All seniors at Colorado Academy face challenges and decisions as they apply to college or make plans for their next endeavors after leaving CA. But Hernaldo Piñón’s journey is a first for CA.
Piñón hopes to attend college in a foreign country—taking classes in the native language of that country. Since Spanish is his first language—and the language he speaks at home—it’s easy to assume that his goal is to study in a Spanish-speaking country. But au contraire! Piñón hopes to enroll in a French university. And while his fellow students have been sweating the SAT, he just passed the DELF B2 exam, giving him the official diploma—Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française—awarded by the French Ministry of Education, certifying the French language skills of a non-French candidate.
“When I saw that email with the subject, ‘Congratulations,’ it was a huge weight off my shoulders,” Piñón says. “This is the only test I am required to take, so it was the biggest hurdle.”
‘Step up his effort’
Piñón enrolled at CA as a sixth grader, with help from The Challenge Foundation, an organization that works with outstanding partner schools to help ambitious, hard-working students advance academically. He picked CA because “it was the hardest school, but I thought it would be the best.” As a new sixth grader, he had to pick a language to study. Spanish would have been the easy road, since it was his first language. Instead, he chose French. “I thought that if I am going to learn a language, it may as well be a new one,” he says. “I wanted to see how French overlaps Spanish and English, and I figured being bilingual would give me a different perspective.”
Piñón admits that he was not an avid French student in his Middle School years, but by the time he was a sophomore in the Upper School, his attitude had changed. “I started to put in more effort and realized how far you can go—quickly—if you actually try,” he says. His French IV teacher, Brigitte Debord, remembers when, during his junior year, Piñón told her he would like to take AP French in his senior year. “I told him he has a lot of talent, but he would really have to step up his effort,” Debord says. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
‘The first student’
Associate Director of College Counseling Sara Purviance says she has had other students interested in going to college abroad—but not like Hernaldo. “Students generally look for a school where they can attend class in English,” she says. “He is the first student I have had who wants to attend college in a foreign language.”
Debord is quick to point out that attending a French university was 100 percent Piñón’s idea. “He is taking the harder road,” she says. “He has researched this himself, found out what he needed to do, and I did nothing but order the books to help him prepare for the DELF test.”
But pourquoi? Why take the harder road? “The only way to be truly fluent in a language is to live somewhere you have to speak it,” Piñón says. “I didn’t like the idea that you would take a language for seven years in school and then, within a few years, you can’t speak it.” He also is motivated by pragmatic considerations. Tuition would be less expensive in a French university. He plans to major in linguistics and is already thinking about going on to graduate school, so college budget is on the top of his mind. Université Grenoble Alpes in Grenoble, a city in southeastern France which was home to the 1968 Olympics, is his first-choice school, but he is applying to other French universities, and he also has a number of applications submitted in the United States as a back-up.
‘A big deal’
It’s hard to overestimate the significance of passing the DELF exam. In her many years of teaching both college and high school, Debord has never had a student even take the exam, much less pass—and on the first try. “Hernaldo is very humble,” she says. “But it is a big deal to pass this test. He is remarkable.”
Piñón will never forget exam day—traveling to the Alliance Française de Denver, taking the test with two other students in their mid-twenties, both of whom sounded like native French speakers to him. The DELF certification will be a gold star on his resume for life, even if he decides to stay in the United States for school. His parents—neither of whom attended college—would prefer he stay close to home, but “they are not going to try to stop me from going,” he says.
Is he scared? “Definitely scared,” he says. “But I will figure it out.” Understandable to feel some fear—since he is applying to universities in a country he has never even visited, and leaving a home where he speaks only Spanish. He’s already taken a few lessons in Italian and found it “very easy.” Next on his list? Learn Japanese. And this all started with a sixth grader who chose “the hardest … and best school,” where he found opportunities to discover his special talent for languages.