WORTHINGTON - From her kindergarten classroom at Prairie Elementary to graduation day on May 24, Mariel Castaneda has left her mark on the 2019 class of Worthington High School.

With hard work and dedication, her goal is to return to the community that shaped her and continue to make an impact in immigration law.

Castaneda will attend St. Catherine University in Minneapolis-St. Paul this fall to pursue her bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in Spanish communications. Once she graduates, she then intends to enroll in law school.

Castaneda doesn’t see herself becoming a career politician, but rather to work as an immigration attorney.

“I’m going to continue in political activism, especially in the metro area in upcoming 2020,” she said.

Castaneda’s interest in politics began in elementary school, when events were planned to honor Martin Luther King Jr., and programs were conducted for Veteran’s Day.

“I always felt that these events resonated with me more than other students because I … was more understanding and more open to what their real meanings were,” she said.

Then, during her freshman year of high school, Castaneda stepped up to coordinate, in conjunction with events around the country, “A Day Without Immigrants” at WHS.

Castaneda recalled the hostility and arguments that cropped up among friends and classmates earlier that week about whether or not the event should happen.

“It wasn’t until the day before, in the spur of the moment, I said, ‘What if we participated in this?’” she said.

Castaneda created an online poll asking just that, and within a short amount of time, more than 200 students responded that they were going. The plan was to show up at school, stay through the morning’s Pledge of Allegiance and then walk out in solidarity.

Initially, Castaneda said about 40 students walked out, with more joining in throughout the day. By the time school was out, more than 200 students and community members standing along Marine Avenue.

Three years later, Castaneda said consequences from that event remain.

“I did cause a lot of controversy and hostility within the school - among students and staff - which is why I don’t know if I would plan something as big as an event again,” she said, adding that she would like to, instead, see people take a moment of silence to recognize that this country - and this community - were built on immigrants.

Throughout her high school years, Castaneda has found mentors and leaders among her educators. Among them is Sam Becker.

“Since my freshman year, she’s just encouraged me and inspired me to be the best that I can be - even when I didn’t want to give my best,” she said.

She called Jodi Hansen a sweetheart, an amazing teacher and “as a person in the school to be able to go to and be free to talk to and feel 100% safe with, she was that person for me and so many other students.”

Castaneda said she forged a strong connection with her homeroom advisor, Jennifer Buchholz, and found former WHS teacher Gillian Singler to be an advocate who supported and encouraged her students to be the best they could be.

In school, Castaneda participated in speech in each of the past four years, and is also a member of the Worthington Trojan marching band and concert choir. Most of her extra-curricular activities were outside the halls of WHS, volunteering with the nonprofit organization, Be the Change, which is geared toward empowering young students to be local leaders.

Castaneda also pointed to local political leaders Ivan Parga and Cheniqua Johnson for mentoring her and helping her get her foot in the door.

During the 2018 elections, Castaneda served as co-campaign manager for Johnson, who sought the District 22B seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She also worked with the Dan Feehan campaign.

“I do come from a conservative family, so we don’t really share a lot of similar beliefs and opinions, but regardless of that, I’ve really had a strong support system at home,” Castaneda shared. “My parents and my siblings, they supported me in  whatever I wanted to do - transportation, and sometimes they walked along the parade route with me as well.”

Castaneda is the second youngest of five, with older sisters Crystal Guerra and Cynthia Rivera married and living in Sleepy Eye and Worthington, respectively, older brother Manuel Dominguez, a soon-to-be graduate of Alexandria Technical College’s law enforcement program, and younger sister Kiara Castaneda, who attends Worthington High School. Her parents are Eddica and Sergio Castaneda.

Castaneda intends to return to Worthington after she completes law school to give back to the community.

“This is home. There’s that saying that home is where your heart is, and that’s definitely Worthington,” she said. “Worthington has had a lot of ups and downs and there’s been a lot of controversy, but I feel in general there’s a lot of good people here in Worthington. There’s a lot of work to do, and a lot of people are willing to do the work. I’m just so proud of my Worthington community.”