Rafael Urrea has never boarded a commercial flight before.

But when he graduated from Raisbeck Aviation High School last week, the 18-year-old was a few hours shy of getting his pilot’s license and a summer away from a full ride to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — milestones he racked up while working a part-time job at Chick-fil-A and volunteering.

At one point, Rafael said he considered a career in professional baseball. But he instead chose to become a pilot, like his grandfather, an Air Force veteran who helped raise him and who died the day Rafael found out he was admitted to Raisbeck.

The path leading up to that moment already presented challenges, he said, especially at the beginning of high school. Rafael, whose family is Latino, said he noticed from the outset that aviation was a white dominated field. The schools he attended before, which he said were in impoverished areas, hadn’t prepared him for the workload expected at Raisbeck — a STEM-focused public school in the Highline district with deep ties to the aviation industry.

Rafael, who said he’d always excelled at math and science, initially found himself struggling to keep up with the workload, which demanded three or four hours of homework a night.

Given the constraints of the pandemic, he hadn’t expected any big event to celebrate overcoming these challenges. The coronavirus interfered with his parents’ vision of a grand graduation party complete with a mariachi band, a nod to his Mexican roots.

But he got the next best thing: riding in his school’s drive-thru graduation, held in the parking lot of the Museum of Flight, with his head stuck through the sunroof of a pristine, turquoise 1964 Chevy Impala lowrider, owned by his cousin Stephen Cheadle, a member of the Eazy Duz It Car Club. 

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His immediate family followed closely behind in a white Hyundai, holding signs with pictures of Rafael and his grandfather on them. 

He got out of the car briefly to grab his diploma, take pictures and bump elbows with district and school officials, who stood under black tents. After hugging his family through the car window, he then he rode out in style, the lowrider bouncing up and down as teachers, lined up holding signs and pool noodles, cheered him out. 

Delia, his mother, said she had tears in her eyes — both from pride and because the moment was short. She’s holding out for a bigger party in July, when she’s booked some space at a local golf course.

Rafael was pleasantly surprised with the school’s commencement.

“It actually felt like a real graduation,” he said. He decorated his cap with the words, “They migrated so I graduated,” a nod to the sacrifices that his family and father, Rafael Urrea Sr., made when they moved to the U.S. 

Rafael Urrea’s graduation cap sits on his cousin’s 1964 Chevy Impala at Urrea’s home in SeaTac, Wash., on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Rafael Urrea’s graduation cap sits on his cousin’s 1964 Chevy Impala at Urrea’s home in SeaTac, Wash., on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Back at his home in SeaTac, Rafael examined the awards and farewell notes from his teachers. His childhood friends and relatives, who praised him for his humility and work ethic, gathered in the driveway. 

He was in the first graduating class, whose roughly 80 students had gained acceptance to Raisbeck through a lottery system. The district instituted this change in 2016 after noticing the “merit-based” application process resulted in a largely white and male student body — a stark contrast to the rest of the South King County school district, which enrolls mostly students of color at an equal gender split.

For the first few years, Rafael said, many of his peers admitted through the lottery system heard demeaning remarks about their presence at the school from alumni and students at the school who had been admitted the “old way” — even though the lottery system still requires an application with essays and an interview. 

One of his other dreams, aside from becoming a pilot for a commercial airline, is to open a school like Raisbeck but with an open admission policy rather than a lottery, so all interested students could enroll, he said.

Until then, he’ll keep flying.