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Medina man, a new U.S. citizen, named NY Student of the Year

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 March 2015 at 12:00 am

Provided photo – Octaviano Gomez, third from left, was recognized as one of 20 “students of the year” last week by New York Association of Continuing/Community Education. He went to Albany and was recognized by state legislators, including Sen. Robert Ortt, right. Gomez is pictured with his daughter Bella and wife Carmen.

MEDINA – Octaviano Gomez only attended school for a few months in the first grade. That was it for his schooling, until 2012 when he started English as a Second Language classes, an effort that culminated with him earning U.S. citizenship in May.

Last week he was also named one of 20 “students of the year” by the New York Association of Continuing/Community Education. He went to the state capital in Albany for the awards program and was recognized by state legislators.

The Mexican native started working for U.S. farms when he was 13, picking grapes in California. He picked strawberries in Oregon, apples in Washington and parsley in Florida. For years he would work during the winters in Florida before coming to New York State to pick apples.

In 2001, he hurt his back pushing a crate of tomatoes in Florida. He was reinjured in 2012, straining his back while stacking boxes of oranges. Gomez needed surgery to help ease the pain in his leg. He remains disabled.

Photo by Tom Rivers – Octaviano Gomez is pictured with other students at the World Life Institute, watching a slide show from an awards program in Albany, where he was celebrated for his success learning English.

Gomez, now 42, was nominated by his teacher, Linda Redfield, for the state award. He is the fifth student to receive the honor at the World Life Institute, which provides ESL and citizenship education in a partnership with the Orleans-Niagara BOCES.

“It’s very unusual for an agricultural worker, with all the obstacles in life, to attain citizenship and literacy,” Redfield said. “He is a very quick learner. It’s amazing to me in two years he could prepare for the citizenship test and pass in English.”

Gomez, now 42, says he continues to suffer pain in his back and legs. But he wants to keep learning, to be an example for his children and increase his options locally.

Three of his children – Beatrice, Cody and Octavio – have graduated from Medina. Beatrice is in college in Texas. Gomez and his wife Carmen have a daughter, Bella, in first grade.

Gomez said he likes to help her with her homework.

“I want to keep learning more,” he said on Wednesday at the World Life Institute.

Gomez was recognized with a party at the school by his teachers and other students, who work at Intergrow Greenhouses and other local farms.

Gomez holds an American flag last June during an awards program for students in the BOCES program at the World Life Institute.

“I want to say this is possible for all of you,” Redfield told other students in the ESL program. “All of you are students of the year. You work on farms and then come to school at night to try to improve yourselves.”

Redfield praised Gomez for attending nearly every class on Mondays and Wednesdays for the past two-plus years. He has been faithful and determined, practicing his spelling and grammar, and using the Rosetta Stone software to practice listening and speaking skills.

“He has been a serious student,” said another teacher, Cheryl Lieberman. “He had his goals. He did the work. He always showed up to class, no matter the weather.”

Gomez has spread the word about the classes at World Life Institute and BOCES. His wife is a new student in the program.

Gomez grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico. His native language is Mixtec, a rare Indian language used in Oaxaca language. He may continue his education through community college.

“He wants to learn more and advance his skills,” Redfield said.