Rafael Vasquez Lopez, 18, pushes to excel in academics, wrestling, service

JULIA COMNES - Rafael Vasquez LopezRafael Vasquez Lopez has accomplished a lot in his 18 years.

He is president of the National Honor Society at Woodburn High School's Academy of International Studies, is a full International Baccalaureate candidate, has served as a captain of the wrestling team throughout high school, has spent many hours serving his community, and will be starting at George Fox University next year with a full-ride scholarship.

But as Rafael sees it, he isn't supposed to be here — alive, in the United States, getting ready to attend college. He tells his life story as a series of defining miracles that have made it possible for him to live the life he has and that have formed his boundlessly positive attitude.

The first miracle, Rafael says, happened before he was even born.

"My parents crossed the border (from Mexico) when my mom was four or five months pregnant," he says. "And nearing toward the end, they were being chased through the desert. She was exhausted."

Rafael says his mother barely made it across the border — his father ended up dragging her part of the way so that they would make it across. If she hadn't, Rafael says he would be living a very different life.

"I wouldn't have the opportunities I have. I wouldn't have the benefits I have of being … a U.S. citizen. Without that, I don't think I would have anything," he says.

Rafael's second miracle happened when he was only a few days old. Soon after he was born, his lungs began to malfunction. The prognosis wasn't good, and his parents were told he'd likely die. But Rafael survived. He doesn't take that lightly.

"I always try to do my best in anything that I do," he says. "And I think that I do that because I was given a second chance to be here."

Rafael says his experiences have instilled in him the drive to put in his best effort and to never give up.

"(Rafael) has incredible self-motivation and a passion to help others become their personal best," wrote his former math teacher, Brea Cohen. "His work ethic has helped him to reach high scholastic success and has inspired his peers to seek academic excellence, as well."

Some of that work ethic has come from his parents, who Rafael says spent most days working as laborers in the fields when he was growing up. Rafael sometimes worked in the fields, too. He wanted to do his part to contribute to the family's income, even though his parents urged him to put his education before work.

"(My parents) came here with no money, no English, nobody they knew," he says. "Acknowledging what they had to go through, it just makes me push through everything that I do. No matter what it is, I don't think it would be as tough as (what they went through)."

Rafael also has learned the importance of hard work from his time on the Woodburn High School wrestling team. His commitment to the team has made him a four-time member of the Guts Club, which honors members of the team who have never missed a practice or tournament over the course of the season. And he's served as captain of the team every year of his high school career.

Rafael is quick to recognize the amount of help he's gotten along the way — from his wrestling coaches and his teachers, from his parents and from local service organizations who have helped fund his wrestling endeavors.

That's why he has devoted his time to giving back to his community. Rafael has spent hours working at Woodburn's AWARE Food Bank. He's canvassed in support of Measure 88, which would have allowed people with no proof of legal residence to obtain a driver's license, and the $65 million Woodburn School District bond. He's worked as a wrestling coach for kindergarten through eighth-graders and has been a math tutor for English language learners.

Rafael's role as a community leader is what led him to be chosen for the Act Six Scholarship, a full-tuition community leadership award, which has made it possible for him to be the first in his family to attend college. He has goals of becoming a civil engineer, with the ultimate dream of designing a bridge.

Even though he's going away for college, Rafael plans to move back to Woodburn eventually.

"My heart lies in always helping those who are in need," he says. "I think this is where my home is, and I just really think I would want to be back in Woodburn, and work here, and give back to the community."

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