By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 12, 2014
HAPEVILLE—Olga Lopez-Gomez wasn’t always the best student.
She struggled in elementary school learning English as a second language and paying attention—even getting sent out of class for her silliness.
Things got better as she received tutoring at Parklane Elementary School through the Hands on Atlanta Discovery Program and she mastered English.
Growing up in College Park, she is one of six children of Maria del Carmen Gomez Lopez and Santiago Lopez, who migrated from Jalisco, Mexico, seeking better opportunities. She struggled again to adjust to high school.
So in her graduation speech as valedictorian of the 2014 class of 365 at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, she encouraged others to persevere through hardship.
“My ninth-grade year was really difficult. I didn’t know anything that was going on. My tenth and eleventh grade, I knew I wanted to do really well and get good grades, and I’d just study and do my work and it helped,” Olga said in an interview.
“As far as the social aspect, that came later,” she said.
In her valedictory speech, “I tried to get across they should endure everything that comes their way, even if it’s very difficult. We’re all living with disadvantages. … That shouldn’t bring them down but toughen them up to be better and stronger.”
And that means finding the positive in obstacles.
“A while back, I was looking at different jobs. I (felt) I had the minority disadvantage, but it’s not really a disadvantage because I can speak two languages and in this country we’re seeing more and more Hispanics,” she said.
Having limited financial means “became a bigger drive to learn and to study.”
Olga will attend Georgia State University as the recipient of its Excellence Scholarship. She’s the second family valedictorian, following her sister, Hedith, who will graduate this year from Emory University. The family worships at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville.
Olga’s favorite subject is math and she plans to study accounting or another area of finance.
“I really like being able to get a difficult problem and find different solutions to every problem,” said Olga, whose father works as a tax preparer. Her mother works as a babysitter.
When others would get stuck on a problem in calculus, “I’d go up and say ‘hey it’s not that hard. Take it in simple steps.’ The teachers thought it was funny, but I was serious,” she said.
Throughout high school, Olga has given back and tutored children through Hands on Atlanta at Parklane Elementary School.
When she needed it, the tutoring “helped me pull up my grades. They were a great help. … I wasn’t always at the top of my class. I was a little clown back then. Teachers would put me out and I would cry,” said Olga.
Now “I just really enjoy helping children,” she said.
In high school, she also enjoyed math club, STEM Academy and the DECA marketing club, where she competed all four years and this year served as club president and school store manager. Club advisor Valencia Parks admires Olga’s gifts and determination.
“She wants so much out of life and she goes full force,” Parks said. “She’s a fireball. … She’s very persistent in whatever it is she’s trying to do. She’s just academically gifted. She’s a leader. … Olga goes above and beyond with everything she does.”
Olga said her Catholic faith helps her to stay on the right path.
“It kind of teaches you what is right and wrong. My mind is set on I don’t want to do anything that is bad. … Stick to the path I know is right,” she said. In reading the Bible, “the stories motivate you to do better and be a better person.”
For now she’s excited about new opportunities at Georgia State.
“I’m just excited about meeting new people and learning different things. It seems like it’s going to be really fun,” Olga said.
These profiles recognize Catholic students who are 2014 valedictorians or salutatorians at area public high schools.