Growing up in a large family, Valerie Chavez saw her parents work hard and value education.

She's relying on those examples in her own life as she plans for college, possibly moving out of state and the independence of young adulthood.

The Petaluma youth will be the first person in her immediate family to attend college, and she plans on ultimately becoming an emergency room doctor.

The 17-year-old Casa Grande High School student is a straight-A student and is awaiting word back from the 18 universities she applied to.

"That dedication and determination is something you get from growing up in a Latino culture," she said. "The family is patriarchal. My dad fosters the ability to argue a point, the ability to win an argument. That gave me the ability to fight for what I want."

Chavez's mother is a medical assistant at the Petaluma Health Center, which in part sparked her interest in medicine.

"She has a deep admiration for the doctors and their work, and I also gained that respect," she said.

Last summer, Chavez took a junior college class in health careers.

"I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but wasn't sure of a specialty. I heard the head ER doctor from Kaiser speak and I knew I wanted to do that. I like how they are able to help people immediately."

She also said she has a "sense of adventure" that an ER doc may experience: "I'm a really up-and-go person."

Chavez also serves on Petaluma's Youth Commission, a group of teens and adults who advise the City Council on issues related to young people in town. It also takes on several challenges each year to benefit youths.

Chavez is helping plan a job fair for teens, which is set for April 30 on the Casa campus.

"We want to have several employers throughout Petaluma who hire youth have a booth to explain what youths might be doing there if hired," she said. She's compiling a list of "youth-friendly" employers now and hopes the fair can connect them with willing teens.

Carol Eber, an adult Youth Commission member, described Chavez as "impressive."

"She's really done a lot of activities in the community," she said. "She's a high-achieving student and is a role model within the community."

Chavez describes herself as "determined, responsible and ambitious," but acknowledges she could learn better life skills, "like cooking," she said.

But as she finishes out her senior year, she will relish the time left with her family: parents, three younger sisters — including a 3-month-old — and her 44 cousins. The family has Sunday dinner at her grandmother's each week.

"I really have a great sense of community with my family," she said. "It's important knowing I have that support system to rely on."

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)