Tiffany Krupner is a senior at Alleghany High School in Sparta, North Carolina, a rural Appalachian town surrounded by fields, Christmas trees farms, and little else. For Tiffany and thousands of high school seniors across the country, college applications and decisions about life after high school are looming overhead. Decisions about finances, jobs, family, and whether college is the right path for them. I worked with Tiffany and three of her classmates in a program designed to discuss these very issues. The program paired current college students like myself with high school seniors to help inform them about college life and the importance of education after high school. We called it ASULead (or AsYouLead), to play on the initials of Appalachian State University.
Now, as a prospective teacher, I’ve mentored several high school aged students. However I soon noticed that unlike many college-bound students, and unlike myself, Tiffany and three of her peers at Alleghany High School experience extraordinary challenges. Their ability to rise to these challenges may make them some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met.
For instance. if you ask Tiffany what her biggest challenge is, she’d tell you this:
“I would tell you that I have problems with hearing and (aid?) and I have problems speaking the words and all that…and let’s see…anything else I’m gonna tell you.”
Tiffany has profoundly limited hearing; something she and her family discovered when she took a hearing test called “MAP” at 4 years old. Not being able to hear herself talk, Tiffany recognizes it affects her speech, making it sometimes hard for people to understand her.
“I just started in 4 or 3 years, years old. And then when I went into Chapel Hill, you know we had MAP and all that, I was like, I have no clue what I’m doing. I had no clue I had hearing problem, and all that. And I have a speak, when I try to speak, when I try to say mama or daddy what’s that anything like that I’m trying to say the words. And we did MAP test like hearing testing if I put something here if I could hear it then I would put it down. And they could test me whether I was doing good or not good.”
“Sometimes they wouldn’t understand me, but I can practice words and they will understand me. And I have speech therapy.”
The really unique thing about Tiffany is that despite the challenges she has associated with her limited hearing, she is one of the most outgoing and friendly people you will ever meet. She is also determined to attend college, but first and foremost she wants to secure something we can all relate to. A driver’s license. But for her, getting a license and a car is a little more complicated.
“I’ll try to get me license see if I can get a license and a car. And I have trouble passing license because of my hearing and understanding the words. I’m gonna try and pass it and go to college, and then after that work on a job.” “What are your plans for college?” “Photography, I mean computer technology, and then the graphic design”
Tiffany plans on first attending Wilkes Community College for 2 years and then perhaps transferring to Appalachian State. However, one thing she and all the students at Alleghany will admit is that college is expensive, and paying for it will be difficult. Nobody could describe this sentiment better than Denise Perez, another senior at Alleghany High School who I met through the ASULead program. The overwhelmed tone that Denise uses is familiar to me, as a college student who routinely struggles to make ends meet.
“Um…paying for college…well I want to do a community college and I know that a community college is payable. But then to go to a university, I’m probably going to have to get financial help. (nervous laugh) From the government. (nervous laugh) And then pay back. But I mean, I’ve really thought about if…if my annual pay can’t pay for one year at that college I probably shouldn’t go there.”
I should probably mention at this point that Denise would not be your typical “high school senior, soon-to-be college freshman” either. She is determined to be an individual and she even has the tenacious attitude to back it up. I think one of her recent status updates on Facebook sums it up the best. She wrote: “I love my child, he means the world to me, but those people who judge me just because I’m a teen mom mind your own business. You think my life is over but it’s just begun and I will prove you wrong.”
“This girl she said something to me like you’re gonna end up dropping out, and I was like, I’m not gonna drop out. I know I’m not gonna drop out cause I’m not going to. And there was a lot of stuff that went on over my pregnancy and a lot of people said you’re just gonna end up quitting. And I’m like, I don’t quit. What kind of stuff went on? Well I mean, also arguments with my parents, and there’s a lot of people doubting on me.
Denise, at 18 years old, is the mother of a one year old boy named Romeo. And those arguments she mentions with her parents? They were mainly over whether or not she should get an abortion. However, Denise is very happy to report that despite those early arguments, her parents now support her and her son fully. In fact, they’re crazy about Romeo.
“My mom? She loves him. She…like…when she started working, she was like I miss him, I’m like I know how you feel mom, I know how you feel mom, I know how you feel. It’s just so hard to let go, but you have to. I was like, now I know how you feel when you started letting me go out places, like, I don’t feel like he’s old enough yet, but you gotta let him change.”
Pretty soon Denise will be undergoing some changes too. Big ones. Like graduating from high school, going to college kind of big. And although she spends a lot of time raising a child, she still finds the time to go above and beyond in her academics. Denise could have graduated from high school a semester early, but instead chose to stick around and gather college credits through free dual enrollment courses offered at her high school. She says that motivation stems from the lack of education she’s seen in both of her parents.
“Some people think education isn’t important, but I think it’s good for you, yourself to be educated. Especially, I think my parents wish they would have gotten the education that I have. I mean, just the 12th grade, that’s so different from them. And i mean, I think my parents wish they could’ve gotten to live the way I live, rather than what they went through.”
