BELLOWS FALLS -- The secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education told Bellows Falls Middle School students an education is the key to a happy life and can unlock a world of opportunities in the United States. After all, he is a living example.

Armando Vilaseca took the two-hour drive from Montpelier to Bellows Falls Monday morning at the invitation of BFMS to speak to the student body about the importance of staying in school and avoiding drugs. The talk was part of Red Ribbon Week, an alcohol, tobacco, drug and violence prevention awareness campaign held in the United States each October. Vilaseca spoke in the auditorium before touring the newly-renovated building with some students and Principal Heidi Lucas-Moccia.

The education secretary thanked the students for hosting him and commented on how beautiful the new building is.

"I was here years ago but now that you have the renovations, I think it just looks fabulous," he said. This is the first academic year students and staff can enjoy the fruits of the $10.5 million renovation project.

Vilaseca told the students in the auditorium they are growing up in a challenging age, as things such as technology and standards are constantly changing. He said pursuing education after high school is the best way to ensure a bright future for oneself.

"One thing you need to do is finish your education in some way -- a four-year school, two-year school, technical school, internship, apprenticeship if you want to go into the trades," he said. "It's really, really, really important to continue your education once you get out of high school."

He spoke about personal learning plans (PLPs), which help students realize which field they want to enter by getting them the proper experience, and the importance of learning a second language, noting that he was born in Cuba and grew up speaking Spanish. He also said 40 to 50 million American citizens speak the language.

Vilaseca, who has more than 30 years of experience in the Vermont school system and got his start as a teacher in Georgia, Vt., said anything is possible with a good education.

"One of the many great things about our country is that you can do whatever you want to do. Who ever would have thought we'd have an African-American president 10 years ago, 25 years ago?" he said. "Could the first woman president of the United States be in this room? Who knows? Hopefully not -- hopefully not the first, but maybe the second."

Lucas-Moccia said everyone involved with the school is excited about PLPs, which were started last year, and she was glad Vilaseca mentioned it in his talk.

"It's truly an honor to have somebody from the state come down to speak to our kids and to want to stay for a while and visit and be in classrooms," she said. "I feel honored that he said yes to show up here."

According to information from Lucas-Moccia, Red Ribbon Week is the oldest and largest drug prevention campaign in the nation. It emerged from the efforts of Camarena Clubs in Imperial Valley, Calif., where Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was born. Camarena overcame a life to poverty to graduate from college, enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps and become a police officer before joining the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

He was sent to work undercover in Mexico, investigating a major drug cartel thought to include officers in the Mexican army, police and government. On Feb. 7, 1985, he left his office to meet his wife for lunch and was kidnapped by five men. He was then tortured to death and his body was found one month later. Camarena's Congressman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, and a high school friend launched Camarena Clubs to recruit Americans to live drug-free lives to honor Camarena's life. Red badges of satin soon became a symbol of Camarena's life and Red Ribbon Week blossomed from the effort.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.