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From Colombia to Yale

Writing talent powers girl who once spoke no English to study art history at the university.

March 16, 2012|By Megan O'Neil, megan.oneil@latimes.com

As a sixth-grade Marshall Elementary School student, Isabella Lores set out to write an essay comparing the female prowess of the protagonist of the young-adult novel “Julie of the Wolves” with that of marathon great Joan Benoit.

A decade later, the sentences themselves seem unremarkable to their author. But the rigorous editing and revision process left an impression, as did the teacher who assigned it. Gerald Sharp was nitpicky in all the right ways, Lores said, questioning her word choice and transitions, among other details.

“[It] was probably the essay I have rewritten the most ever in life, still,” the 22-year-old said. “He had me rewrite it seven times. I have drafts and drafts and drafts of this paper. My writing skills with him shot through the roof. I made huge, huge amounts of progress with him.”

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It would prove to be one in a series of galvanizing moments that propelled Lores — who in 1996 arrived in Glendale from Colombia speaking no English — to Yale University, where she will graduate in May with a degree in art history.

“When I read her writing, I knew with more refinement and more time, [it] was only going to get better,” said Sharp, who still teaches at Marshall and has remained close with his former student. “I am very happy she is graduating from Yale, but with the amount of effort and care and passion she put in her work, I am not surprised.”

There were many turns during Lores’ young life when her American-success-story-in-the-making could have been derailed. Days after arriving in Glendale with her mother, brother and grandmother, she started first grade at Marshall Elementary, where she was placed in a dual-language program.

“I do remember being in the class with English speakers only, and just not knowing anything,” Lores said.

Two years later she transitioned into an English-only class, although she continued to speak Spanish with family members.

Lores’ mother, who had worked as a lawyer in Colombia, made sure she did her homework, but was also busy making ends meet in a new country. Her grandmother, who got no further than the third grade, had her recite the multiplication tables during their daily walk from the family apartment on Harvard Street to school.

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