Above, Hamilton High French teacher Elizabeth Colker congratulates Dennis Portillo for choosing to attend Yale University, her alma mater.
This is part of a series of stories about outstanding graduates of the Class of 2018.
by Justin Frank
Local District West
Alexander Hamilton High School graduating senior Dennis Portillo started his college search one restless night when he was in the tenth grade. Lying in bed and unable to sleep, Dennis began surfing the Internet.
“I started researching all the top schools,” he recalled . “I thought, ‘No way I’ll be able to get into any of these.’”
Fast-forward two years, and Portillo’s self-doubts are gone. He is graduating from Hamilton with a 4.4 grade-point average and will be attending Yale University in the fall. He credits his family, friends and teachers as well as a great deal of hard work.
Portillo, who entered school as an English-learner and was reclassified as proficient in third grade, claims his success started with Gratemalan-born parents. His father is a construction worker and mother is a stay-at-home mom.
“My family has always been my number one fan,” he said. “Anything I ask them to do – ‘Please take me here,’ ‘Sign me up for that, ‘Can you pick this up from the store from me?’ – they have done for me without question.”
Portillo attended Tom Bradley, Fifty-second Street and Windsor Hills Elementary Schools and Palms Middle School before coming to Hamilton. He said the support he received from Veronica Yah, the high school’s Humanities Magnet counselor, made a tremendous difference in his educational experience.
“Dr. Yah is always checking up on me personally and as a student,” he said. “It means a lot to me. She recommended many schools and programs I wouldn’t have looked at otherwise.”
Reflecting on the personal growth he’s undergone at Hamilton; Portillo remembers taking a freshman philosophy class taught by the late Alan Kaplan.
“I was very shy and reserved when I first started high school,” he said. “I was very frightened and nervous every day when I walked into Mr. Kaplan’s class. But I ended up appreciating it as time went on, and I look at it as the reason I am who I am today.”
Besides Yale, Portillo was accepted by UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Duke, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities. He chose Yale after a family trip to the campus, made possible when he became one of 20 winners of the Yale Bassett Award.
Hamilton High principal Benda Pensamiento acknowledged Dennis’ ability to connect with family, friends and faculty as one his strongest characteristics.
“To me, Dennis is the perfect example of the phrase ‘Sí se puede (Yes, you can),” she said. “But what really stands out for me is his humility. He is so kind, caring and giving.”
Portillo plans to double major in humanities and biology and hopes to become a doctor.
Despite college taking him across the country, Portillo intends to return home to California.
“My goal is come back in four years, come home and appreciate it more than ever,” he said.
Pensamiento says Dennis is among those students that she will remember for a lifetime.
“You meet so many students that help shape your style and philosophy as an educator,” she said. “There are others that simply make a life lasting impact … that’s Dennis. As his principal, it will be my great honor to hand him his diploma on June 6.”