Two former truants now within a year of graduation said their return to school hinged on a sense of purpose.
In a March 15 interview, Lydia Marquez and Cassandra VanDoren, both 16-year-old juniors at ASPIRE, characterized adolescence as a constant physical, psychological and spiritual struggle to find that purpose. As Marquez said, triumph comes from “having that inside yourself.”
“I want to be successful in my own life,” she said. “I have that mind-set. I want to graduate. I need do this.”
For both Indian Hills residents, school has become a foundation on which to build the structure of their lives.
“They have high expectations for me. I’m expected to go above and beyond,” said Marquez. “I’ve definitely found purpose here.”
“Once you have that purpose,” said VanDoren, “it’s not just other people you want to push you. You want to push yourself.”
The best friends weren’t always so keen on school or the law that requires attendance for all students between the ages of 7 and 18.
They were frank about their past experiences. Their academic struggles began in middle school, though their lives hadn’t necessarily been easy before then.
“I had a rough family life,” said Marquez. “I was trying to cope with situations that way, using drugs, escaping.”
In the seventh and eighth grade, Marquez was already experimenting with marijuana, pills, and ecstasy. She was hanging out with “the older people.”
“I would go to school high, with no motivation,” she said. “I didn’t care about anything.”
Marquez said she started missing about 25 days a semester. Her grades tanked as a result.
“I thought about the future, but I thought, ‘Whatever, I’m young,’” she recalled. “That’s pretty much how us teenagers think.”
VanDoren, who was friends with Marquez in middle school, had similar experiences growing up. Although her home was “stable materially,” she said she had to raise herself in many respects.
“The way I grew up, I had to be a go-getter,” she said. “I had to do things on my own, for myself.”
VanDoren also experimented with drugs. Partying became her focus. By the eighth grade, her academic career was in serious jeopardy.
“I was in too much trouble,” she said. “I hung out with the older people, too. I wanted freedom.”
In some cases, the root causes of truancy are complex, involving a host of socioeconomic and behavioral factors.
In others cases, the causes are simple.
VanDoren cited boredom.
“I always felt there was something better to do,” she said. “Since the seventh grade, I’ve wanted to do my own thing.”
Marquez cited laziness.
“I just didn’t want to wake up early and go to school,” she said.
Miki Trujillo, who teaches the two students at ASPIRE, cited a “culture of instant gratification,” in which self-discipline is defeated by self-indulgence.
“Sometimes kids need hope. We build a culture of hope here,” Trujillo said. “They start believing they can make a difference.”
The students described hope itself as the precursor to purpose.
“Hope is faith that something can happen, that something different is possible,” said VanDoren.
Thus purpose becomes the engine, the drive, toward that perceived difference.
For Marquez, the turning point came in the form of a trusted friend enrolled in ASPIRE, who showed her there was another way. Marquez joined the alternative school in ninth grade.
“At first, I was iffy about all the structure,” she said. “But coming here, I saw how the teachers cared, how different it was.”
For VanDoren, who also joined ASPIRE as a freshman, the turning point was a stark realization.
“I actually left school for a while,” she said. “I had so much free time. Seeing the other people who had left school, who’d done nothing with their lives, I knew I didn’t want to be like them.”
Both students have since committed to school. Their attendance and grades have improved dramatically, and they’re on course to graduate next January, a semester early.
Marquez plans on attending community college for two years then transferring to a California university. She’s interested in two fields: business, specifically owning a beauty shop, and criminal justice.
“I want to be very successful, and I want to be able to give my family things,” she said. “I want to make a difference in the world and have people look back and say, ‘That girl changed this.’”
VanDoren is beginning to apply for jobs to save money for her higher education. She plans on starting at Western Nevada College and then transferring to University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Through ASPIRE, shes’s already become certified in Adobe Photoshop, and would like to pursue a career in graphic design.
“I want to have a career,” she said, “and provide for myself without a struggle.”
Any struggle is something the best friends plan to endure together. Without the financial resources other kids their age have, they know they must work hard, save money, and pay for college themselves.
They also know that old habits die hard. Plenty of obstacles lie in their way.
“It’s hard,” said VanDoren. “But now we have the tools to make it easier.”
“Kids want to be social and party,” said Marquez. “But once you’re done with high school, those kids won’t be there. You need to focus on yourself and your own goals.”
“Live in the now but think of the future,” added VanDoren. “Do what you have to do today to get where you want to be tomorrow.”