Jovan Orozco, 17, has been accepted to the University of Southern California, Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania. He's on the waiting list at Harvard.
Nearly four years ago, the senior, a straight-A student since the start of his junior year, made a life-changing decision to take the hardest classes after he saved a girl from drowning.
While catching some rays on the beach three summers ago, Jovan heard a girl screaming for help. “She was drowning,” Jovan, who tried to attract the life guard’s attention, told Patch during an interview last week. “He was doing pull-ups and too far away, so I ran in and saved her.”
One problem: “I never learned how to swim.”
That technicality aside, he managed to dog paddle out to the panicked girl, only to be pushed under when she grabbed hold. “I was like drowning myself,” said Jovan, a tall, lanky young man with close-cropped black hair and studs in his ears. To this day, he’s not quite sure how he got the drowning swimmer back to shore.
“Saving the girl’s life was a huge confidence builder,” Jovan said. “Because I didn’t know how to swim and went for it, it made me want to do more.”
Through his church, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hermosa Beach, he found ways of contributing to the community, including returning to his Lawndale elementary school, William Green, to conduct field trips and tutor kids in math.
Along with tutoring Redondo students in chemistry and math, he began taking “harder and harder courses” himself. His final year, for example, Orozco—an Advanced Placement (AP) student in all his classes—takes chemistry, physics, calculus, Spanish and Spanish literature.
His favorite course? “I just love chemistry, because it makes me think a lot more. I can see things at the microscopic level, how atoms react and what different reactions form."
Up until recently, Jovan wanted to become a doctor.
He still plans on a double major, one offered at the University of Pennsylvania (his school of choice): biomedical science combined with management technology. “That way I can pursue my passion with science while developing my entrepreneur and business skills.”
He’s always debated between chemistry and business. “But I found out that the business world is perfect for me. I would love to expand my dad’s business; make more branches." Everyone on his mother's side of the family, all her brothers, have their own businesses, he said. "So it runs in the family.”
That brought us to two other topics, the family market, Los Jaliscienses in Lawndale, and the immense impact his father, Jose Orozco, has had on him.
“My dad came to America the first time at age 16, finding any work he could and dreaming of one day owning his own market,” his son said. “That was his ambition, ever since he was a child he wanted to be a business owner.”
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Jose Orozco was raised in Mexico City and started working when he was six, his son said. “He got any job he could, selling gum on the street, bagging groceries in the stores; he used to break dance with his brother to try and make money that way.”
After a failed marriage and the birth of one son (Joshua), Orozco returned to Mexico. There he met the love of his life, Alma, a girl from his native Jalisco. Neither had progressed beyond the ninth grade, nor did they speak English.
The two returned to California, the land of opportunity, where Jose Orozco worked for 20 years at two jobs, serving as a banquet manager at both the in Redondo Beach and the Hilton Hotel in Long Beach. He taught himself English, just as he taught himself higher math.
As Orozco said during an interview at his store—a combination meat market and grocery/convenience store decorated with pinatas, “I worked 16 to 20 hours a day to put the money together and buy the business.”
It was a mantra he would instill repeatedly in his sons. “People need to have a dream, the ambition to have something in life. Money doesn’t come from the sky. You have to earn it; you have to work for it.”
His parents’ story is part of why Jovan was selected for Patch’s Greatest Person honor, as well as why he was asked by Redondo Union Vice Principal Adam Genovese to speak at a district-wide third-through-eighth-grade Family Night at on Thursday.
The event, Genovese said, is meant to encourage younger students to aim for college and inform parents who may want to start thinking about financing alternatives. (The program starts at 6 p.m. and includes a room for Spanish-speaking parents.)
“We have two different workshops,” Genovese said: Financial Aid and The Path to College. “By the time (kids) get to high school, a lot of the mind is set, a lot of the habits are already formed. So we’re looking to get the information out when they are really young.”
After an interview with Jovan, Genovese knew the senior was the best person to communicate the “college culture” message.
