OAKLEY -- Look for the girl with the curly hair, Lizet Pantoja-Perez had told the interviewer.

But when the 17-year-old showed up for the appointment the next day, her waist-length tresses were perfectly straight.

It's to be expected that someone interested in cosmetology would experiment with hair styles, but Pantoja-Perez is an anomaly; once the Oakley teen graduates from Freedom High School on Saturday she'll start working on a career as a scientist.

"Yeah, I think differently from others sometimes," she said, giggling at the suggestion that she's unusual.

Over the years Pantoja-Perez loaded up on tough academic courses -- eight Advanced Placement classes from calculus and biology to economics and English literature -- and she plans on majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of three UC schools that sent her an acceptance letter.

This daughter of Mexican immigrants is the first of her four siblings to attend college, encouraged by her family's pride in her 4.1 grade-point average and an eighth-grade English teacher who would pen enthusiastic remarks in the margins of the journal where she wrote of her dreams for the future.

She always has loved science, says Pantoja-Perez, who wants to study genetics at UCLA.


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And yet she was also open to exploring a nonacademic track when a friend who was planning to study cosmetology at Antioch's Delta Beauty College suggested that she join her.

Pantoja-Perez's father also liked the idea, saying she could use those skills to contribute toward the approximately $9,000 in annual college costs that financial aid and scholarships won't cover.

"I just love learning and here's another thing to learn," she said of her decision to enroll as a part-time student in the 1,600-hour course.

And so it was that in January 2012 Pantoja-Perez set out on a road less traveled, squeezing in lectures on how to apply acrylic nails and perform facials between her studies at Freedom.

And she wasn't on the usual two-year plan; Pantoja-Perez knew she'd have to finish sooner if she wanted to get her state license before heading off to college.

The daily routine was grueling: As soon as her classes at Freedom let out, she'd hustle over to Antioch for three hours of lessons at the beauty college, then go home and tackle at least two hours of homework -- and often more -- for her six high school courses.

Beauty school was an all-day commitment every Saturday, and that summer Pantoja-Perez spent 40 hours a week in class as well as over school breaks.

"There were some times when (I asked myself) is it really worth it?" she said. "Sometimes it would get overwhelming."

But she persevered and completed the schooling in mid-March, passing the exam to receive her state license a month later.

Pantoja-Perez made sacrifices along the way: There was little time to kick back and when she did, the fun wasn't spontaneous.

"I'd have to plan a lot in advance," she said of the occasions she'd accompany her parents to a party or browse the shelves at Barnes & Noble with her sister.

The hours Pantoja-Perez had to log at the cosmetology school prevented her from attending her younger sister's eighth-grade graduation ceremony last summer ("She still holds it against me") and all of Freedom's football games this year.

Her consolation is believing that the effort will pay off.

"It opens another opportunity for different careers," said Pantoja-Perez, who's been contemplating ways that she might combine a science degree with beauty school know-how.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.