From Colombia to Yale

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.”

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.

But following an inspiring year in Sharp’s classroom, middle school proved a major disappointment for Lores. She found many of her classmates focused on everything but their studies, and as a natural student, she felt stifled.

“As 13-, 14-year-olds, there was a lot of other stuff going on that people were interested in and concerned about, and school just wasn’t something that was prominent in a lot of people’s minds,” she said.

Neither Lores nor her mother had ever heard of prep school, but at the recommendation of a family friend, she applied to Flintridge Prep in La Cañada Flintridge and was accepted with a generous financial aid package.

“I remember it being one of the most exciting things ever. It was like getting into Hogwarts when I was 14 — it was like magic,” she said, referring to the school of magic in the Harry Potter series.

The transition proved a difficult one. The academic expectations were high, and the cultural and socioeconomic divide deep. Lores’ new classmates had had college on the brain since they were young, while to her it remained a somewhat intangible concept.

Still, she thrived.

“She showed just an unlimited capacity to engage ideas and material and art in ways that were so refreshing,” said Assistant Headmaster Peter Vaughn, who taught Lores multiple times. “You never had a sense that there was an underlying agenda, whether it be to get into a top college or to get a grade.”

Lores was a particularly gifted writer, he added.

“She always had a very personal relationship with language, and I think that it just fueled her through Prep,” Vaughn said

Her senior year of high school, Lores accepted an early admission offer from Yale. Her four years there have been entirely funded by the university.

Lores’ 10-year plan includes a doctorate in art history and a docent job at a museum, but for now she is focused on enjoying her last few months at school.

“It is not about being the best at anything, or being super visible,” Lores said, recounting the message she shares with Marshall students when she stops by to visit. “It is just about figuring out what you want to do and then believing what you want to do is possible.”

For his part, Sharp says he plans to be in the crowd in New Haven, Conn. for the commencement ceremony.

“I am looking forward to watching her reach a huge milestone and a great achievement in her life,” Sharp said. “I want to see it happen.”

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