Zoe Morgan/Town Crier After losing both of his parents when he was young, Jose Perez struggled with his mental health. When he came to Mountain View High School midway through freshman year, the adjustment was hard at first, but ultimately he said it altered the course of his life for the better.

When Jose Perez moved to California and started at Mountain View High School midway through his freshman year, the adjustment was hard at first. Naturally introverted, adapting to a new environment and connecting with his peers took time.

Ultimately though, Perez said the move altered the course of his life for the better. He made new friends, got involved on campus, explored a passion for art and believed for the first time that college could be in his future.

“When I came to California, I guess everything just changed,” Perez said. “My whole ideals and ethic toward life changed moving here.”

Perez graduated last week and has been accepted to San Francisco State University, where he intends to start in the fall, pursuing his passion for film by majoring in cinema.

To get to the place he is now, a high school graduate looking ahead to his future in college, Perez has had to work through personal trials and hardship. When he was 2 years old, Perez’s father died and his mother raised him and his siblings as a single parent. She was then diagnosed with cancer, and when he was 13 years old, she too died.

His mother’s death deeply impacted Perez, damaging his mental health and causing him to turn inward on himself. Perez said he fell into a deep depression, struggled to trust others and started abusing drugs. Ultimately, though, he became determined that wasn’t the path he wanted to go down.

“I realized I’m done, I’m done. I don’t want to be like that anymore,” Perez said. “I can’t hide away from the pain, I need to face it head-on.”

A few years after their mother’s death, he and his younger brother moved from Texas to California to live with their aunt, hoping to find a better future.

Starting school at Mountain View High was a big change, but over time Perez said he found a group of friends and began to feel more comfortable. One of the biggest turning points came when his sophomore year chemistry teacher Kim Rogers suggested that he join Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).

AVID prepares motivated students, typically whose parents didn’t attend college, for higher education.

“After a few months of being in AVID, I realized this was going to help me so much,” Perez said. “Because literally without AVID, I really didn’t think I was going to apply to college.”

According to Perez, being part of the program made him believe that college was within reach and provided him the support, motivation and tools he needed to get there.

“If I ever felt down, I knew I had this group of people, family-like, that could support me and have my back,” Perez said.

At Mountain View High, Perez also began to explore his interest in art. In Rogers’ class, he would draw pictures on the white board at the end of the period for the next class to see.

“As they would walk in, they would just stop in their tracks and marvel at the things that Jose had drawn on the board,” Rogers said, calling him an “incredibly gifted artist.”

For Perez, his art is a way to express himself and process his emotions. Over the course of high school, Perez took various art classes, including a photography class junior year. At the time, he was having a tough time emotionally and would frequently take walks along the Stevens Creek Trail to clear his head, taking photos to express how he felt. One of his favorites is an image of his hand on a black fence, with the sunset framed in the background.

“At the time, I was caged inside this bad mentality,” Perez said. “I know there’s light at the end, so that’s what the sun represents. And the (fence) represents my mindset and my mental health. And the hand was me trying to find hope, reaching out to the sun.”

Perez said he’s passionate about mental health and reducing the stigma around it, putting substantial effort into working on his own wellness. Beyond himself, Perez has also worked to support those around him.

“The connections and bonds (between) people is something I’m very passionate about,” he said.

When a Mountain View High student killed himself last fall, the campus community was hit hard and Perez said he felt an obligation to do something. In the days after the death, Perez would spend his lunch break checking in on students and teachers, offering a hug when he saw someone crying, even if he didn’t know them.

“He’s just a very empathetic and very caring person,” Rogers said. “He senses hurt in others and is OK just letting people know that he sees that and that he’s there for them.”

Finding his passion

As someone who has long loved art, Perez decided to apply for Freestyle Academy of Communication Arts and Technology his senior year and was accepted. Freestyle is a program the district offers that allows students to spend part of each day taking specialized classes in multimedia art, including film, design, animation and digital media.

There, Perez discovered and fell in love with film editing, a passion he now hopes to turn into a career. What some might find tedious, Perez found deeply satisfying, loving the attention to detail required and the process of finding small ways to improve a video.

In addition to his normal schoolwork, AVID and Freestyle, Perez also has worked nearly full time throughout much of high school to help pay rent. That frequently meant doing homework late into the night. His senior year, Perez dropped a few classes that weren’t required for graduation or college to create enough space in his schedule to juggle both Freestyle and work.

Rogers said she’s been impressed by his ability to balance classes, Freestyle and his job. As he heads off to college, her hope for him is that somebody in the film or art world discovers his abilities and hires him.

“I want someone to recognize him and really see him and just give him that opportunity,” Rogers said. “It would be so nice if for once something just came easy.”