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Paloma Romero has one hobby: running.

The Piner High School senior, 17, is the defending Sonoma County League cross country champion this year, and hopes to qualify for the state championship meet in November.

"Running is my way of relieving stress, because school can get stressful sometimes," said Romero. "But I also enjoy pushing myself and I like the team a lot."

Romero also competes in track & field, and won the 3,200 meter final at the Meet of Champions in May with a time of 11:39.

"She runs the most and she runs the hardest," said Romero's coach, Luis Rosales. "She's one of those quiet leaders and brings a great example to the team."

Several colleges have already expressed interest in Romero's running prowess, but mixed with her athletic talent is her academic success.

"She approaches school like she approaches practice — very aggressive," said Rosales.

On track to be a first-generation college student, Romero arrived in the U.S. from her native Mexico in 2008. She made the journey to Santa Rosa with her mother and two siblings to join her father, who has lived in the U.S. since 1993.

Entering Comstock Middle School as a seventh-grader, Romero struggled with language barriers and cultural differences.

"It was culture shocking," said Romero. "I didn't really speak English and I fell behind a little bit because I couldn't understand what the teacher was saying."

Yet Romero bounced back quickly, and began to excel academically during her freshman year at Piner. By her junior year, she began taking AP classes.

Her drive caught the attention of Piner English teacher Simone Spearman, who encouraged her to take the AP exams.

"Paloma broke all of the textbook models in (ESL) class," said Spearman. "Her piercing eyes are what I remember — she wanted more from me."

Spearman noted that Romero also didn't allow a new culture to prevent her from embracing a high school experience.

"She was very nervous about &‘sounding Mexican,' but she pushed through it and participated in sports," said Spearman. "She looked prejudice in the eye and said, &‘I won't let it stop me.' " Romero considers Spearman one of her academic inspirations, and appreciates Spearman's help along the way.

"She's pushed me a little bit — she thought I could do academic English, and once I got there she spent extra time with me because she knew I needed that help," said Romero.

During her time at Piner, Romero participated in a program called Summer Search, which assists low-income students with college preparation and leadership skills. The program also provides scholarships for summer educational programs, and Romero journeyed to Mexico for six weeks during this past summer. She volunteered as a health workshop teacher for kids and assisted with setting up a garbage system for the local residents.

"It was important to me to go to Mexico because I hadn't been back since I moved to the U.S.," said Romero. "It was shocking — I would never have expected to come back as a volunteer to my own country."

The experience changed her, and Romero is considering taking a year off after college to work for a nonprofit group like Summer Search. In the meantime, she's looking at becoming a political science major.

Romero's dream school is Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but she is concerned about whether her running skills can meet the demands of a Division I team.

"Academically, she could get into these Division I schools, which presents a dilemma athletically," said Rosales. "She's going to get way better athletically still, but she'll have to decide &‘how big is running going to be in my life during the next four years?' " If Romero pursues collegiate running, she may consider a Division III school such as St. Mary's College in Moraga.

Though graduation and change lie ahead for Romero, Spearman is confident she will adapt well.

"We often fear change, but Paloma embraced change," said Spearman. "She studied change, she dissected change and she saw beauty in change. She inspires me to appreciate what I have at this moment, but to also be open to change."