South Portland High School seniors Eduardo Anzurez and Max Salunek couldn’t be more different, but what they do have in common is that reaching graduation day means something extraordinary to both them and their families.

On Sunday, June 7, they will join about 200 other students who will receive their diplomas during South Portland High’s annual graduation ceremony, which will be held at the football stadium.

Salunek, 19, is a fifth-year senior, and Anzurez, 18, is originally from a small town in the state of Puebla, Mexico. For both boys getting their high school diploma is a dream come true and an accomplishment worthy of celebration.

When Anzurez and his family arrived in the United States eight years ago, none of them spoke English and they had never seen snow before.

Now, Anzurez is graduating from high school and will be attending the University of Maine in the fall to study mechanical engineering. He’s also the first member of his family to attend college.

His parents came to this country in order to give their children a good education, and though at first the transition was “scary, stressful and hard,” Anzurez couldn’t be happier for the opportunities he’s received.

Anzurez has two younger sisters, who are 14 and 12, and both his parents, Leonel and Emilia, work full time. Leonel works in landscaping and Emilia cleans houses.

During his time in high school, Anzurez has become fully acclimated. He plays soccer and baseball and is on South Portland High’s Ultimate Frisbee team.

In addition, he’s a member of the National Honor Society, the World Language National Honor Society and the Interact Club. Anzurez said everyone in the South Portland school system, from teachers to other students, have all been “very kind and welcoming.”

For him it was a shock to move from a tiny schoolhouse in Mexico to Brown School, where there were multiple classrooms for each grade.

Another difference was not being required to wear a uniform to school and, of course, the cold weather, which Anzurez called “mind blowing at first.”

He knows there are people in the United States and even in Maine, who are against immigration, but Anzurez said, “People immigrate for a better life and more opportunity.”

In his case Anzurez has accomplished the goal of getting into college.

“It’s amazing to come from a poor town in Mexico and get this opportunity to succeed,” he said. “I am blessed and just amazed.”

Max Salunek

Salunek’s path to graduation has been anything but smooth. During his high school career, he’s attended three different schools and dealt with the death of his mother.

Due to the number of credit hours required at South Portland High, Salunek did not have enough to graduate with the rest of his class last year and so he ended up as a fifth-year senior.

Even so, Salunek is glad he had the extra time to explore his interests and to get ready for the next step, which for him includes attending Southern Maine Community College in the fall.

He lost his mother in 2012 when he was 16. She died of complications with diabetes and various other medical problems, but prior to her death she was homeschooling her son.

He began his high school career at Cheverus because Salunek’s mother had visions of him attending an Ivy League college and felt the private school in Portland offered the best chance of being admitted to a selective college.

Unfortunately the family just couldn’t afford the tuition fees, so partway through his freshman year Salunek left Cheverus and was homeschooled until his mother’s health prevented her from teaching him every day.

Salunek then went to Westbrook High School for a while, but moved in with his father, Edward, who lives in South Portland, shortly before his mother’s death.

And while for some doing a fifth year of high school just wouldn’t be in the cards, Salunek said the extra year has actually been “really good for me” and he’s glad he didn’t drop out or choose to earn a GED instead.

This past school year Salunek was able to take a course in sociology from Southern Maine Community College and that opportunity was motivating, he said.

Overall, Salunek said, “I just wasn’t ready to graduate and this extra year also gave time to learn more about college.”

He credits educational technician David Stanton, social studies teacher Tom Major, alternative education teacher Jim Braley and assistant principal Kimberlee Bennett for all their help and support, particularly during this past academic year.

Salunek also singled out both Stanton, who he called “a real mentor” and Braley, who he called “an awesome guy” with whom he can talk about “life and books.”

During this extra year of high school, Salunek has also enjoyed the opportunity to explore various interests, including taking a course in American Sign Language, a course on nutrition and cooking and another on Maine history.

Salunek works at the Boys & Girls Club in South Portland, and when he was younger he participated in the club’s robotics program, which he described as “really cool.”

In addition to the Boys & Girls Club, Salunek is also heavily involved in community activities in the Redbank neighborhood of South Portland, including volunteering for the monthly community dinners and other events, such as neighborhood cleanups.

He also takes classes at the Riverview Foundation, where he has a yellow belt in a form of martial arts that combines karate and kung fu. In his free time, Salunek enjoys reading, particularly Stephen King novels, and writing modern fantasy tales.

He admits to “being an absolute mess” in terms of his academics and his life after his mother died.

But now, Salunek said, “I got it done and I did it myself,” although he also admits that earning his diploma “seems somewhat unreal” especially since he never got to do a lot of the “normal teen stuff.”

When he receives his diploma on Sunday his thoughts will be on his mother, Mary-Ellen, whose “biggest wish was for me to graduate from high school.”

He said he knows she will be there in spirit.

What Salunek has learned is that “if you fall, just climb back up,” and that the only thing to do in life is to “do what’s best for you” and to “follow your gut.”

Eduardo AnzurezMax Salunek

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