT, Gustavo spent much of August back in Woodburn, working with state and contractor personnel on the Interstate 5 Interchange Project.

He said he’s proud to have been part of a project that is so important to the community.

“I think this town’s going to be transformed once this project’s done,” he said. “I think it’s really going to help the economy and the people here.”

Tyler Francke covers all things Woodburn. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-765-1195.

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