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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Alexis Ulloa will graduate from Ridgeview High and continue his education at USC where he plans to study engineering.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Centennial High student Joshua Chavez is a cancer survivor and soon to be Centennial High graduate.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

South High graduate Trayniesha Taylor will be attending UCSB.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Isaac Martinez is graduating from Bakersfield High School soon and planning on attending CSUB in the fall.

It's high school graduation season. Most school districts in Kern County will be wrapping up the 2012-13 school year over the next week or two. The Kern High School District class of 2013 of more than 7,000 students will participate in commencement exercises next week.

For many youths, a high school diploma is a long-expected rite of passage that can be taken for granted. For others, it's a milestone achieved despite daunting obstacles and adversity.

This graduation season, we are profiling a few who have succeeded academically despite having every reason to fail.

Joshua Chavez, 18, Centennial High School

College plans: Cal State Bakersfield

Chavez was a 10-year-old fourth grader the first time he got cancer.

A mysterious pain in his right leg wouldn't go away. Doctors at first thought it was growing pains. A specialist finally diagnosed him with bone cancer.

Chavez was frightened, but he was just as worried for his loved ones. The youngest of the family's three boys had died of leukemia at just 5 years old.

"That was really, really hard on my family, and I thought, 'We have to go through this again,' " Chavez said.

Olive Drive Elementary School, where Chavez went to school, rallied with fundraisers to help with medical bills. His fourth-grade teacher home-schooled him so he wouldn't fall behind during chemotherapy and surgery to replace a femur and hip.

Chavez got a brief respite, but in seventh grade the cancer came back, this time in his right knee. More chemo followed -- stronger this time -- as did surgery for a new knee. Once again, a teacher home-schooled him for a year.

The nightmare began again last year, when Chavez found a lump on his right side. Doctors removed four ribs and a small wedge from his right lung, just to be safe.

This time he opted to forego chemo. The last round had damaged his kidneys, and he didn't want to risk having to go on dialysis.

Chavez uses a cane and wears a small shoe insert because one leg is shorter than the other, but he gets around OK and his last two checkups were fine.

His attitude about the cane is practical.

"At first it bugged me, but now I'm used to it," Chavez said. "You can't do anything about it, so why worry about it?"

In spite of all that he's been through, Chavez concludes his high school career with a 3.8 grade point average.

"There were many times I wanted to give up," he said. "Sometimes I wondered, 'What's the point?' But I had to keep going forward. I had to keep telling myself that in the long run, it was worth it."

Chavez will be studying business at Cal State Bakersfield next fall. After school, he'd like to pursue a career in marketing.

For other students facing serious illness, Chavez offers these words of encouragement: "If you have hope, you can get through anything."

Isaac Martinez, 17, Bakersfield High School

College plans: Cal State Bakersfield

Because of a combination of bad choices and problems at home, Martinez found himself in various degrees of homelessness in his early teens.

Sometimes he stayed with an adult older brother. Occasionally a friend offered him a few nights on a sofa. Toward the end, he was sleeping in a park.

When Martinez was 16 years old, a friend who had a girlfriend suggested that he stay the night at the girl's house.

Divorced mother of three Jeanette Powell, 41, was the girl's mother. She was apprehensive about allowing a strange teenaged boy into her home, but she couldn't abide a child sleeping alone in a park.

Martinez was skittish, speaking only when spoken to. Clearly, he didn't trust Powell, but eventually he confided in her that he had to go to juvenile court because he'd been caught at school with a knife.

"It was an accident," he said. "I forgot it was in my pocket."

Powell gave him a ride to court when she couldn't find anyone else to accompany him. There was another defendant nearby who had a large family with him.

"Isaac looked at me and said, 'I wish I had a family that had my back like that,' " Powell recalled.

"That was it," she said. "I was resolute."

Martinez didn't know it at the time, but she had already queried her daughters about making the emergency shelter situation permanent. When county officials asked if she would become Martinez's foster mother, she agreed immediately.

The county put a criminal background check and home inspection that normally takes months on a fast track. By the time Martinez got out of juvenile hall two weeks later, Powell was cleared to care for him and the boy who emerged from custody was a new person.

"During the time that I was in juvenile hall, I thought about all the things that I had been doing," he said. "I decided I wanted a better life."

Martinez stopped using drugs and began trying to get his grades up. He had a young nephew he adored and wanted to be a good role model for him.

Music, always an interest, became more than a casual pastime. He threw himself into the school choir, writing songs, making mix tapes, and learning to play piano and guitar.

"I feel it. I feel it so much," he said. "I decided I love it so much I want to make a career of it."

Martinez dreams of moving to New York City after college to pursue that career.

"I've always wanted to get away from California, make a fresh start," he said. "I want to make something of my life. I'm not going to stick around and let everybody be right about me. I want to prove them wrong, not just for them but for myself."

Trayniesha Taylor, 17, South High School

College plans: University of California, Santa Barbara

Tray, as she's known to friends and family, spent much of her early childhood bouncing around foster homes and the Jamison Children's Center, a county-run emergency shelter.

One of her foster homes was emotionally abusive, she said, but most of her foster parents were "decent people."

It didn't matter. She was angry that she wasn't home with her mother. Angry that she was separated from siblings. Angry that she didn't "have a normal family, like everybody else."

So she lashed out, rebelling and biting every hand that tried to feed her. "I was a bad kid," Taylor said.

Some students with stormy home environments disengage from school. For Taylor, it was just the opposite.

"School was actually kind of my escape," she said. "I knew that education was going to get me somewhere in life. I didn't want to put my future family in my situation. I was determined to have something different after having been afraid for so long."

Taylor, who now lives with her grandmother and four of her seven siblings, is leaving South High with a 4.2 grade point average, ranked 11 of 433 classmates.

Her grandmother is looking forward to her going off to college, where she can begin focusing on herself, for a change.

Although Taylor is the third-born, she took on the role of caretaker for her siblings when they were growing up in an unstable environment, doing much of the cooking and cleaning for the family.

"She's the type of person who, if there's a plate full of cookies, will wait and make sure everybody else gets a cookie first, and then eats the last broken one or some crumbs," said grandmother Delora Harris, 55. "I always tell her, get yourself a whole cookie."

Alexis Ulloa, 17, Ridgeview High School

College plans: University of Southern California

Ulloa was just 6 years old when his parents separated, leaving his mother a single parent of five boys, including two sets of twins.

Ulloa, being the oldest, often tried to take on a father figure role for the rambunctious brood, but his mother stopped him.

"I said, 'Thank you for trying to help Mommy, but you're just a little boy. You don't have to take on the burdens and responsibilities of being a father," said Judith Ulloa, 42.

Still, she had her hands full. It wasn't long before the family lost their house in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

For a while after that, they were sporadically homeless, living in hotel rooms or with friends and relatives in various cities in Los Angeles and Kern counties.

Times were leanest during periods when Alexis' mother was unemployed.

Things got better when she was working, and during the short span when she and the boys' father reconciled and tried to make a go of things. It didn't work out, though, and the couple divorced in 2006. Alexis said his father is no longer in his life.

He has spent much of middle and high school babysitting his younger brothers after school.

"For a long time, her work schedule was really unstable. Sometimes she worked days, sometimes nights. Her hours were always changing," he said.

But Ulloa still found time to play soccer, run cross country and work summers to help support the family. This fall, he will pursue either medicine or mechanical engineering at USC. He's still making up his mind.

Alexis credits his success to unwavering determination.

"Don't give up," he said. "Try to reach your goals no matter what."