HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Moving to a new community and starting high school knowing no one is hard enough for any young teen. Moving from a different country and knowing no English is even harder.
Santiago Mendez emigrated to Hannibal from Baja California, Mexico, at the start of his freshman year at Hannibal High School in 2013. Mendez's mother married his stepfather, who lives in Hannibal, and the mother and son moved to America's Hometown.
"When I moved here, I didn't know any English. It was hard," said Mendez, who graduated with the HHS class of 2017 on Thursday. "I think that was the worst year of my life. I didn't know what anybody was saying, and I basically just came to school and sat in classrooms."
During his first year of high school, Mendez took a Spanish class that substituted as an English class, and he met with a teacher who helped him with homework.
"Every day when I got done with my homework, I studied English at least 30 minutes to an hour, and I watched TV in English and put on the subtitles. That helped a lot," Mendez said. "The first few months were hard, but I started to slowly learn English."
Despite the language barrier, Mendez immersed himself in American culture. He signed up to play basketball and baseball his freshman year, and he made friends with classmates.
"They are good friends," Mendez said. "They were a big part of helping me feel comfortable about speaking English and learning about the culture.
"At end of freshman year, I understood what people said, but I didn't feel comfortable speaking. By December of sophomore year, that's when I started to talk to people. Now I speak English pretty well, I guess."
After graduating from HHS, Mendez will attend college at Missouri State University in Springfield to study civil engineering. He plans to attend the university for two years before transferring to Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla to finish his degree.
"Right now, I am job shadowing the Missouri Department of Transportation," Mendez said. "I'm learning a lot from MoDOT."
He credits the MoDOT experience with expanding his English skills and cementing his interest in civil engineering.
When Mendez dons his cap and gown to receive his high school diploma, two special people will be in the audience to watch. Mendez's grandmother and brother stayed behind in Mexico, and Mendez only saw them once a year when he visited Mexico in the summer. They traveled to Hannibal to watch their loved one accomplish this milestone.
"I'm pretty excited to see them," said Mendez, who will graduate on the school's B honor roll.
And for anyone else struggling to learn a second language, Mendez has some advice:
"Never give up, and keep trying your best. It might seem impossible, but it's not. As long as you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do it."