Milby HS salutatorian overcame adversity through sheer determination

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Editor’s Note: This week, thousands of HISD seniors will receive their diplomas during graduation ceremonies across the district. Many of our students have overcome challenging circumstances during their educational journeys. We are sharing a few of their stories this week.

As Milby High School’s salutatorian and a future biomedical engineer, it’s hard to imagine the path Joe Salazar had to take to reach such success.

“I was abandoned as a child.” Joe said. “My father was an abusive alcoholic, and my mother was hardly ever around.”

Year after year the abuse continued, until one night when Joe’s intoxicated father came home and assaulted his son, breaking both of his legs. Doctors told Joe he would never walk again. Joe was six.

“I remember being in the hospital bed in a half-body cast just crying. I didn’t want to go back home.” said Joe. “I fell off the bed crying and the nurse heard me.”

That nurse, touched by Joe’s story, would eventually take him in as a foster child.

After being placed in foster care, Joe started trying to rebuild his life. He returned to school but felt isolated. His studies lagged and, without motivation, he entered high school.

That’s when Sgt. First Class (Ret.) Eric Hopkins and Col. (Ret.) Charles Benson stepped in with a new challenge — Milby’s JROTC program.

“Me not having a father figure, they really were a big part of my life,” Joe said. “By using military customs and discipline, they helped me break away from shyness and made me challenge myself.”

The two JROTC instructors weren’t the only ones who took notice of Joe. Milby teachers gave him the structure and support that he needed to start taking his studies seriously.

Joe’s teacher, Christen “Brooke” Skeen, pulled Joe aside and told him that if he just applied himself, he could even be his class valedictorian or salutatorian.

Though Joe doubted it at first, her words gave him a goal. He would graduate near the top of his class, go to college, and one day, help other mobility-hindered people through biomedical engineering.

So far, Joe Salazar has exceeded that goal. His list of school firsts is inspiring — first to receive a full scholarship at the college of his choice, first to go to Boys State and place, and a Citgo scholarship.

He will go Colby College in Maine on a full scholarship from Questbridge as part of a dual-degree program. He will spend four years studying there, then two years at Columbia University.

Joe refuses to let his experiences as a child dampen his spirit. He regained his ability to walk through sheer determination and regained his purpose through his studies at Milby High School.

And if he ever doubts his ability to rise to any challenge, he has one visual reminder: All these years later, he has kept his cast.

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