GRANGER, Wash. — It hasn’t been an easy year for Maria Rivera.

She knew her last year at Granger High School would be difficult — she was signed up for calculus, after all — but what she didn’t expect was having to deal with the worst tragedy of her life.

Just before school started last fall, Rivera’s 15-year-old sister, Yasmin, was killed in a car accident. That loss has affected everything Rivera has done since.

“Because of her, I’ve tried harder,” Rivera explains.

Instead of retreating into a shell. Rivera took the hardest classes she could and excelled.

“Maria is a strong academic student, a really bright and nice young lady,” says Greg Herrera, school counselor. “Despite all the loss and grieving, she remained focused on her goals and dedicated it all to her sister’s memory.”

Rivera will be the first in her family to attend college when she enrolls in Heritage University in Toppenish in the fall. She intends to study there for a year, then transfer to Warner Pacific College in Portland, where she’ll major in psychology. She’d like to be a counselor someday and work with children, possibly in a hospital setting.

She’s staying close to home for her first year in college because “it’s hard for my mom to have me gone.”

In addition to Maria and Yasmin, Rivera’s parents, Jose and Maria, have two younger children, Karla and Carlos.

To earn money for college, Rivera intends to sell life insurance this summer. “I didn’t know anything about life insurance, but I took a class in Prosser about it.”

Just as she hunkered down and concentrated on her studies, Rivera devoted energy to two sports this year, wrestling and track. One of four girls on the wrestling squad, she earned a sixth-place trophy at the state tournament as a junior. One of the reasons she’s chosen Warner Pacific is it offers a women’s wrestling program.

Rivera is also gifted at track and field, specifically discus.

As busy as this year has been, she makes time at least weekly to visit Yasmin’s grave. Just two years apart, the sisters were sometimes mistaken for twins, Rivera recalls. But Yasmin was clearly her own person, she says. “She expressed herself more and was louder than me. She never hesitated, but I do.”

It makes Rivera sad to see other sisters together; she says there are four pairs at Granger High School.

Rivera sometimes wears Yasmin’s clothes to feel close to her; she’s particularly likes her sister’s San Francisco 49ers jersey, Yasmin’s favorite team, and roots for them now, too.

Although she’d give anything to have her sister back, Rivera says the accident has taught her a valuable lesson. “Instead of it being a negative, I use it to be positive about every day that’s given to me,” she says.

“I try to make every day worth it.”