Expectations weighed on Julian DeNardo from the moment he enrolled at Chesapeake Middle School six years ago. He hadn’t been expecting it. Academics had never been a top worry when he and his little brother’s stomachs were hollow. When they’d seen people die.
Now, he’s leaving Chesapeake High School a three-sport athlete, a graduate of the school’s ambassadors program, athletic council and Spanish honors society, an AP student in Spanish and English and with the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy, an award given to a student proficient in speaking, reading and writing another language.
DeNardo remembers when he arrived from Colombia with his brother, Juan, he struggled to pick up English. His personality repressed. He wouldn’t make friends. Teachers’ words buzzed by his ears.
“I felt like it was a good experience for me. I wanted to have a better future. I know I was here for a purpose, and that purpose was to have a better life,” DeNardo said.
An English for Speakers of Other Languages class made English manageable, and DeNardo would test out by eighth grade. After that, he started making friends. More and more, he could string together bits of words into the conversation.
But when freshman year hit, anxiety fogged DeNardo back up. He’d never seen anyone go through high school before.
Then, before the fall season began, he tried out for the Cougars’ soccer team. When coach Drew Belcher’s son Eli suffered an injury, Belcher pulled DeNardo up to varsity.
“I’d never seen something like that, having a big crowd come to your games. I felt like I was loved,” DeNardo said. “It was really nice.”
He became a fixture of the starting lineup, a raw, malleable striker, one that Belcher “couldn’t keep off the pitch.” Two years in, his brother Juan joined him at the wing, a “free-spirt, 1960s” child, per his coach, that Julian spent half his practices corralling. By his senior year, Belcher recalled DeNardo mentoring his teammates with math at the back of the bus.
In his final appearance, DeNardo lashed a goal that ensured Chesapeake’s draw with Severna Park — and his season-ending injury. Belcher believes losing DeNardo lost them a chance in the playoffs.
“He brings that natural aggressiveness, that natural want and desire you could just plug and play. There’s no position he didn’t play, minus center back and goalkeeper.”
Though he’d make JV wrestling a year later, and track as well, and enjoy them, soccer served as a connection to his former home, be it as it was.
Colombia has roiled in a state of conflict between guerrilla groups, paramilitary forces, drug cartels and the government since 1964, and has left millions displaced and over 260,000 reported dead, per Reuters.
“There were times we had to stay at the house, (my mother) would lock us in with the house with nothing to eat. We’d go days without eating. We used to starve, sometimes. We have been through a lot of violence in Colombia. We saw people die.”
The DeNardo brothers were lifted out of their situation into the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare. When he was around 11, DeNardo was asked whether he’d consider being adopted with his brother.
“At the time, I didn’t know what the process was like but I always had in mind I wanted a better life. I wanted to be able to someday be able to help my family,” DeNardo said.
After visiting Christine, the Pasadena woman who would become his mother, for the summer, the process became final.
Without Christine, DeNardo isn’t sure he would have assimilated as he wanted to. He credits his adopted mother with teaching him time management, balancing schoolwork with what would become a hefty load of extracurriculars.
“Over time, I started feeling more comfortable. I started joining some clubs,” DeNardo said. “I was recognized by teachers and the principal, how much I’d accomplished in the school. ... I felt like I was part of the school. I felt like I belonged to the school.”
Even as he stepped into high school, DeNardo’s life still hadn’t reached his ideal potential. Though his mother is now married to Alex, a Honduran whom DeNardo views as a father, it wasn’t always that way.
“When we got here, my mom was married to this abusive father figure. I thought he was going to be our father, and teach us ... and be there for us, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “That’s not what we hoped to have happen when we got here.”
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As DeNardo toiled his way through most of his classes, he’d found comfort in Spanish. His life experiences before Pasadena had relevance. He found himself speaking up more, sharing his ideas, educating even his own teachers about aspects of South America.
But he’d never really learned the kind of structured grammar and literary skills you’d get from a life of constant schooling.
“Probably the hardest part for me was the reading comprehension. I thought I did really good writing, and also the speaking part, I felt somewhat comfortable,” DeNardo said. “But it’d been a long time since I’d really spoken Spanish. All I’d spoken in my house was English.”
And yet, when his AP test results came back, DeNardo had aced it. He’d gotten a 5.
DeNardo plans to join the Armed Forces, where he believes his hard work ethic will be rewarded and he knows he can leave with benefits. He doesn’t see himself on the field in fatigues, rather, behind a computer, assisting intelligence.
Chesapeake athletic director Chip Snyder describes DeNardo as a “class act, who always has a smile on his face” with a readiness to help out others in need.
“He has already set the precedent that no matter what challenges he faced, he will have the ability to overcome them,” Snyder said.