From no English to the voice of 12,500 students

West Aurora High student breaks new ground

Updated 8/4/2011 3:07 PM
  • Nataly Rios, 17, of Aurora immigrated from Mexico at age 11, without speaking any English. She's now class president and a few months ago she was named student representative on the West Aurora High School District 129 board.

      Nataly Rios, 17, of Aurora immigrated from Mexico at age 11, without speaking any English. She's now class president and a few months ago she was named student representative on the West Aurora High School District 129 board. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Every summer, 17-year-old Nataly Rios goes on vacation with her family to her native Mexico, where she relishes the chance to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

This year, Nataly decided to delay her departure by a couple of weeks, staying behind with her father -- a bilingual teacher -- at home in Aurora after her mother and two younger siblings left in mid-June.

The reason? Nataly, the new -- and first non-native English speaker -- student representative on the board of West Aurora School District 129, loathed the notion of missing too many board meetings.

"I want to do it right," said Nataly, an incoming senior at West Aurora High School who was sworn in to her new post June 6.

Already busy with academics, track and cross country, student council and the principal's advisory committee, Nataly finds the time to volunteer once a week at Provena Mercy Medical Center in Aurora.

And now she is the voice of the 12,500 students in District 129 schools, about 44 percent of whom are Hispanic.

Dan Bridges, who left his position as principal at Nataly's school at the end of June, said the honors student and president of the junior class quickly impressed the board by sitting in the audience at every meeting since she was named student representative in February.

"We don't require them to attend meetings until they are sworn in," Bridges said. "She did that on her own."

On an average year there are about five applicants for the position, but this year, Nataly beat out a record 10 other interested juniors, Bridges said.

The student representative serves on the board and participates in discussions just like board members, but doesn't formally vote or take part in executive sessions. "(The student rep) has to really reach back into the schools and solicit information and ideas to bring forth to the board," school district spokesman Mike Chapin said. "It is not symbolic. It is a real source of important information for the school board."

Nataly is determined to represent all students, no matter their background or interests, Bridges said.

"One of the things that impressed us most was her passion to bring a voice to students who typically don't have a voice," he said. "She had some great ideas, strong leadership ideas. For example, attending club meetings, talking to study halls and group of kids to hear what they're concerned about, and what their thoughts are."

Nataly knows very well what it's like to want others to hear your thoughts.

When she moved to the United States from Mexico at age 10, she didn't speak any English. Although she was comfortable enough in her ESL and bilingual classes, she always felt intimidated and isolated in all-English environments such as the soccer team, she said.

Nataly's father, Sergio, had already been living in the United States for four years. Although he was a bilingual teacher in the district, he didn't put any pressure on Nataly to learn English quickly. Really, she did it all on their own, he said.

"I encouraged my children, but you can only show them the way. They decide what to do," he said.

Nataly remembers wanting to put her hands on any English books she could find, starting from short children's books up to novels for young adults. She also forced herself to have long conversations in English -- in her head.

"I tried to translate things in my head at night in bed," she said. "I would imagine myself telling things to my cousins, imagining conversations," she said.

Always eager to ask questions when she didn't understand something, Nataly was the kind of student who refused to fall behind, said Kevin Matti, her science and ESL teacher at Washington Middle School in Aurora.

Nataly's given name is Minia, just like her mother's, but she changed it to Nataly in the seventh grade because, well, it was just easier, she said.

Vickie Mayo, Nataly's social studies teacher at Washington, remembers Nataly as one of the hardest-working students she ever taught, redoing assignments after they had been corrected by the teacher.

"She would always want to do better, and then she would redo it and write it over. She pushed herself very hard," Mayo said. "Every now and then, you have a student that just wants to do her best. And she wanted to do her best."

This year, Nataly got her first two Bs of her entire career as a student. She was really disappointed with herself, she said, until she realized that a B in AP math and English really counts as an A in a regular class. "My goal has always been to get all As," she said.

As a senior, Nataly will serve as president of the student council. She was elected by fellow students because they don't just respect her, but like her, too, said Bob James, Nataly's student council adviser.

Nataly always takes the initiative to lead projects, James said. "She brings energy and creativity to these tasks. And most importantly she is absolutely reliable. If Nataly is in charge of a project I can breathe easy knowing it is in good hands. She always comes through," he said.

Nataly's hospital volunteer gig is a tryout, of sorts, for a career.

"I think I want to go to med school, and this will help me decide that," said Nataly, who is also thinking of joining the Peace Corps for a year after college.

Principal Bridges believes that Nataly leads by example, whether consciously or not.

"I think it's very significant that she is the first non-native English speaker student rep," he said. "It sends a very clear message to students who have stories like hers. That, despite the challenge that you face when you come here and all the struggles you may deal with, through hard work and determination, you can succeed."

• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to or call our new Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.