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Graduating senior Sean Fortenberry, 18, poses for a photograph in a classroom at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Calif., Monday June 10, 2013. Fortenberry will be attending UC Berkeley in the fall. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG -- Students stop going to high school for many reasons. In the case of Sean Fortenberry, it was the tragic loss of both parents within months of each other, an event that turned his world upside down.

Three years ago, his mother died of emphysema and kidney failure, followed by the death of his father a few months later from lung cancer.

"I took a year off. I was so devastated and traumatized because of what I experienced," he said of the junior year he missed at Concord High. "I just wondered about all the terrible things that had happened.

"It was a very depressed time for me. I was pretty much just festering in my world."

Fast forward to this week, when Fortenberry graduated from Pittsburg High School with a 3.7 grade-point average. And he can't wait to attend UC Berkeley this fall.

"I'm going to Cal," he said with a jaunty tone of voice. "I don't have a particular major, but I'm probably going to lean toward mathematics or economics."

Fortenberry credits his 27-year-old brother, James Terlinde, with encouraging him to stick with school and helping him become more independent and self-reliant.

About a year after their parents died, the brothers moved to Pittsburg from Concord because the family home had a reverse mortgage and they were unable to take over the loan payments.

Terlinde would drop off his brother and pick him up from school.

"Being responsible, he made it easy on me," Terlinde said. "He did it on his own. I never had to push him. He is motivated. He wants to be the best and get an education and keep his mind on school with everything that's going on."

Fortenberry returned to school in 2011, starting his junior year at Pittsburg High. It wasn't easy at first. He had always been a good student but was still struggling with the loss of his parents, and his grades suffered.

But his grades and outlook improved as the school year progressed, thanks to encouragement and talks that he had with his advanced placement English language and composition teacher, Steve Nordenstedt.

"He helped me a lot and deal with a lot of issues," said Fortenberry, who was earning straight A's by the end of his junior year.

"Sean is an amazing young man who somehow managed to make school his refuge from the problems that have plagued him since his parents died and he was forced to leave his home in Concord to attend school here at Pittsburg High," Nordenstedt wrote in an email. "He is an old soul, but he also has a real warmth about him that makes him a joy to be around. He has a wide range of friends, and his dedication to this school and the students makes him someone who people have the utmost respect for."

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

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