“When people like Jovan’s parents come from another country, don’t know the language, (manage to acquire) their own business, and now their son is getting accepted to Ivy League schools, I knew immediately that Jovan was the right person to speak on Family Night,” the vice principal said. An adult “could speak for nine hours straight and never say what Jovan can say in a matter of minutes.“
Jovan flashes his winning grin when asked about all the “J” names in his family. Oldest brother Joshua is 26; Jonathan, 19; Jovan, 17; Jason, 15; and Jared, 6.
“All five of us are J’s; my dad is a J, and so is the store, Los Jaliscienses,” Orozco said, explaining that people born in Jalisco are called Jaliscienses.
When Jovan was born, the family lived in Redondo Beach but moved to Lawndale two months later. Jared came along after the Lawndale store became a reality in 2002.
“When I was a first grader, my dad started teaching me my multiplication tables,” Jovan said. “He was pretty strict about it, but it worked out because math is my best subject.”
His father has always been his biggest motivator, he said. “He would always (say), ‘Did you do your homework?’ If I didn’t do it, he’d get mad.”
As his father said later, "I have five boys, and Jovan is No. 3. I make sure they do their homework and go to school every single day. No matter (if) they have a stomach ache, they have to go to school."
In the days before the store, the Orozcos enjoyed a lot of family time, family dinners, trips to Las Vegas and every Christmas to Mexico, where the streets are blocked off for festivals and a New Year’s celebration goes from midnight to dawn, Jovan said.
“Once we opened up the store we didn’t have much time to be together,” he said. “We couldn’t have family meals. We’d always be working. Mom and dad worked 12 to 13 hours a day, every single day of the week, and they’d never take any days off.”
Son No. 3, now a store manager, has worked alongside his parents for 10 years. His father said Jovan runs the store and oversees the four employees whenever he and his wife are away.
Consequently, Jovan said, “I grew up early”—something he mentioned in his essays.
He believes his father’s strictness with regard to "making homework a first priority" grew out of the lessons he learned with his first born child.
Due to the divorce, “Joshua lived in a lot of different homes, went to four or five different high schools," His life was rough. So his education wasn’t that important to him. I guess that’s why my dad was harder on us.”
The second oldest son, Jonathan—a biochemistry major at the University of Riverside—intends to become a surgeon. Jason, a ninth grader at Leuzinger High, turned an important corner recently. “He had bad habits, behavior-wise but now he’s shaped up,” his brother said. “He has a 4.0 now.”
Surely the younger Orozco boys have a role model in Jovan, who has already received a $10,000 scholarship from Coca Cola. He was one of 250 college-bound students selected out of 84,000 applicants.
“It would be good even if there was no money,” Orozco said, explaining how the winners become “part of the Coca Cola family … a huge network of over 5,000 people all over the world.”
Recipients have entrée to jobs as well as places to stay, said the RUHS senior who went to Atlanta recently to accept the scholarship.
As far as motivating kids on the upcoming family night, he hopes to impart some of his secrets to getting into college.
“Desire is the secret of success,” said Jovan, who crystallized his thinking after reading about Andrew Carnegie, the 19th Century steel magnate and philanthropist who claimed that “desire” was the key to making it in this world.
“If you truly desire something, nothing can stop you,” he said. “In my head, I strongly believe it, because that’s what happened to my dad. Once you have the desire, everything comes to you.’
Other prerequisites, he said, are perseverance and a strong support group, especially family.
“I’m supporting my kids 100 percent,” Jose Orozco said. “Whatever they need, I want them to finish school. I told them, ‘I’m going to help you as much as I can. I want you to concentrate on whatever you are doing there.’ I don’t want them working. I want them to have a dream, too. Everybody has to have a dream.”
In one of his essays, Jovan “combined desire to succeed with (the story) of my dad’s store … how it helped me mature at a young age.”
And when he's not studying, tutoring others or helping at the store, you'll find him reading nonfiction; watching Touch on NBC; working out at a UFC gym and practicing his martial arts, kickboxing, boxing, Taekwondo and boxing; and following the Lakers. He’s been to three games this season.
“My dream, dream job would be manager of the Lakers,” he said.
He may just desire it enough to make it come true.