That feeling actually isn’t too unique for many students coming from under-educated households. In a recent American Community Survey, only about 16% of the people who live in Alleghany county have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Less education means more un-skilled labor, a truth Alleghany High School senior Jesus Garcia sees every day.
“Well I mean i think it’s a pretty good thing because you can get good jobs if you’ve got a college degree. You wouldn’t be out here working just on side jobs and stuff, you would have a job that would, you know, be there for you everyday even though even if you got snow and stuff you still got that job. And it gives you a lot more options for jobs to apply to.”
Job options are important to Jesus because although he is working on graduating from high school, he constantly does odd-jobs and manual labor around the community with his parents. Lately, he’s been a manager at one of the many Christmas tree farms, helping cut, load, and ship Christmas trees to be delivered to communities all over the state. During the summer, all of his work and responsibilities almost prevented him from attending the first ASULead camp, a week-long session designed to teach students leadership skills through various fun, team-oriented activities like kayaking and rock climbing.
“I got up early and everything, like 5 o clock and stuff, putting the cows in and stuff, and I had remembered that I had that camp and everything but I was tired where I had to get up early and everything and then I came back and I just laid down and everything and she called me up and said are you gonna come and I was like well I’m still in the bed right now cause I had just came back in. And so I was like I’m just gonna go cause it’s better stuff to do and everything, you know, get you prepared for college and have a good time at college.”
Despite his remarkable drive and work ethic, it looks like the biggest obstacle between him and college boils down to an issue with his birth certificate. Jesus’s parents were both born in Vera Cruz, Mexico and immigrated to the United States on uncertain terms. That meant that when Jesus was born 19 years ago in El Paso, Texas, he wasn’t issued an official American birth certificate.
“Like where I was born and everything close to the borderline of Mexico and stuff they had brought my certificate and everything you know and it counted as where my mom and dad was born and like we worked and everything, they told me they were gonna send a new one and stuff, but they never did and everything so it’s still like I was born in Vera Cruz when I was born in Texas. But um, we’re getting a lawyer and everything to settle that out so then we went back down and stuff and they said the only way that I can get, you know counted as if I were born here is to get adopted. And then I would have to apply to get my birth certificate as here. It’s kinda weird stuff but…”
If you didn’t already know, in North Carolina, college students are required to show proof of citizenship and state residency to attend school at the in-state tuition rate. Without that paperwork, Jesus would have to pay the out-of-state tuition rate to attend college, and he could only attend a community college. That usually costs double the amount of already expensive in-state tuition. Even then he would still be required to show documentation of citizenship to apply for most jobs. Despite this, Jesus still wants to go to college, and if there was anything he would say to a college admissions officer it would be this:
“I would say that I’m a drug free guy, student or whatever, I’m a nice guy, I like to have fun and be there to help other people that need help and stuff, and I got good grades in high school.”
The final student I feel strongly about at Alleghany High School is Perry Fender. Perry and I have actually known each other for about three years, both of us on different sides of several college access programs. If there is one thing I could tell you about Perry, it would be that when he speaks, it is always straight to the point. However it is sometimes unintentionally profound. Like his response when I asked him what kind of obstacles he had to going to college.
“The obstacles that you have, just try to go through all of them, and if you have trouble with one, ask somebody and try it again. And just go on and become a better person.”
Perry’s challenge to himself is to attend the Wyotech automotive school located in Blairsville, Pennsylvania. He was inspired to pursue this after visiting the Wyotech campus with his high school, after he recognized his aptitude for working with his hands.
“I like to do hands-on like taking things apart and putting them back together, thats about it, cause that’s what I’m going after. What kinds of hands on stuff do you do? Like auto mechanics, like putting legos together, that kind of stuff.”
For Perry, the support from his family to go to college is important. Perry’s grandmother had a large role in raising him, which actually is not unusual in Alleghany county. According to data from the most recent U.S. Census, 65 percent of grandparents in the county consider themselves responsible for a grandchild. Of those, most report that they have held this responsibility for at least 5 years. This is important for Perry because his grandmother very recently passed away. At the time of this interview, he said he didn’t feel like talking about it quite yet. I only hope that this setback doesn’t discourage Perry from pursuing his dreams of one day owning his own auto shop.
Tiffany, Denise, Jesus, and Perry are all remarkable people. If I was put in any of their situations I’m not sure if attending college would be a reality, or even important to me. When I was a high-school senior, college was expected, and I was surrounded by friends and family who were all pursuing higher education. For me, life after high school was an easy transition. I’m not sure if it will be quite so easy for these students from Alleghany High School. Fortunately, they have opportunities through college access programs like Gear Up, Upward Bound, and the support of a local Education Foundation. Through these programs their hopes and dreams are achievable. That means Tiffany has a better shot at being a graphic designer, Denise a nurse, Jesus a police officer, and Perry might just run his own auto shop. And already, their individual motivation and drive exceeds that of many people I know, and it is for this reason I am proud to know them.