Four years ago, when Rene Barrera came from Mexico to a farm north of Westminster, he didn't speak a word of English.
He followed his father, who came to the United States decades before, to join him and his stepmother in a life that provided something life in Mexico would not: opportunity.
"At first it was hard," Barrera, a June 9 Winters Mill High School graduate, said. "I lived in Mexico for my entire life."
Leaving Mexico meant leaving his mother, two siblings and countless friends. It meant leaving everything he'd ever known. And a few years prior, when his father first tried to get him to come to the country, Barrera didn't feel ready.
But four years ago, Barrera knew what America could mean for his future, and he decided to come.
"Then I realized what great opportunity I could be missing and I came here with [my father]," he said.
And while he came speaking Spanish, Barrera worked hard with the help of the school and of his father and stepmother to master English in about two years, something that helped him to find success at Winters Mill.
At first, he said, he was in easier classes because he struggled with English and couldn't understand teachers. But once he was able to get a handle on the language, he started taking honors and advanced placement courses, including two semester of AP calculus senior year.
While in high school, Barrera said he "did mostly academics." When he wasn't focusing on school, he was focusing on his responsibilities at home on the family farm.
But, his senior year, Barrera was a peer facilitator, something he he had when first coming to the school. He got to help new students, especially those who didn't speak English, he said, because he speaks both English and Spanish.
"I really enjoyed my time as a peer facilitator," Barrera said. adding that his own peer facilitator inspired him to take the position.
A large part of Barrera's life during the last four years was his work on the family farm. He and his family live on a plot of land just north of Westminster, where they grow tomatoes, squash and more. There are also a number of angus cattle, plus a dog and cat roaming around the property.
On a Friday morning in June, Barrera methodically went through and worked on the tomato plants that grow in a greenhouse-style facility. He moved rhythmically and with expertise, though the skills he has have only been honed over the last four years.
Barrera said when he arrived in America, he wasn't used to farm work.
"It was pretty hard when I first came here," he said, adding "But then I started to work in the squash, mainly, and the blueberries and all of the things that he grew here."
His skills and understanding continued to grow, and Barrera said he got used to things. Now, he said, he enjoys his time working on the farm and getting to be out in nature.
"I like to work here, I like to be with the cows," he added.
On the farm, Barrera works with the plants and animals and also chops wood. But even after four years in Maryland, he said he hasn't gotten used to the heat and humidity, and prefers his farm work in the winter.
He especially likes the snow, something he saw for the first time, because there's not snow in Mexico, he said.
"[The first time I saw snow] was exciting. I like the cold weather here. Not so much the hot weather," Barrera added.
After graduation, Barrera will live at home and still work on the farm while he attends Carroll Community College, where he was accepted into a STEM program. The plan is to get his associate's degree before moving onto a four-year school to finish.
Barrera's ultimate goal is to become an engineer, though he's yet not sure what type he wants to be.
It's a choice Chris Howard, the Winters Mill High School Math Department chairperson and Barrera's calculus teacher this past year, said fits him perfectly.
"Rene has just proved himself to be outstanding in each and every math class that he's taken," Howard said.
Barrera is not only naturally gifted, Howard said, but he also works "tenaciously" to master each and every concept. That drive, and his ability to monitor his own learning, are things that really set him apart, Howard said.
"When Rene makes a mistake ... I know that he pores over that mistake to ensure that it doesn't happen again," he said.
Barrera is just about the "most teachable student" Howard said he's had in recent memory.
He always has a positive attitude and humility, Howard said. Barrera may be naturally gifted, but he doesn't flaunt that, he added.
Barrera is committed to excellence in every project, no matter how big or small. It's his day-to-day hard work that allows him to find such success, Howard said.
And he will continue that success in a career in engineering, Howard said.
"Bridges will be safer, tunnels will be sturdier if Rene is a part of building them, for sure," he said.
Barrera said he's kind of sad to leave Winters Mill, because the the staff and students and counselors were so helpful.
And while there may have been some fear about coming to America, and although adjusting wasn't always easy, for Barrera, it's a choice that changed his life.
"I am thankful to be in America," he said. "I like this country. It's pretty cool."
Winters Mill 2018 Graduation Statistics
How many graduating: 278
Students going to a four-year college: 45 percent
Students going to a two-year college: 33 percent
Students going to a technical school: 3 percent
Students going into the military: 3 percent
Students joining the work force: 10 percent
Students undecided: 6 percent