Life isn’t always easy, and that’s a hard lesson for anyone to learn.

Karen Cruz, a recent Bethlehem Academy graduate, learned this lesson during her high school career. Receiving her high school diploma was an uphill battle, and she wanted to give up several times along the way. But with the help of supportive parents and staff members, she bounced back from a tough situation to complete her high school education.

“I just kept pushing myself and knew I could do it,” said Karen, 19, who was formally presented her diploma at BA Monday.

Karen attended Faribault High School her freshman and sophomore years. During her junior year at FHS, attendance became a huge challenge for Karen. While academic performance wasn’t an issue for her, her grades suffered because she missed so much school. Eventually, she stopped going altogether.

Karen said it’s hard to remember much apart from staying in bed a lot. Her relationship with her parents suffered, and she dealt with internal problems she couldn’t find the words to explain.

“All I wanted to do was sleep,” said Karen.

She didn’t know it at the time, but her declined motivation stemmed largely from mental health-related struggles, not laziness. A mental health professional told Karen many of her symptoms pointed to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that corresponds to the changes of seasons.

Accepting help pointed Karen in a new direction. Something eventually snapped, and she realized that she no longer wanted to let life pass her by. Instead, she took a leap and enrolled at BA, where she would repeat her junior year. She was so determined to finish high school she even paid for half her tuition herself.

Based on her observations, Karen said many teens who drop out of school don’t want to return out of fear of facing their classmates. Karen made up her mind that it didn’t matter what others thought of her decision.

Transferring to a new school was scary for Karen, who didn’t know anyone at the parochial school. But she made two important connections who she credits with her success. For the first two years of Karen’s time at BA, School Counselor Laura Carlson provided emotional support, while Melinda O’Connor, then the academic dean, held Karen accountable for going to class.

As a team, O’Connor and Carlson inspired Karen with a strong level of support and confidence in her ability to succeed.

“If they believed in me, how could I not believe in myself?” said Karen.

The teachers at BA, who knew what Karen had been through, made her feel accepted and not judged.

“Teachers can be very understanding in a situation, and our teachers [at BA] go above and beyond to help a student,” said O’Connor.

Carlson added that while BA teachers met Karen where she was at, they didn’t lower their high standards or allow her to take shortcuts.

In Karen’s situation, a shortcut wasn’t possible. Although she walked with her classmates during BA’s 2018 graduation commencement, she still needed one more credit to officially graduate. This past academic year, Karen earned her English credit at the Faribault Area Learning Center. Both Carlson and O’Connor left BA in 2018, but remained in close contact with Karen as she completed her final year of high school.

“I am so incredibly proud of the hard work she’s done,” said Carlson. “It would have been so easy to give up.”

Now that she’s a high school graduate, Karen plans to attend South Central College in Faribault in the fall to major in nursing. College was a big focus for Karen when she was an AVID student at FHS, but she didn’t expect to actually meet her goal. With the new confidence she’s developed, she wants to ultimately become a pediatrician.

Karen’s parents, Inocente and Gloria Cruz, are both happy for their oldest daughter and proud of her accomplishment. Gloria said, via a translator, that she’ll be even happier when Karen receives her college degree. On her father’s side of the family, Karen will be the first to attend college.

Leslie, Karen’s younger sister and a rising senior at ALC, said through tears that she’s proud of her sister and looks to her as a role model.

“I wouldn’t be able to be me without her,” said Leslie. “She has taught me a lot with school and [also] individually and mentally.”

Karen hopes her story inspires other teens and twentysomethings who have dropped out of school to keep going with their education. She encourages others like herself to “try it out” and consider their futures.

“You’re the one doing it for your own benefit and your own life,” said Karen. “You just have to believe in yourself. You can have supportive friends and family, but at the end of the day, you have to do it for yourself.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty.

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