Grad Spotlight: Defying the Odds

At Visions’ 2024 graduation ceremony, senior Jesus L. stood on the Memorial Auditorium stage and gave a speech about his time at Visions. He spoke of his academic journey, his gratitude for staff, and his plans for the future, but what the crowd of peers, friends, and families didn’t know was that Jesus shouldn’t have even been on the stage that day.

A few years before graduation, Jesus and his family were unhoused. They had moved to California during the height of the pandemic, and Jesus was struggling with distance learning in his traditional brick and mortar school. Only a freshman, that should have been the time that Jesus was putting his graduation goal in motion, but life circumstances and lack of support prevented him from getting on the right track.

“While school was in distance learning, I found it hard to focus on school and many things in general,” shares Jesus. “When life had settled around the start of my 11th-grade year, I had decided to get back into school as I knew it was necessary. I enrolled in a local high school and I found the treatment of me as a student to be lacking. They had wanted to place me back into 9th grade and my graduation date was well beyond what I wanted.”

Jesus and his family eventually heard about Visions, and after only one interaction with Visions staff, knew it was the right fit for them.

“One phone call showed us more hospitality and understanding than we had experienced in my whole time coordinating with the local high school,” says Jesus. “They had me signed up for the next semester and that is when my journey at Visions started.”

A Second Chance

On paper, Jesus graduating on time looked impossible. Due to his difficulties at his former school, he was extremely credit deficient, and as an 11th grader, it looked like there was no way he would be able to catch up in time to graduate with his expected class.

But Jesus’ Independent Study Academy teachers, Jason Railing and Carolyn Foote, and counselors, Rija Gorkhali and Estrella Rosales, saw the potential in Jesus.

“Right from the start, Jesus showed remarkable motivation to achieve graduation,” says Rija. “When he realized that graduation [was] achievable, he seized the opportunity. Jesus dedicated himself wholeheartedly to his goal, not only aiming for graduation, but striving for more.”

While working with his teachers and counselors, Jesus felt respected, supported, and seen as an individual. The flexibility and personalized attention that he received afforded him access to important resources like school supplies and driver’s education, and helped put him back on track to graduate.

“With traditional school I felt restricted in what I could do. It is very scheduled and rigid in the sense that things are plotted out and without much flexibility. Ultimately I felt with traditional school that my time was being wasted, with the scheduling they gave me I wouldn’t be able to graduate until I was 19-20 and I was stuck in 9th grade classes,” explains Jesus. “Visions seemed to respect me as an individual enough to place me in my correct grade and allowed me to complete extra classes. With Visions, my time wasn’t wasted. I was able to add classes and attend summer school to fix my credits. There would be no way in a traditional setting that I could have done what I did at Visions.”

From Credit Deficient to Class of 2024 Graduate

Despite his remarkable comeback, what Jesus did wasn’t easy. He worked hard every single day to catch up to his peers, attending summer school, staying up late to finish his school work, and at one point, even completing 1-2 classes every week.

But Jesus’ efforts didn’t stop there. After receiving an email from Visions saying that he had been selected as one of the students for our reduced credit graduation, Jesus took this opportunity to strive for an even greater goal than graduating.

“This was an act of great grace given to me, and in my mind I couldn’t let such a thing go to waste,” shares Jesus. “Where before the goal was simply to graduate, my new goal was to go to college, which was never something I thought possible beforehand.”

With the support, resources, and time that Visions gave to Jesus, after a year and a half of hard work, he found himself graduating with the Class of 2024, heading to Rowan University on a scholarship, and sharing his story in front of thousands of people on graduation day (see below).

“My motivation to fix my grades was due to a variety of factors, but at the heart of it all was wishing better for myself. I saw what poverty can do to someone first hand. I had no money or resources to turn my life around any other way but education. If I was to achieve anything in life I had to start the journey.”

A Lifelong Impact

Jesus still isn’t used to his successes. It’s the people around him – his family, his girlfriend, and Visions staff – who remind him of all that he’s accomplished during his time here.

“In my mind I am still the same student who was used to not succeeding. I read emails and texts from either Visions or colleges and think, ‘You’re talking about me?’. I was accepted into a nice school with a nice scholarship, something I never would have thought could be possible for me, and if the person I was when I was 12-15 saw who I am today, they would not believe that I was really them. I am beyond grateful for all the successes I enjoy today.”

When asked how he would describe his experience with Visions, Jesus simply said, “My time at Visions was that of redemption, a triumph over all the sufferings of my life, and a dedication to something greater.”Jesus now feels empowered and excited to build something with his life, a testament to the way that Visions can change lives.

“I would simply like to add how grateful I am for Visions. Without their help I would never be where I am today. They were the ones who gave me a chance and treated me with the respect and grace I needed to succeed. Too much does it seem that people are not dedicated to what they claim, but the same could not be said for the people at Visions.I feel that truly and honestly everyone in the organization has a great dedication to education that is truly admirable.”

To Other Students Like Jesus…

“The best thing someone can do is to realize that you are the defining factor in [your] situation. Whilst many things can happen in life, you are the only one who can bring about change. The hardest part of this process is to start, building the work ethic to succeed is quite the undertaking, but once you are able to, it becomes second nature. Hard work is something that will be non-negotiable, you will have to do things that seem tedious or daunting, again and again, but you must realize that you are stronger than anything in front of you.”