Being born without the ability to hear in his right ear has not prevented La Sierra High School graduate Jesse Diaz from shaping a bright future for himself while deconstructing the myth that a disability diminishes one’s own abilities. On the contrary, Jesse’s excellence in the classroom and in the community has received national recognition while serving as an inspiration to fellow students and teachers.
Jesse has been diagnosed with bilateral severe to moderate conductive hearing loss. At the age of 8, he endured the first of a flurry of surgeries aimed at reconstructing his outer ear and implanting a bone anchored hearing aid (BAHA) to assist him with interpreting sounds.
“There were so many surgeries, I lost count,” Jesse said. “But only after the surgery did I realize that it was a big deal to be able to hear out of both sides of my head.”
Jesse wears his hearing implant sparingly these days because his brain has adjusted and compensated accordingly. As a habit, he sat in the front of his classes so he could receive instruction more clearly with his better ear while allowing for easier clarification with teachers when necessary. Additionally, he recognizes the efforts of his teachers, Kathleen Tejeda and Theresa Copple, who helped Jesse succeed in sometimes subtle, yet critical ways.
“My teachers have been amazingly understanding and accommodating,” Jesse said. “I know that they were working behind the scenes with other teachers to let them know about my situation so that I didn’t have to talk about it with all of my other teachers on my own. Without their help, I would have found myself out of my comfort zone all the time talking about it and that would have been difficult.”
Jesse’s comfort zone includes the far-from-comfortable challenge of taking multiple advanced placement and honors courses. Jesse’s hard work and focus have resulted in a grade-point average above 4.0 and a top 16 ranking among the 711 seniors in the class of 2015.
“What keeps me positive and confident is thinking about how I’ve completed high school and am ready for a new stage in my life,” Jesse said.
After a summer to unwind with friends and family, Jesse will attend a state university in southern California. Although he hasn’t decided his ultimate field of study, he describes math as “something that comes natural to me” and science as “something amazing about life and everything.”
Jesse’s desire to further his education is driven by his desire to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
“The fact that my parents did not graduate from college is what makes me want to go for it,” Jesse said. “I don’t want to have to work two jobs just to be able to support my family and pay the bills like they have done for our family. I want a strong career and don’t want to have to worry about how to pay for everything in life.”
Jesse’s message to other students with a disability is to encourage them to not let it define them—even when others might assume that it would hold them back.
“When I met him at the end of his freshman year, Jesse did not believe that he had a disability—he was already a successful student on his own. I remember having to convince his mother that having an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) would actually help him succeed in college,” said Kathleen Tejeda, Jesse’s case carrier who works with special education students at La Sierra High School, and who also wears hearing aids. “For him, having an IEP meant nothing, but it became a visual sense of encouragement for other students who saw that his designation (as a student with an IEP) didn’t hold him back. It was a real self-esteem booster for all of our special education students.”
Jesse’s generosity is evidenced by the many roles he plays in his community and school. He donates his time to teach 5th grade classes at his church, Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Corona. He exhibited patience in tutoring fellow students at La Sierra High School and demonstrated campus involvement in a variety of clubs—including cofounding the American Sign Language Club.
“Even from my first meeting with Jesse as a 10th grader, he used his own experiences to help others and be sensitive to their needs,” said Theresa Copple, a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Itinerant Teacher with the Riverside County Office of Education who served Jesse and continues to serve many more students at La Sierra High School and throughout the Alvord Unified School District. “Being deaf or hard of hearing is often times a hidden disability and Jesse is actually a reflection of that because he is so well-spoken, polite, sociable, humble, and generous.”
After watching Jesse grow and flourish at La Sierra High School, Copple and Tejeda decided to nominate Jesse for the statewide “Yes I Can” Award from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) without telling him. In late 2014, Jesse was recognized by the Alvord Unified School District for being selected as one of the statewide winners. In early 2015, Jesse received word that he would be one of 21 students to receive the national “Yes I Can” Award from the CEC.
“There was a bit of a conspiracy behind our desire to want to see Jesse honored for all he is doing,” Copple and Tejeda admitted as sly smiles stretched across their faces. “He is so humble and doesn’t realize how strong and inspiring he is. His character is so wonderful and we are very excited about him receiving the national award.”
Jesse and his family were invited to attend the CEC National Conference in San Diego in April. At the conference, Jesse was recognized as a national honoree in the category of School and Community Activities. The award recognizes special education students who exhibit grit, determination, and the drive to accomplish great things with achievement in school and community-based settings.